Most previous studies of return migration have defined return migration as a return to the place of birth (or village of origin). In this paper, we reconceptualize return migrants as consisting of two groups: those returning to their place of birth (“local returnees”) and those returning to a nearby town, county, or city (“regional returnees”). Using a nationally representative sample from the 2014 China Labor Dynamics Survey, we carry out a systematic comparison and analysis of these two groups of return migrants, along with migrants at their destination and non-migrants at their origin. Our results challenge previous views of the negative socioeconomic selectivity of return migration. Both local returnees and regional returnees play an important role in non-farm economic activities. More importantly, we find that regional returnees have more favorable outcomes than local returnees in terms of income and economic activities. As China makes significant progress in upgrading its transportation infrastructure, and with the growing availability of digital technology for businesses, the proportion of regional returnees should grow over time. We argue that this new form of return migration represents a promising pattern of development and urbanization in China and deserves more attention from scholars and policymakers.

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