10/16/2020

Blockchain And Big Tech In China’s Countryside

17:05 minutes

Asian farmer working with a buffalo on terraced rice field in China
A terraced rice field in China. Credit: Shutterstock

Many of us are familiar with blockchain: the decentralized, anonymous ledger system. In the U.S., blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety. 

There are hundreds of million people living in the Chinese countryside. Chinese tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country’s rural areas—from villages built around e-commerce to internet gaming sites getting into the pork industry. In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and countryside. 

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Segment Guests

Xiaowei Wang

Xiaowei Wang is the author of Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (FSG Originals x Logic, 2020) and creative director at Logic Magazine in Oakland, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning. You know these, some of the latest big tech buzzwords. But here’s a little secret. Silicon Valley is not the only place developing these technologies. China has its own new tech frontier. And some of the biggest technology advances in China are taking place in the countryside. Producer Alexa Lim has more.

ALEXA LIM: You’ve probably heard of black chain. It’s that sometimes hard to understand decentralized anonymous ledger system. In the US, blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety. There are hundreds of millions of people living in the Chinese countryside. And Chinese big tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country’s rural areas.

My next guest traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and the countryside. Xiaowei Wang is author of Blockchain Chicken Farm and other stories of tech in China’s countryside. They’re also creative director for logic magazine, based out of Oakland, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

XIAOWEI WANG: Thank you so much, Alexa.

ALEXA LIM: Great to have you. So for this book, you looked at big tech in China and how this relates to the countryside. And you’ve also worked in tech in the US and have been researching this in China. So can you kind of step back a little bit and kind of lay out what big tech means in China? I mean, what does it mean through a Chinese lens?

XIAOWEI WANG: That’s a great question. In China, the landscape of tech, especially big tech, feels very different to me. So you have a big company like Alibaba and Tencent. And Alibaba is doing all these initiatives that are going into the countryside and trying to do rural revitalization.

So there’s e-commerce villages that are plugging into Alibaba’s platform. Alibaba also has a sister company, which spun off Ant Financial, which provides a lot of the payment mechanisms to try and get people who are unbanked into the financial credit loan system.

So it’s really fascinating because you’ll read these policy documents where these huge tech companies are trying to play almost the roles of, like, a development bank as well as Ant Financial. They have initiatives that are actually planting trees to prevent desertification in inner Mongolia. This struck me as very different than American big tech, where companies are saying and claiming that they’re doing things for the social good, but they’re probably not necessarily doing kind of these more development bank, NGO-type initiatives.

ALEXA LIM: Right. And I do want to get back to that, because that’s kind of what you visit in your book. You visit all these different sites. But when you think of big tech, you don’t really think about the countryside. So why were you interested in the rural areas in China? Why is that an important to technology development there?

XIAOWEI WANG: When I first started doing research for this book, there was definitely the layer of the typical writing about Chinese tech, surveillance, cities, facial recognition on every corner. But as I dug into both the actual numbers, I was also trying to think through this juncture of ecological and climate crisis and tech. And so as I dug in, I notice 90% of the tech, maybe even more, that we’re using is this invisible stuff that’s being used to make sure that shipping containers filled with grain meet the port, algorithmic futures trading of commodities markets of grain, things like that.

And so I became really interested in this actually large amount of tech that we use in our world that really isn’t in the spotlight. And so it just made sense for me to finally just go into the countryside and see the tensions between big tech meeting this rural way of life.

ALEXA LIM: Right, and in China, I mean, a large part of the population is in the countryside, right? So like, the big tech companies can’t ignore that population there.

XIAOWEI WANG: Absolutely. And in China, the agrarian transition hasn’t really fully happened yet. So yeah, you have a lot of people in the countryside. Does the government want them migrating to the cities all of a sudden? That’s a lot of people. And so the question right now is this rural revitalization. How do we keep people in the countryside?

ALEXA LIM: And also just kind of going back to definitions of what technology means in China. When we talk about new technologies and innovation in the US and Silicon Valley there’s this idea of disruption, right? And trying to find a hole in the market place and it’s largely profit motivated. But does innovation mean something different in China? Is there a different definition or role?

XIAOWEI WANG: I talk about this in the Made in China chapter, where I touch upon the notion of [CANTONESE]. And [CANTONESE] is this word from Cantonese which means mountain stronghold, but it signifies kind of a knockoff culture. It’s very scrappy, it doesn’t have this sense of like, oh, we have to abide by IP.

It’s the phenomenon that has really yielded a ton of creativity. People pushing up against very black boxed, controlled technology. You know, if you look at an Apple iPhone, if it broke all of a sudden you would have to take it to an Apple store. But [CANTONESE] technology is all about designing tech that if you don’t have the special $1,000 machine to take apart the phone, you could really repair it. And you would be allowed to repair it at your home. So I think that disruption has happened, just in a different form.

ALEXA LIM: And I want to talk about some of the specific initiatives and locations that you kind of visited. Like, the title of your book is called Blockchain Chicken Farm. And you visited one of these blockchain chicken farms called GoGo Chicken Farms. Can you kind of tell me what exactly is happening there?

XIAOWEI WANG: It was very surreal. As it turns out, when I showed up to the GoGo Chicken Farm which is in this beautiful area of China in Guizhou, in the mountains. The farmer there was actually super sweet, super humble. And he had actually been raising free range chickens for a long time.

But people didn’t want to pay a premium on what he was trying to sell because there was such a low level of food safety and trust due to a number of food safety scandals. So along came this tech company from Shanghai, who said, oh, we actually have the solution of blockchain.

And so you just attach a little QR plated bracelet to each of your chickens. And then people can scan the QR code and just see the whole life of the chicken, how much it weighed at slaughter. And it can track the journey of the chicken’s life from birth until the slaughterhouse. There’s even a picture of the chicken.

So these chickens are, funny enough, they’re very heavily surveilled. There’s like a geofence to make sure no one’s tampering with the feed and actually feeding them things that aren’t grains. So that was a very surreal experience, just to be in Guizhou. And then when I asked the farmer, well, how do you feel about blockchain? He was just like, what are you talking about, what’s blockchain?

ALEXA LIM: So then, how is blockchain good for these chicken farms? Why use that type of technology?

XIAOWEI WANG: Yeah, so, blockchain you know as a ledger, it’s tamper-proof. It’s not easy to commit fraud on blockchain. And it’s proposed as a solution to a wide variety of provenance cases. So when you want to track the supply chain of something. For farmer Jeong, I think it also operated, given the technology, as a kind of perfect marketing ploy as well. I mean, the technology did work. But it was this added kind of shine that gave people the sense of safety that they were getting this perfect chicken.

ALEXA LIM: And you have a quote in your book where you say blockchain is just kind of shifting bureaucratic roles to a technical role. So I mean, is this like filling a void that the government should be doing? Or are they like, great, yeah, sure. Let’s use blockchain for food safety.

XIAOWEI WANG: Oh, absolutely. I think the government, much like the US government, is willing to let companies, especially tech companies, step in and try to address a number of social issues. So everything from blockchain chicken to NetEase, which is one of the world’s biggest gaming companies, they’re trying to solve the quality of pork meat. So they actually started a whole agricultural products branch where they’re raising pigs.

There’s also a really funny game that they briefly had. I don’t know if it’s still up but you can play games on it and earn tokens and then buy their agricultural products. So that they’re using tech to try and monitor pig health during the hog farming process. A lot of tech companies are getting in on this food safety question.

ALEXA LIM: Right, sounds like they’re gamifying pork. And they are a gaming company, they’re like an internet gaming company, right? And is it a huge profit-making venture for them too?

XIAOWEI WANG: So right now they have partnerships. So NetEase is the one that’s directly spinning off their own arm of agricultural products. I think actually the past year wasn’t great for them, given the African Swine Fever, ASF, in China.

For Alibaba, they’ve actually done something really smart where all these smart agriculture initiatives, they’re partnering with other agricultural companies. So they don’t need to put as much investment into the actual physical infrastructure of farming. And, as great benefit to Alibaba, they’re getting a lot of data out of this. So you just have tons of data being collected across these farms and improvement upon Alibaba’s own AI models.

ALEXA LIM: Right, so I mean, it’s not necessarily that different than what’s going on here in terms of what they’re going after. It’s kind of like data collection. And then talking about Alibaba, I mean, you have to talk about this. There’s these e-commerce villages that are springing up that’s just completely sponsored by Alibaba. How did those villages work?

XIAOWEI WANG: So there were a strangely organic phenomenon at first. The specific village that I visited, it was actually the result of this pretty common larger pattern that happened, which is people from the countryside going into the city to work in factories sending money home. And at some point, maybe moving back home.

This one person, the first entrepreneur in the village, he had gone to the city and had to come back due to some family illness that he had to take care of. And he was like, oh, I heard about this thing, you know, you can sell stuff on Taobao. And he just got all the resources together, borrowing money from a cousin to buy a computer.

And he was telling me that he actually had to figure out how to type Chinese onto the computer. And he had to borrow his daughter’s Pinyin textbook to figure out how to do this. And his business, once it started becoming pretty successful, and he was making stage play and performance costumes that would sell all across China, Alibaba started taking notice of like, oh, this Taobao village thing is pretty much a really great economic development model for rural areas.

And actually Alibaba has a rural research institute now. And a lot of their focus is on encouraging these initiatives in other towns and also partnering with development banks to spread this throughout the world.

ALEXA LIM: I’m Alexa Lim, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

So then the farmers are making the products and also selling it on Alibaba’s kind of e-commerce site? Is that how it happens?

XIAOWEI WANG: Exactly. Most of the time in this village that I visited, it was just a garage workshop. I have images where it’s people just cutting cloth using jigsaws on the workshop that’s the first floor of their house. And sewing these things, putting them together. So they’re manufacturing this when they’re not farming. And then when it’s time to tend to the land, take care of the fields, they’ll do that.

Other villages, they’re actually selling some agricultural products directly. I visited one place where they decided they would plant kiwis. And they’re selling that, also tofu, local products that they had made.

ALEXA LIM: I mean, is it completely changing those villages, though? Are they just going to become these e-commerce places where you have to make sure your ads are squared away and things like that?

XIAOWEI WANG: There is an eerie sense. It’s not a cheerful place. It wasn’t a cheerful place for me to be because there’s this influx of wealth in a huge way, a lot of haphazard, shoddy construction of these new village buildings. And yeah, it’s also people are giving up– a lot of the younger folks too, I was told– they’re giving up their land entirely and leasing it out to bigger industrial agriculture companies so that they can focus on e-commerce full time and take advantage of how cheap things are in the countryside as a competitive advantage over maybe a factory in the city.

It’s also really changing the ecology of these villages too. One place that I visited, they started growing chili peppers because it takes up less land, it’s easier. It’s more profitable. And that was in addition to their e-commerce businesses. And yet it was also an area where it maybe wasn’t the most well-suited for chili growing. And so I definitely felt a lot of concern about that.

ALEXA LIM: And there’s the label, made in China. It kind of has this association now of cheap products. But what do you think made in China will mean in the next 10 years?

XIAOWEI WANG: I would like to see– and this is a complete maybe too hopeful version– I would hope that made in China is this sense that we can build technology from a de-colonized standpoint that really gives openness and opportunity to different ways of being in the world. What I mean by that is I think a lot about the [CANTONESE] technology, where it is really about answering the needs of the user from the grassroots level.

It’s about making tech accessible. It’s about ensuring that tech doesn’t become this profit-driven intellectual property constant battle. And instead is really oriented towards people, whether this will happen or not, I am actually not that optimistic because I do think China’s becoming more like the US in that sense. But I still hold some hope.

ALEXA LIM: Thanks for joining us. Xiaowei Wang is author of Blockchain Chicken Farm and other stories of tech in China’s countryside. They’re also creative director for Logic Magazine, based out of Oakland, California

XIAOWEI WANG: Thanks so much, Alexa.

ALEXA LIM: For Science Friday, I’m Alexa Lim.

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Kathleen Davis is an assistant producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Alexa Lim is a producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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