Bo Ren & Xiaowei Wang

17 February 2021

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Today’s interview is with author Xiaowei Wang. Xiaowei Wang is an engineer, writer, designer, and artist. They are the creative director at Logic magazine and their work encompasses community-based and public art projects, data visualization, technology, ecology, and education. Previously, they worked at Mapbox, Meedan, and C2 research. Their projects have been finalists for the Indexed award and have been featured by the New York Times, BBC, CNN, Vice, and other outlets.

I loved reading your book, Blockchain Chicken Farm and Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside. What was the inspiration for writing the book and how did you go about learning about all these different stories in China?

So I started off thinking I wanted to research tech in China, maybe do a short documentary film or even a small zine, and I ended up in Shenzhen, where 90 percent of the world's electronics are produced.

I started talking to David Li of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab and he said, “Listen, you could stay in the city, but it's kind of just the same globally. If you're looking at tech use in New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Berlin, it's all kind of the same. The real interesting stuff is happening in the countryside and you should head there.”

So I started off just by looking at a few countryside phenomena in China. David had mentioned that Taobao and Alibaba were making a big headway into the countryside, so I started looking into that, got in contact with folks, did a bunch of visits to the countryside, and even through the process of research on the ground, just keeping an awareness of the larger policies, both in China, but also globally that are really transforming China's countryside.

In this book, several chapters revolve around new technology being applied to the agricultural and factory farming sectors of the Chinese economy. Can you share some of what you learned?

When I started researching this, I think as someone who is in tech and a lot of my coworkers [think it would be] so nice to log off and become a farmer… But then you realize writing code is far different than trying to produce food from the earth. Then additionally, actual agriculture exists in this globalized world, so it's not just the way that we imagine it, that the farmer produces food and we buy it at the market. It's all part of a complex set of global agricultural trade — the U.S. exports grain, China exports food — and it's not so simple.

In terms of actually looking at the countryside, people are trying to scale up production in China the same way that it is in the U.S. In the U.S. if you go to the Midwest, it's very industrialized — like automated tractors, huge pieces of automated farm machinery — and in China right now, it's still 70 percent are small farmers with land the size of football fields or a little less than a football field. The government's really trying to be like, “Hey farmers, maybe you could find another job and we can consolidate land and actually use a lot of these automated systems.”

A lot of these systems are appearing in China as well with AI farming pigs, using computer vision and sensors to try and detect when there's a sick pig in an industrial hog farm... because they're in such close quarters that if you have one that's sick, it'll just tear through the entire operation and it's a huge profit loss.

Additionally, something that people don't think about is globally it's very hard for small farmers trying to scale up — they don't have collateral the way that we do. Their collateral is living animals, and if you're trying to get a loan that's going to change depending on the season. So Alibaba is also trying to do a lot of monitoring and computer vision systems to try and monitor the animals to help small farmers get loans.

So when you mentioned the privatization, or I guess, this state-enforced way of running small farms, do you see any lessons and trends that we could learn from the Chinese AgTech movement of trying to industrialize agriculture for these small farmers that are applicable to the US market today?

I think that if you ask folks in China, the policymakers and the people who do agricultural science, they're really trying to be more like the U.S. There's the farming production side, like what do you do when you sell the grain and pricing around market incentives… but there's also just the infrastructure of it, like farm machinery. If you do the [research and development] for farm machines, the farmer has to farm a certain size of land in order for that to work.

So China's really trying to emulate the U.S. I will say that I did see some pretty interesting initiatives on the ground. I visited this one rice farming village that I mentioned where they're actually trying to maintain their traditional way of farming, which doesn't use pesticides, fertilizers, and all these things. At the same time, they’re trying to be part of the agricultural market and stay competitive. I think that's really fascinating because they had to reorganize their village governance structure and it was very much counter to what the County Agricultural Bureau wanted them to do. I think it was just very inspiring to see that.

You mentioned how AI was being used to better manage the health and predict illness within the pig farms, but at the same time, these efforts were kind of undercut by the food supply, which in some cases creates transmissible diseases. What do you think of this apparent contradiction of how technology gets introduced to solve one pain point, but then it creates negative externalities or side effects. How do we navigate that tension?

I apologize because I feel like I'm an ardent anti-capitalist sometimes. But at the same time, why do we keep on doing the work that we do? It's because there's always this push and pull, right?

I will say that I think producing enough quality food, especially with everything that we've seen over the past year in terms of food supply chains and things like that, [having] more localized production feels very important. I think that's a middle path to think about, between one end of the spectrum where you have these crazy industrial farms that are pretty terrifying — the environmental impact is huge. The prices are mega cheap, but you're putting in very cheap input.

On the other scale is small and local, but then food gets very expensive. So I think there has to be a middle path and there's something in between.

Do you think that the middle path can be reached through regulation or through free market forces? Like who and what needs to come into play to get us on that middle path?

So I think it's definitely a combination of market incentives, as well as regulation. I think we — and some people may disagree — but if you look at agricultural policy, there's no pure free market around agriculture. There's a ton of subsidies for people, even loans and things like that, that farmers can take out. So I think it really does come at the policy level as well as the market level.

I think that's a great point. There's another chapter in your book that shares details about drone farming and how, on the one hand, technology has created a new business around drone pilots, but then later innovation threatens those jobs. Are there lessons to be learned about the lifecycle of tech innovation?

Yeah, so a few other people have asked me that and their like outlook is always very cynical. They're like, “This is exploitative, and it's a race to the bottom.” And I have to say the future is not predetermined. I actually have a lot of optimism for this. In the book, I talk about how these young folks become drone pilots, they train online and they help farmers spray their crops.

It's actually great for the environment because you can use a more precision level of spraying instead of just dousing everything. It's also incentivizing people to travel, for the young folks to be in the countryside instead of the city.

So of course, everyone's going to kind of move up in the food chain of jobs. These drone pilots are going to become more information specialists, and I think it's important to not have the mindset of scarcity. It's not just like, “You can only get to the top and you can't go anywhere else.” I think it's actually like, “What are other openings that we can have for these young folks who become more managers or information manager types? Can they start their own companies?” and things like that.

That's fairly analogous to the fear of AI, replacing a lot of human jobs, especially in factories and manufacturing. But I think to your point, instead of creating this categorical two-tier class system, there is a kind of middle ground where there was probably going to be a new middle class of jobs that previously did not exist in AgTech and farming due to the advent of drone technology, AI, and blockchain.

Yeah, and I think it's absolutely exciting and a lot of the folks that I talk to, like the young drone pilots, are really excited about this. And it wasn't like someone told them, to be excited. They really discovered it through message boards and through word of mouth.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book was this divide between Chinese state regulation and private enterprise, and there's constant tension. It's almost like there are pockets of freak market capitalist experiments within the state-controlled government. Can you tell us a little bit more about that spectrum of privatization to state regulation and intervention?

I recently wrote an article with An Xiao Mina where we talk about the “Great Shopping Mall of China” instead of the Great Wall or the Great Firewall. We talk about market nationalism, and I think that it's easy if you don't know anything about China to just [assume] the government runs everything, but if you scratch the surface even just a little bit, it's always had a legacy of private experimentation and then the government comes in and tries to regulate.

Even in the eighties, the economist Yasheng Huang talked about the rural origins of Chinese capitalism. It was town and village enterprises, with villagers being like, “We're just going to try this free market thing.”

It's technically not allowed because we're supposed to do more collective agriculture stuff. But the government saw this and was like, “Oh, this is a prime way of economic development.”

I think we still see it constantly, like with AliPay, they're really successful at infiltrating the countryside and much of the country and financial mobile payment in a way that the Chinese Central Government-run things weren't, and the government had got quite nervous about this.

...Which is why Ant Financial was pulled off from the IPO market.

Exactly. And it's such an ambitious company — Ant Financial and Alibaba — they really have huge ambitions. Alibaba also has a rural development institute. I'm in a multi-person Alibaba rural development institute chat, and it's just fascinating to see how they think of themselves.

What are they researching or exploring over there?

It's not just rural Chinese economic development, but also countries in the Belt and Road initiative. Also, I see a lot of articles about Chinese investment into the rural U.S. It's pretty interesting, and I think they try to think of themselves as World Bank-type people.

When you say Chinese investments in the rural U.S., that leads me to think about the role of the U.S. government, in terms of encouraging investment. There was a curtailment of Chinese retail investors moving into the American private market during the Trump administration. But now that we're under a new administration, I'm wondering, do you foresee more of a cross-pollination of Chinese investment into the U.S. market, specifically around AgTech or farming?

I think it's ever ongoing. It definitely took a dive during the Trump years, but it's still there. I talk about how Smithfield Pork is essentially a Chinese company, we just don't think of it that way.

It goes to show the effects of globalization. Your book also chronicles several ways that technology is making its way into the lives of rural Chinese. But it seems like there's definitely a tone of "the jury's still out" in terms of whether this technology is going to make their lives better. What was your impression of how technology is impacting people's lives in rural China?

There was that constant tension. I saw great initiatives like the rice farming village that were using tech and they felt a lot of agency over it, versus the Taobao villages that I visited, which are just Alibaba being like, “Let's have farmers not farm as much and instead make these things for not only AliExpress, but also increasingly Amazon,” because Amazon's about 40 percent Chinese sellers now.

Amazon hasn't entered the Chinese market, but foreign sellers can sell on Amazon very easily. There were all these regulations that got changed. So in Taobao villages, they were making cheap knockoff Snow White costumes and tiny bars of hotel soap for when you run an Airbnb. I think, it really is in that case a race to the bottom, because they're just kind of copying and pasting the free market onto this tiny village without any safety.

So you're saying these Taobao villagers are at the mercy of how the market forces play out, like they don't have as much agency in how these marketplaces will benefit them.

Exactly. They don't have the same safety mechanisms as if you are a small entrepreneur in the U.S. where you still have some sense of a safety net from the government.

You talk a little bit about this rural entrepreneurial spirit you witnessed, and in a way, it seems like the Chinese government leans on rural innovators as mavens, in terms of using technology and finding new ways of scaling and experimenting. Where do you think that that entrepreneurship comes from in what is perceived as a very state-controlled market?

I feel like Chinese news is filled with these success stories, like “Rural entrepreneur becomes a millionaire selling lipstick on live stream.”

Everything is e-commerce and live stream.

Exactly. The first wave of e-commerce entrepreneurs I talked to told me that local government officials actually had no clue what they were doing. They were really just like, “You're putting things on the computer to sell... How do you do that?”

I think it also speaks to the relationship that companies have with the central government — that Alibaba's willing to make these inroads with local governments, as well as in terms of partnerships. It's like if Amazon was not just building a warehouse in rural Iowa, but unveiling a rural development jobs program as well as education and everything else.

Moving on, how do you think technology is being applied to increase more even distribution and production of food in the world and how is it helping make that process of farming easier or more profitable?

This is a tricky question because when I think of peak tech use in farming, it's really the U.S. Along the way in my research, I met someone who has a specific grain winnowing machine that used tiny like jet puffs of air, like micro precision, to push things through the conveyor belt for winnowing. There are just really fascinating levels of innovation. Yet at the same time, the U.S. actually suffers from agricultural overproduction because of foreign policy.

So prices are kept low, and that's one scale. But I think there really is the middle path opportunity. In my book, I talk about how AI is really great at a lot of things, including image diagnosis. Or you could think of even taking in environmental data and making certain recommendations of when to plant, and things like that.

I've also heard of applications where someone started a company in India to use satellite imagery and AI to make better lending practices for small farmers. Small farmers in India would take out these loans, it would be a huge burden to them and a lot of them were actually committing suicide because of that burden.

So I think there are these opportunities to really use it to support the small and medium scale, as well as the question of logistics. China has a pretty robust logistics system, but I would think in a lot of rural areas and other places, you have to get things to market fast.

You also worked with a couple of venture capital firms in China. How do you see them evaluating companies and investing strategically in a way that you think American VCs who are interested in AgTech could benefit from.

I don't know the landscape of American VCs, but one thing that I really appreciated is that Chinese VCs are willing to get their hands dirty and go to the farm, literally go to the place. Some folks even have an agricultural background, they worked for a year doing pesticides and spraying in the fields.

Maybe I just have a low opinion of VCs, but I've been pretty heartened by how a lot of the Chinese VCs I've met are willing to take into account the long-term social impact. “How is this going to affect labor in the future? What are all these other strategies that we're thinking about, 20 years down the line where it's like, everyone is a drone pilot, what does that social landscape look like?”

Where do you think that long-term lens comes from in Chinese VCs? Is that somehow incentivized by the government, or do you think it's more of a cultural outlook of looking at things more holistically?

I think it comes down to just what you're educated about, throughout schooling, but also in the media. So as an example, when I was researching the book, the swine fever was raging throughout China. In the US, I would have to read a special pork newsletter to hear about this. But in China, it was just on the front page. It was on all the news outlets, that this is going to threaten people's basic need to eat. So I think it is very much cultural. It's also just the recent history in China, like starvation — grandparents can remember that.

Thank you so much for this interdisciplinary conversation.

Thank you so much.

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