Tech and optimism in China’s countryside

Book review: Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang (US/UK)

Xiaowei Wang’s book overlaps with a few areas of interest for me: China, technology, and the countryside. It delivers some great firsthand reporting, although I often disagreed with Wang’s reflections on tech and neoliberalism.

Much of the book dispells the myth of a ‘backwards’ rural China. Parts of the countryside are actually at the cutting edge of technological and economic change. Wang briefly covers the history of rural development, going back to the experimental Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) in the 1980s. They [Wang’s pronouns are they/them, going by Twitter] then bring it up to today, explaining the Chinese government’s ‘Rural Revitalization’ goals:

The new socialist countryside will be filled with peasants starting e-commerce businesses, small-scale manufacturing, new data centers, and young entrepreneurial workers returning to their rural homes. Rural Revitalization envisions the use of blockchain and mobile payment to catalyze new businesses, and will leverage big data for poverty relief and distribution of welfare benefits.

… Rural Revitalization prioritizes China’s food security by sustaining at least 124 million hectares of arable land— what the government calls maintaining the “red line.” The Made in China 2025 plan comprises industrial policies that include homegrown farm-machinery manufacturing and the stabilization of food production. Closely associated with the goal of poverty alleviation is the desire to create new consumers (and internet users) through a rural “consumption upgrade,” where the hope is that rural internet users will become full-fledged online shoppers.

The book is split into chapters that each focus on a different aspect of this burgeoning rural economy.

The first covers food safety in China. Chinese citizens are fond of wet markets, and often do not trust refrigerated meat that wasn’t butchered in front of them, as it may have gone off:

Even the best products can be stymied by broken links in the cold chain during transport. Matilda gives the example of truck drivers, who will often turn off their refrigeration in order to save gasoline money and pocket the extra cash. When you start transporting food across hundreds of kilometers, control over the transportation process decreases. And due to effects on the ultimate food safety of perishable goods, this means, for consumers, the difference between a night out on the town and a night at the hospital.

Xi Jinping acknowledged in 2013 that food safety is crucial for the government’s legitimacy, as Wang notes. Food safety is controlled at the province- and county-level, and there is a fear that industrialisation and centralisation would cause political instability. Instead, the solution is blockchain technology:

The GoGoChicken project is a partnership between the village government and Lianmo Technology, a company that applies blockchain to physical objects, with a focus on provenance use cases—that is, tracking where something originates from. When falsified records and sprawling supply chains lead to issues of contamination and food safety, blockchain seems like a clear, logical solution.

Each chicken wears an ankle bracelet which tracks its movements and uploads the data to a blockchain. When the consumer in Shanghai buys the carcass, the ankle bracelet is still attached and consumers can scan it to get information about the chicken. Instead of trusting your local market, you can trust the information on the blockchain. The success of the project that Wang visited was unclear, and the idea has problems. The QR code could direct readers to a fake website, and most consumers don’t have the technical skills to properly explore the blockchain.

This later section reminded me of the scientific forestry in Seeing like a State (I guess all of agriculture is going this way if it hasn’t already):

Increased agricultural automation has led to pigs becoming physically standardized, much like our fruits and vegetables. As with an assembly line in a factory, scaling from producing one hundred pigs to a hundred thousand means requiring parts to be the same size and type, interchangeable. Before the advent of industrial agriculture in China, farmers raised hundreds of pig breeds of different sizes and attributes. These pigs were adapted to local climates and diseases, providing a receptacle for leftovers and generating rich fertilizer for fields. Industrial pig farming uses only a few breeds, such as the highly popular hybrid DLY (a cross between Duroc, Landrace, and Yorkshire). Even the unwanted attributes of these pigs are slowly being refined, edited out —physical traits like tails, which are a nuisance in transport, since in crowded conditions stressed piglets will bite each other’s tails off. Combined with genetic control, automatic feeder and water-dispenser systems, and strict exercise times, pigs are farmed to precise size.

The pigs are monitored with an array of sensors, and the data is used to build a model that can detect outbreaks of disease (African Swine Fever remains a big problem in China).

There is even a solution to that problem of drivers turning the fridges off: a sensor will check how much fuel they’ve used at the end of their trip.

Another chapter focuses on the use of drones in agriculture for mapping land and for precise spraying of crops. Employment opportunities in this industry with companies like XAG are seen as one way of tempting young men back to the countryside.

Later chapters examine policing in China’s ‘urban villages’, and the venture capitalist-like oyster farming industry and Facebook pearl influencers, which I might cover in a future post. For now, it’s striking how much emphasis there is on hardware in China:

New shanzhai is open source on hyperspeed, an unapologetic confrontation with Western ideas of intellectual property. The designers and engineers of new shanzhai products build on each other’s work, co-opting, repurposing, and remixing in a decentralized way. At Huaqiangbei electronics market, where Naomi wants her body-parts stall, companies compete and cooperate with one another in a fast-paced dance. Wandering through the stalls of the market, you’ll find everything imaginable for sale, and many things you never imagined: holograph generators, 3D printers, karaoke mics with speakers built in, laser cutters, simple cell phones with modular, replaceable parts that require little equipment to open and repair (the opposite of an iPhone).

In the West, tech is synonymous with software and ephemeral social networks, while in China, technology is still rooted in the physical world. Dan Wang has written about this difference, and Peter Thiel’s quip that ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’ looks more accurate by the day.

The book portrays a Chinese countryside as forward-thinking and positive about technology. We shouldn’t generalise too much from the picture Wang paints (as they note, their guide in the blockchain chicken village has never even heard of blockchain itself), but it seems to encapsulate a China that is a lot less decadent than the the West. There is lots of what Thiel calls ‘definite optimism’: the idea that the future will be better than the present if you plan and work to make it better.

Wages in the West’s countryside are certainly higher than that of China, so the ecommerce industry the book describes would be harder to pull off. But remote work and higher-end production are strong possibilities for rural parts of the West, and not just in ‘lifestyle cities’ like Miami and Austin.

Wang closes with a vague critique of technological optimism and modern life, an excessive focus on a future that ‘never seems as perfect as we imagine it to be’. It’s true that building a community is difficult and city life is often lonely — but that’s a good reason to be more excited about economic activity taking off in the countryside, where there is already community and family.

There won’t be a truly perfect future on this earth, but a better one is possible. And through a combination of technology and local communities, perhaps we can reach it.