In this mountain town in China's southwest, drifters and tarot card readers rub shoulders with tech entrepreneurs and artists. Many are former city-dwellers in search of an elusive prize in authoritarian China: Space for open discussion and exchange of ideas.

In one coworking space, a group of young adults asked questions about the effect of Trump-era populism on U.S. media during a discussion led by a Chinese journalist about the American position on the Israel-Gaza conflict. In a nearby cafe, others discussed art, sexual harassment and the listlessness of China's youth. As Chinese President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on the restricted personal freedoms of Chinese citizens and the economy stutters, exacerbating a youth unemployment crisis, Dali in Yunnan province has become a haven for those seeking to escape the pressure. They are drawn by the cheap rents, mild climate, stunning scenery and a history of relative tolerance, which were popularized by a television drama this year about a digital nomad.

Dali's Old Town district, administratively part of a city of 650,000, has attracted culture workers since the late 1990s, said Minhua Ling, an expert on Chinese migration at the Geneva Graduate Institute, adding that the normalization of remote work and Dali's less restrictive policies during China's "zero-COVID" crackdown also increased its appeal.