China's economy might be faltering, but Alibaba — the world's largest e-commerce company — is determined to inject some optimism into a gloomy picture. This week it launched the Ali Chinese New Year Shopping Festival, a five-day e-commerce smorgasbord timed to the upcoming Chinese New Year's holiday and designed to tap into one of the few bright spots in China's economy: the growing clout of its rural consumers.

It's an underappreciated, and easily overlooked, demographic. After all, for more than 30 years China's economic boom has been powered by the investment and infrastructure spending necessary to transform a largely agrarian society into one in which half the population now lives in cities. But that other half didn't remain stagnant during these years, and their income levels — though well behind their urban counterparts — are high enough now to make them a key source of future growth.

Getting to this point hasn't been easy. As elsewhere in the world, China's countryside has lagged in developing the infrastructure necessary to bring in products taken for granted in urban centers. Roads in many of China's more than 500,000 villages are barely wide enough for cars, much less delivery trucks.