China’s Blockchain Chicken Farms – with Xiaowei Wang

The Big Rethink: A weekly Interview.

Photo by yue su on Unsplash

By now it’s a cliché to note more than half the world’s people live in cities. But how does the other half live? That’s the question tackled by both the Guggenheim Museum’s “Countryside: The Future” exhibit and Blockchain Chicken Farm author Xiaowei Wang, who spent several years exploring the intersection of urban appetites and new technologies with China’s farmers. Wang joins us to discuss how the scale of China’s cities requires enormous food production to match, which works until there’s a pandemic — and it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

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Transcript

Greg Lindsay
It‘s a pleasure to have, Xiaowei Wang on here, to talk about their book, Blockchain Chicken Farm, just published last week, or I guess two weeks ago, by FSG Original. So on that note, let me turn off the slides and, Xiaowei, please come on out. So, thank you so much for joining us.

Xiaowei Wang
Thank you so much for having me.

Greg Lindsay
I guess the question of the genesis of the book is what inspired you to write about it? There’s the green-screen kicking in again. What inspired you to get started reporting on it? I mean obviously you spent years there going through rural China, when of course all the action, like myself and other authors, you know, paying attention to the factory towns and this classic genre of China over the last, I don’t know, the first half of the 21st century, 2000 and 2010 about sort of those infrastructures. And you charted this entire rural system as well. So I guess my question is what was your way in?

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah. So I love that you brought up the countryside exhibition at the beginning. I actually, went to the GSD, for landscape architecture and, you know, very much this, I think coming out of it, this like lurking notion of urbanism infrastructure, things like that. And so when I started doing research in China, both as part of work trips when I was working in tech, but then also going back to academia, continuing to go back, I would go to the big cities like Shenzhen and really try to dissect urbanism in the way that I think many architecture, theorists, and urbanists like to do. Like you make the diagram, you examine Shenzhen, you look at, you know, the speed of innovation, urban villages. But, I realized that was really only half the story because there’s just so many rural migrants coming into the cities, basically allowing these mega cities to exist. And the story is really well, what’s going on in the countryside where, you know, I think oftentimes it’s held up as the city is this place of economic opportunity. And of course you want to go there and it’s inevitable. But I just started getting really curious about the countryside and also the government, the Chinese government, had started putting out these higher level policy documents about rural revitalization. Of course, since they’re very high level, it’s just general sort of there’s key words tossed around, like we’re going to use a blockchain and e-commerce to revitalize the countryside. It’ll be the new socialist countryside. So I wanted to see what was actually happening behind the story.

Greg Lindsay
So I guess you could describe there, you found a blockchain chicken farm. There’s many stories in the book and that one stands out to me. And, also I want to talk a bit about the Taobao towns, cause like the notion of decentralized production, which is something that we’re talking a bit about during the pandemic, I guess. What are some of the more resoning examples of how this technology is actually being deployed there, if you could mention in passing for our viewers, and how it applies to pandemic times and post-pandemic stuff?

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah. So I did get to visit a blockchain chicken farm and it was a little bit absurd. Because when I went and visited, the farmer explained to me that he had actually been raising free range chickens for a long time, but no one wanted to buy them because there is such a low level of trust, such food safety issues, endemic everywhere in China. And so, people didn’t believe him that he was raising free range chickens. Of course along comes this tech company, a very small startup and they present blockchain as a solution. There’s this little QR code bracelet that goes around the chicken leg, and you know, it kind of surveys the chicken, make sure that you’re actually feeding it grain and things like that. And when I talked to the County officials and the farmer, they were both just kind of like, well, what, wait, blockchain what’s blockchain? So I think it was this scenario that happens a lot. When we think about rural development or just development more generally, where you have this outside force bringing in this opaque technology, leaving it, then having that form the core of livelihood for people. And then just it’s like, there’s nothing. It’s just really top down. So that was one place. And I also visited, as you mentioned, Taobao villages, which are really fascinating. So, would it be helpful if I talked about like Alibaba and just the context for it?

Greg Lindsay
I definitely think so. I mean, it’s always amazing to me when people don’t fully understand about some of the Chinese tech ecosystems, even a bit there. But about the Taobao towns in particular as a starting point, I think it’s interesting, again, that like what we think of as the Chinese factories have now dis-aggregated themselves down to household level.

Xiaowei Wang
So here you’re seeing company towns, but the factory unit is the home. Yeah, exactly. And, you know, I think some people like the Marxists geography loves to call that like the spatial fix. Right. It’s also great for the large companies because it’s gotten pretty expensive to hire workers and just have factories in cities. But yeah, these Taobao towns, gosh, they’re so wild. So Alibaba is this Chinese tech giant, their platforms have like more users than Amazon, just on sheer volume. The company also has a sister company called Ant Financial, which runs e-payment, as well as like, lending and borrowing through a simple app. So they’re really pushing financial tech in China, and also throughout the world. These Taobao villages, they started forming maybe like, you know, almost I want to say 10 years ago. And it was the result of oftentimes migrants who were in the city. They were working in factories. They would go back to their hometown in the countryside and they would have some amount of know how, you know, they had been out seeing this big urban world and they’re bringing knowledge back to their home towns to start their own businesses, and sell things that they manufacture online. The places that I’ve visited, that’s the dynamics that unfolded, and the first e-commerce entrepreneur in the village, decided that he would start making costumes, like for Halloween, for stage plays performances. Once he started doing that and selling costumes on taobao.com, this e-commerce site run by AliBaba. He started getting quite rich and then his neighbors were like, “Oh, can you teach me ?” “How do I do this?” Other people spun off into making shoes to go along with the costumes. And it really just became this wild BoomTown. They have like a Taobao kindergarten, Taobao hotel. It’s like all a little bit dystopic, and a little bit disheartening, but it’s also, I guess, fascinating if you can get past the kind of sadness of that.

Greg Lindsay
Well, I mean, it raises the obvious question in that regard, what can we learn about it that way? I mean, it’s interesting listening to you, and listening to you describe it. There’s some interesting parallels there, right? Like the return from the city. I should note here for our viewers as well, that, you’re the Creative Director of Logic Magazine. You worked in the technology business. And so as an author, I’m curious, with that remove of it being exoticized and it being China coming from a Western perspective. What lessons does it offer us our own post-pandemic future?

To see in many ways it’s more maturity, the more powerful big stack platforms and an ongoing evolution of e-commerce with even faster rates than we’re seeing here in the States and North America, for example. Are there any lessons, and context of course is completely different, but, what’s generalizable from it, from your experiences there?

Xiaowei Wang
I mean, definitely the sense of continued acceleration of e-commerce, but it was also this really interesting thing. Just both anecdotally and, you know, across media, once the pandemic hit and companies like Twitter, were like, okay everyone, work remotely, You know, a lot of friends, acquaintances, just also just going into San Francisco, like the city emptied out and everyone went to Montana.

And so, I would get friends would be like, yeah, you know, they’re like thinking about really settling down in Montana cause they can work from anywhere. But it was this interesting thing about, both the de-centralization or just kind of like. I know a lot of people are talking about, Oh, city life will be over after COVID, but I think that’s such a binary way of thinking about it. I think there still is. It’ll be like, a greater dispersal into maybe the more rural areas. That’s been something that’s just interested me, at least in North America for a while too. While researching this book, I was really curious. We started talking to some folks from the center on rural innovation, which was actually started by this former Google policy person. And there is some sense of, “Oh, maybe we’ll try to use tech, startups or something to help revitalize the countryside throughout North America as well.”

Greg Lindsay
Interesting. It reminds me, there’s an essay by Venkatesh Rao, the internet theorist, he wrote a great essay called American Cloud, where he was the first one, I think you really did a great job raising it in the true totality of it, but he was the first one that gave me the idea that we basically hollowed out the United States and we built data centers. We’ve built feedlots. We’ve built this huge backstage infrastructure systems to fuel our urban lifestyles in that regard.

And, I don’t know. I’m curious what some of your thoughts are on the pork production there too, because you know, when people think of AI machine learning, like we’re looking at GPT-3 and all the cute linguistic things and like you’re studying there about basically the deployment of massive Mechanical Turk systems to identify healthy pigs. I guess my question there is what other ways did you see sort of technology applied to the rural areas there? And also again, the hints of it, of how it comes back to us about, you know, how we become part of this agricultural-techno-organic system. I don’t know. It struck me as some sort of harbinger of a future. Maybe not ours, but..

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah. I mean, the pork production is actually really fascinating because when I started researching, pork production, I slowly found out that, in 2008 or so, a Chinese company bought Smithfield, which is one of the world’s biggest pork companies. And it was just this really fascinating thing where I started to see all these shifting global landscapes were like swabs of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest were being cut down to plant soybeans. The soybeans like never even reached a person’s plate and would just get sent to these hog farms in China. The systems that I looked at.. Sorry, I’m going to drink a sip of my tea.

Greg Lindsay
I’ll take that pause. I remember China has a strategic pork reserve, right? Like there’s strategic reserves of pork on ice to keep food prices low to prevent social unrest.

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah, exactly. I mean, pork is in such high demand over there. So the AI farming pigs, it’s because in factory farming, there’s just so many pigs, and it’s not like you would come into contact with them directly anyways. You always usually watch them on the television in case one of them like looks sick or anything, and try to extract them. With AI, you can kind of just watch them at increased scale and the idea is to try and raise like 10 million pigs per year. And it’s also just part of this vastly complex, ecological and environmental disruption. I remember so when I started researching the AI pig story, there was actually this article that came out in the New York Times. That was very, I don’t want to say pro Alibaba, but they were just like Alibaba and their AI pig farming system is saving the day. They are farming pigs, trying to prevent the spread of African Swine Fever (ASF) which is, you know, killing pigs rampantly throughout the country. And so it really made it seem like, well, this is the logical thing we have to do. We must use AI and tech to address this pork shortage. But actually, if you talk to an epidemiologist or anyone about factory farmer, ASF, and the spread of it is totally because of factory farming. Having AI is just another excuse and it works hand in hand with this crisis. It’s just like the layering of crises only accelerate those kinds of hyper-capitalist push. So, yeah, that was also really wild. I would just find things like, Oh, there’s this lab, they’re trying to figure out a way to genetically engineer out pig tales, because pigs, when they’re stressed, they’ll bite each other’s tails off. So, it was pretty bleak.

Greg Lindsay
Which raises infection, which then need antibiotics. Well, that raises really interesting questions there, and this is the deeper gear question. But since you’ve seen it up close, obviously the intersection wearing your Logic hat and that hat simultaneously there. I mean, obviously this is incredible narratives of, as we speak, the DOJ has filed an antitrust against Alphabet or is it necessarily narrowly Google? I forget exactly there, but you know, the DOJ has filed antitrust, the biggest since Microsoft, but we see Mark Zuckerberg testify to Congress that if you don’t let me get as big as I want, then China will outpace us. And of course the ongoing China’s surveillance state narrative, which is effectively a boogeyman in North American circles, when we have plenty of surveillance problems. So I’m curious, what do you see as the parallels there in terms of the geo-strategic intersection of tech and these broader policies. Is China really a mirror to what’s happening in North America in that regard, and this gives us a chance to reflect? Or is it demonstrably different by a matter of degree or culture, or your thoughts?

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah. I mean, I talk a lot about this with friends who are not Chinese or American. And I think the conclusion that I always come to is, and it’s especially related to this desire for urbanism and a modernity too, is that both the US and China have these incredibly imperialist logics at play. And of course they’re both going to duke it out cause you can only have one empire. But I think urbanism, it’s kind of this really interesting field in which it, to me crystallizes a lot of these imperialists logics. And especially as they bleed out to maybe less dense areas, you know, it’s the exact same dynamics. When we talk about Chinese surveillance state, like, you know, I went to the Alibaba Cloud Museum and they have this whole section about Alibaba, camera’s, the apps that are going to be on your phone and tracking you and things like that.But of course they called it the smart city. So then you think about well, wait, so actually what have urban planners who love the smart city been advocating for, over the past five or ten years? Like, it’s exactly that, right. So, surveillance or smart city, whatever you want to call it, but it definitely, I think tech especially, is this great way, well to me, not great, but great way for capitalists, a great way for money and financialization and fiscal power to just flow through, right? Like real estate development, infrastructure, all those investment tools that you need, to keep empire going.

Greg Lindsay
Now. Well in that regard, did you see in your tour of the countryside there how are those financial logics going out there? I mean, again, I’m always familiar with like the Chinese urban ones, right? Like the party controls the cities, and they control the lands, they would sell it off to developers to fund their budgets. Like, how in the Taobao towns, is there an ongoing real estate driven financialization of the Chinese countryside? And, how is that manifesting?

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah, it’s really interesting. So I would say that, for in the North American context, agrarian transition is like what people talk about, right? Like now that we have industrialized farming, we can have these cities. And in China, there’s still a lot of small holder farmers, who have their tiny plots of land, especially seeing things like the e-commerce village more and more land consolidation is happening. Or if people keep their land, they decide to do cash crops, like growing cash crops, things like that. And so, Ant Financial also conveniently, steps in and helps, they call it helping bank, the unbanked. So really encouraging business, offering loans. They have this new. I saw one system there, where they’re trying to really pilot and push out, to farmers to kind of expand their farms instead of becoming small holders, really becoming like these farmer kingpins of that same computer vision system that looks at the pigs. They can kind of use it as a way to monitor farm collateral, because if you’re a farmer, your collateral is a little bit different than a house, it’s like your livestock. So they’re trying to integrate this computer vision system, looking at the livestock and then also if they can detect that, then you can get a bigger loan.

So basically if you surveil yourself, you can get a bigger loan through Ant Financial. In the countryside too, I would say power is a little bit more diffused. While Chinese cities, there’s definitely this sense of like central power and alignment. there’s still, I would say some degree of freedom, both in village governance. Some villages still are actually allowed to have village elections. So, the Taobao village that I visited, they actually elected the first entrepreneur to become village secretary. He actually didn’t want the job because he was quite busy running his e-commerce business. So I think there’s like more room for kind of fiscal experimentation as well and governmental experimentation in some sense.

Greg Lindsay
Interesting. Well, I guess the last question I have then is , obviously coming to this from an urbanist lens as a GSD trained landscape architect. How does it make you rethink the relationship between the countryside and the city coming back to Koolhaas here, where Koolhaas approached it with the whole, like what are they doing out there? It’s this, I mean, the language around the exhibit is this sort of, this is all unknown country to those of us who are urbanists. I’d be curious, you know? Yeah. Do you fall into like the Brenner camp, or who do you think are the most interesting ways of theorizing? What countryside means in the urban relationship to today?

Xiaowei Wang
I mean, I always go back to Ananya Roy. It‘s her amazing question about, what is urban about critical urban theory, right. And then she says the urban is a form of governance. And I think it is, especially watching that dynamic play out, of the push and pull between what’s designated as urban and what’s designated as rural in China and how that’s kind of this clever set of dials that the government can really turn up and down, for economic development. It’s really fascinating. Especially when I went to the Taobao village. I guess like what you could consider, quote unquote, rural might be that some of them farm, some of them grow chilies in their greenhouse. But also, so do cool hipsters in New York, right? Yeah, so I think I would go with that definition as the rural and urban as co-constituative.

Greg Lindsay
Yeah. Reminds me of also in Indonesia. There’s like the Desakota pattern of, you know, we’re used to the Western model of it, where there’s a CBD and then density fades off. I remember going to Southeast Asia and it’s skyscraper, empty lot, incredibly thin sprawl and there’s no kind of pattern. Interesting. Well, I guess, as a last last question then. Are they happy? Do they feel like, you mentioned some sections that they do feel like there’s a future, that they have part of the future. We look at, certainly in the United States, like the Heartland is associated with discontented, you know, GOP voters and seen as being left behind in every way. That is certainly like the liberal centrist take on this. But it sounds like, in some of your passages, they do see themselves as part of a future. They see themselves as partly with agency. So do you think the model is working within whatever definition of working is?

Xiaowei Wang
Yeah. I mean, I, you know, for all the dystopian places I mentioned, I did get to visit some places that are using e-payment and e-commerce to actually sell just what they were growing anyways, like rice, things like that. And they are actually doing interesting, community governance, water infrastructure experiments, and that was actually really inspiring. I think that people, generally, across the Chinese countryside, there is this sense of my life and my children’s lives are better than they were, you know, 20 or 30 years ago. Like, I’m not worried that I’m going to starve. And there is this sense of optimism for sure,  as the countryside continues to develop.

Greg Lindsay
Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining the show.

Xiaowei Wang
Thank you so much for having me.

Greg Lindsay
Well, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for those of you who are watching. I just realized we’ll be back next week with author Todd Reisz who worked also with OMA AMO on their influential series on the Gulf, more than a decade way to go. He’s got a new book on Dubai, on Dubai’s history. Just as we’re discussing here about the relationship of countryside, there he’s going to talk a bit about how the Dubai instant city model goes all the way back into the 1960s and what lessons we can learn from that about all the instant cities built. So we’ll be back soon with another episode. Until then take care.