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Humans and technology

“He put QR-coded wristbands on each of the chickens”

China’s rural agriculture doesn’t just feed people—it powers the future, argues one author.

December 18, 2020
Xiaowei Wang
Christie Hemm Klok

Blockchain Chicken Farm, a new book from Oakland-based writer, designer, and scholar Xiaowei Wang, explores technology in rural China and the surprising ripple effects of the country’s food supply chain on people all around the world. The book connects, for example, an AI-driven pig-farming operation in Guangdong to Silicon Valley surveillance culture, while avoiding the easy binaries of tech solutionism and paranoia. It also includes a selection of speculative “Sinofuturist recipes,” an ongoing art project that uses food to address anxieties about technology, the ecosystem, and the body. We discussed Wang’s research, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and what China’s food system means for us all.

Q: Your book is a travelogue that weaves in experimental recipes, family history, and the surrealist details that link a Zhejiang pearl farm with multilevel marketing schemes in the American South. How did you capture such a complex narrative? 

A: So much tech reporting focuses on technological “solutions” in a way that too often becomes a form of marketing, and I really didn’t want to do that. It was important for me to examine the underlying social fabric of these issues surrounding food—so, everything from food safety to this idea of hunger and food scarcity, especially in a place like China, where that is actually in recent memory. 

Q: What are the fundamental differences between rural populations in China and the US today? 

A: In the US, most of our farmers are people doing industrial agriculture. But in China, there’s still a huge population doing smallholder farms, and physically working the land. Obviously, that’s changing, but I wanted to understand how this pretty traditional scene was meeting high tech. I think people don’t realize how there are just so many people in China and also not as much land as in the US, so the Chinese agricultural system faces unique pressures.

"In China there’s still a huge population doing smallholder farms, and physically working the land. That’s changing, but I wanted to understand how this pretty traditional scene was meeting high tech."

A lot of elderly folks in China lived under the Great Leap Forward, which was this time of enormous starvation throughout China because Mao Zedong was trying not only to collectivize agriculture, but to have the agricultural yields surpass those of the West—to prove that “China can do it too.” So there’s the history of these really tightly controlled agricultural policies, as well as rations on food purchases, that continues into the early 1980s. For many older Chinese, the idea of going into a supermarket and buying whatever you want is still kind of incredible.

Q: You discuss the “New Socialist Countryside” policy. What is it, and how did it lay the groundwork for some of the innovations you describe?

A: It’s a rural revitalization policy that the national government embarked on a few years ago to encourage innovation in the countryside. It’s an attempt to balance a lot of what the government views as shaky forces. A lot of farmers want to move to cities because they see economic opportunities there, but then city folks are anxious about a high number of migrants, and migrants don’t receive the same benefits, like health care, when they’re in cities, due to China’s hukou [“residential permit”] system. 

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So how do you keep people in the countryside but at the same time give them economic opportunities, especially because farming is not an easy job, and increasingly the younger generation doesn’t want to be stuck doing manual labor in the field? The national government is entranced with some of the same shiny keywords as policymakers everywhere—“e-commerce” “blockchain,” “AI”—so it’s supported a lot of initiatives by small privatized companies that employ those technologies. 

Q: One of these inspired your book’s title. Can you explain what makes a “blockchain chicken farm”? 

A: It’s a small farm in rural Guizhou where the farmer had been raising free-range chickens for quite a long time, but he couldn’t convince people that they were actually free-range. Then a Shanghai tech company came along and said, “Blockchain is the solution!” They worked with the farmer and he put QR-coded wristbands on each of the chickens, so that they could be surveilled by cameras to prove that they were truly free-range and never tampered with. 

Q: You also cover AI machine-­learning models like Alibaba’s “ET Agricultural Brain,” which became a tool for combating African swine fever (ASF) in pigs during a disastrous outbreak that began in 2018. 

A: I was frustrated because much media coverage of the ASF outbreak focused on how Alibaba was doing this heroic thing to save all these pigs and guarantee food safety using AI to monitor the herds via video, temperature, and sound sensors. In fact, for decades now, there’s been a push to industrialize hog farming in China, and these technologies were an attempt to produce even more pigs at an unprecedented scale. These industrial farms and increased pressure for output set up the conditions for epidemics like swine fever in the first place. What are the paradoxes it reveals?  

Q: What’s an example of a farming technology that is taking a different path?

A: Like many countries, China is a place where the government tried to modernize agriculture by using pesticides and fertilizers as the “scientific” way of farming the land. In one rice-farming village in Guangdong province, farmers did that and over time noticed that their soil was just not as fertile anymore, that they had to keep using more and more fertilizer. This led to the Rice Harmony Collective, which revived traditional techniques like “rice duck fish” agriculture, where fish and ducks in the rice paddy act as a natural pesticide. They also introduced a lottery system for rice paddy location that shifts each season, so that farmers have a greater incentive to follow these organic rules. 

Q: The coronavirus pandemic emerged when your book was in production. Do you feel it underscores your themes? 

A: I had been looking at a lot of the research of Rob Wallace, an epidemiologist who studies factory farming and zoonotic diseases—which is not to say that all these are coming out of factory farms, but just these profit-driven practices that push humans into previously wild habitats. There’s obviously been a huge acceleration of zoonotic disease. 

In the pandemic we’ve all realized that decoupling with China would be hard—we rely on China for so many things. Just the process of setting up a factory; the material supplies, training, machinery; the knowledge of costs and shipping and freight and routes. It’s never been more clear that China is so interwoven with the global supply chain. 

Xiaowei Wang at Urban Tilth Farm
Xiaowei Wang at Urban Tilth Farm

Q: What do you wish Americans understood about Chinese wet markets? 

A: So, I love wet markets. They are a place where fresh food is readily available to all, and it’s an important livelihood for many people who aren’t these large supermarket chains. You’ve got the garlic lady who sells her homegrown crop at wet markets. They’re a crucial connection for local and regional farmers. They’re so common not just in China, but around the world—in Latin America and so on. I think it’s sad [that people blame covid-19 on wet markets]—and a xenophobic example of people thinking that Chinese food is somehow “dirty.” It infuriates me so much, because all the science says it [the coronavirus] probably came from outside [the market], and it probably came from a bat. 

Q: What are the trends you are seeing in the countryside? Has the pandemic contributed to new ones? 

A: I would say the general trend is that there’s lots of optimism. Because of the pandemic, a lot of migrant workers in cities had to go back to their rural homes, and maybe they’ll stay there and pursue other kinds of opportunities. Even before the pandemic, I observed a lot of young people thinking and talking about “Oh, maybe I can move back to my hometown” and start some kind of business that would be cheaper than in the city. 

"A farmer had been raising free-range chickens but couldn’t convince people that they were actually free-range. Then a Shanghai tech company came along and said, 'Blockchain is the solution!' and put them under surveillance to prove they were truly free-range."

I think, too, the live-­streaming economy is a weird microcosm of this—people have a notion of farming in the countryside, live-streaming it, and getting patrons. I think for urban youth, that trend is increasing. Back in 2009, when I was living in Beijing and trying to do urban gardening, no one was interested. Everybody was like, “Ugh, this is what my parents had to do. I’m not doing this, it’s gross.” But today, there’s a huge demand for organic farmers’ markets, and influencers getting into farming. I just heard about a popular beekeeping influencer, who has a whole brand and blog talking about the ancient art of beekeeping. It makes sense: the urban 20-somethings who have only known the city their entire lives, they’re under so much pressure, and so of course they’re going to romanticize the countryside. 

Q: The term “Sinofuturism” refers to concepts and aesthetics of a “Chinese future.” It’s been explored by artists, designers, and thinkers in critical or celebratory ways. How do you personally interpret it? 

A: For me, Sinofuturism now contains a certain imperial logic, given how China has operated more and more as an imperial power over the past few years, domestically and internationally. That said, I think there are a lot of interesting and productive parts of Sinofuturism that make us question these innate Western beliefs about the value of individualism, the role of work, the disconnection from natural cycles, the separation between mind and body, that are worth investigating. Sinofuturism is also a way to consider what exactly is this imperial force that China’s becoming, and to provoke questions around that. 

Q: Even if they don’t cook them, what do you want readers to get from the Sinofuturist recipes in the book? 

A: I’d love for people to say, “Hmm, I don’t have access to moon-grown cornmeal,” but to have a sense of wonder about the ingredients that are available to them, and to frame that reality as a weird form of fiction. To question “Why do we eat what we eat?” and understand how that relates to technological change. I was really inspired by a cookbook by Mary Sia, who talks about how in China you don’t get a lot of baked goods; you get a lot of boiled things, and that’s due to the fact that China simply didn’t have enough trees to cut down to generate as much heat as is needed in baking. For me that was a reminder of how what we cook is totally shaped by what is available, as a result of the technology that we use.

Q: What were some of the inspirations behind the recipes you include in the book? 

A: I was seeing my Chinese herbalist, who loves to rant about Western medicine and how it doesn’t fully understand the body, and she was telling me about how the brain is not one of the 11 vital organs in Chinese medicine. It’s not essential to the system of qi. I thought it was fascinating because when I was interviewing computational neuroscientists, you know, the brain is the center of everything in Western clinical medicine. It controls your heartbeat, your lungs; it’s the center of thinking: you wouldn’t be a person without it. 

My herbalist gave me some ideas on what nourishes qi, so I decided to use her sage advice in a recipe for AI porridge. 

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