Rural China’s tech revolution

Raising free-range chickens isn’t easy, a Chinese farmer named Jiang tells Xiaowei Wang in a fascinating new book, Blockchain Chicken Farm. Why? Even if you get the chickens safely grown in their sunny, free-range yards, you have a new problem: You have to convince your finicky customers, in far-off cities, that you’re telling the truth about how the chickens were raised.

So Jiang turned to high-tech chicken surveillance. He outfitted his chickens with wearable legbands that record their movements — “a chicken Fitbit of sorts” — and worked with a tech start-up to record the data on a blockchain. When customers buy the chicken, they don’t need to take Jiang’s word that his birds strolled around in the sunshine. They can trust the implacable math.

It’s a weird, delightful and unsettling tableau. In Blockchain Chicken Farm, Ms Wang introduces us to dozens of such quixotic figures, hopscotching across the country to document how technology is transforming the lives of China’s rural poor.

Rural is a part of the world Americans likely ponder very little, despite being economically entwined with it. To the extent looms in the American imagination, it’s mostly as an economic adversary, a land that has mercilessly stolen manufacturing jobs by offering dirt-cheap labour in gleaming factories. (At least, that’s the message the White House has hammered.) It’s true that the country’s manufacturing explosion has helped create a much wealthier But it has also produced a rural-urban economic schism that neatly mirrors that of the United States itself.

This divide worries China’s leaders deeply. Factories in urban China aren’t quite so competitive anymore, because the increasing wealth of cities has jacked up the price of factory labour. Meanwhile, dismal work opportunities in rural areas send young people fleeing for cities, where they find that the high cost of living means that homeownership and even car ownership are out of reach.

This creates a powder keg. “Young, able-bodied workers, especially young men, untethered from car or house ownership, job or family are threats to political stability,” Ms Wang writes, an observation that might give Americans a shudder of recognition. The Chinese government and private sector are busily — even desperately — trying to engineer a technologically fuelled “rural revitalization.”

Travelling the country to see what this looks like in practice, we visit Dinglou, a “Taobao village” — a digital-age company town where residents make stuff to sell on Taobao, the e-commerce platform of Alibaba, China’s high-tech behemoth. In Dinglou, the specialty is making costumes — like Snow White outfits for Halloween, for example — that they ship worldwide, relying on Alipay for their banking needs.

“Nothing beats coming back to your hometown to run a Taobao business!” banners hung in the city declare, and families transform their houses into factories. Ms Wang watches as a woman “in her kitten-heel shoes and red skirt” clambers onto a table to jigsaw expertly through layers of fabric for a set of costumes, while a chicken squawks nearby. Ms Wang travels to Zhejiang Province, where pearl farmers patiently feed mussels pig and chicken faeces, selling their prize pearls for top dollar and shipping the lousy ones to American live-streamers, who sell them for $20 apiece via influencer-style “Pearl Parties” online.

Ms Wang hangs out with a 25-year-old man named Sun Wei, who — despite having only a high school degree — has built a career flying drones to do aerial reconnaissance for China’s small farmers. The technological boom produces genuine moments of rural prosperity, when it works.

Though sometimes it doesn’t, quite. Consider the boom in the production of pork. To increase the yield of pork farms, Alibaba trained a new artificial intelligence, “ET Agricultural Brain,” on vast amounts of data from pork operations, the better to predict how to increase yield. (They set up “digital towns” where young rural workers sit all day clicking on pictures of pigs, labelling them sick or healthy, to feed the AI’s smarts.) In the short run, the AI does help optimise soaring pork production. It’s a win for diners, pork producers and government, which yearns for China to achieve “food security.”

But nature does not always respond so obediently. One key strategy that emerges from all this high-efficiency is feeding the animals “industrial pig swill,” that, cannibalistically, includes ground-up pig parts. And this, in turn, creates dangerous new vectors for disease, spreading the African swine fever so badly that by 2019 it tore through China and destroyed nearly one-quarter of the world’s pigs.

Ms Wang also finds that, for rural China, tech-propelled business models can produce the grim dynamics of the gig economy, where a far-off tech giant runs your life. The blockchain chicken software? It’s nifty, but the farmer neither understands the technology nor owns it; it’s provided by a tech firm that in the first year of their collaboration ordered 6,000 chickens to sell to an online supermarket, and in the second year, nothing.

Ms Wang has written a nuanced and thought-provoking account, and it is not easy to tell whether rural China’s tiptoe toward prosperity and tech savviness is durable. Given that China’s economic fate is now so entwined with the world, one hopes it can thread the needle.

©2020 The New York Times News Service

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