Adapted from the introduction and 2nd chapter of Blockchain Chicken Farm and Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside, by Xiaowei Wang. Copyright 2020. Used with permission of the publisher, FSG Originals. All rights reserved.
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Why are you here?” One of my hosts, an old rice farmer, asked me this earlier. I had been traveling for days, and in my exhaustion, his question took on a more existential note. It took me a minute before I could sputter, “I’m here to see you.”
I felt the pull of rural China about three years ago, after visiting villages in Guizhou, seeing a side of China very different from the one portrayed in most forms of media. This pull was amplified by my need to challenge my own metronormativity—a portmanteau of “metropolitan” and “normative,” coined by the theorist and scholar Jack Halberstam. Metronormativity is pervasive—it’s the normative, standard idea that somehow rural culture and rural people are backward, conservative, and intolerant, and that the only way to live with freedom is to leave the countryside for highly connected urban oases. Metronormativity fuels the notion that the internet, technology, and media literacy will somehow “save” or “educate” rural people, either by allowing them to experience the broader world, offering new livelihoods, or reducing misinformation. For me, challenging this metronormativity is crucial. […]
The bus goes through newly constructed tunnels, lights fresh and bright, untarnished, no buildup of dust from exhaust fumes. I arrive in Sanqiao village, in the green mountains of Guizhou, where the blockchain chicken roams.
Chongqing is a sprawling, messy, mountainous city. The day I arrive, the air pollution is so thick it has blotted out the sun, casting a haze that turns the sky orange with a hint of gray. It looks like an apocalyptic-movie scene, as if the next rainstorm might topple the city. The “horizontal skyscraper” by the architect Moshe Safdie is almost finished. It’s a long building that sits perilously atop three other skyscrapers, spanning several city blocks.
Through tunnels and over highways perched on mountains, my bus travels to Nanchuan District, two hours from the center of Chongqing. Another two hours and Chongqing’s haze has been left behind. The bus goes through newly constructed tunnels, lights fresh and bright, untarnished, no buildup of dust from exhaust fumes. I arrive in Sanqiao village, in the green mountains of Guizhou, where the blockchain chicken roams. […]
Blockchain chicken is not the actual name of the chicken I am here to see. The official name is Bubuji (步步鸡), or GoGoChicken, as some English PR materials call it. The COO of Shanghai Lianmo Technology, the company behind blockchain chicken, says that he explicitly keeps “blockchain” out of the name. To him, overhyped blockchain projects have turned the term “blockchain” into marketing gloss.
These blockchain chickens sell for up to RMB 300 (US$40) on JD.com. Typical buyers are upper-class urbanites—people willing to pay a premium on food. I meet with one of the village secretary’s fresh-faced assistants, Ren. He grew up in the county. He’s thirty years old, and unlike many of his peers, he returned home after college in Chongqing, to help his ailing parents. He joined the local government because he figured if he had to come home, he might as well try to make the place he lived in a little less impoverished, a little more wealthy, and ultimately a little more lively.
We head to the GoGoChicken farm. As meat consumption increases in China, even places like KFC and McDonald’s are subject to food-safety issues. Enter blockchain, the exotic technology that will address tracking and provenance, especially in chickens.
Ren tells me that, funnily enough, there’ve been a lot of GoGoChicken stories in the news, but very few visits to the farm. When we do get to the farm, I’m surprised by how friendly it looks. The entrance is small and peaceful, with brightly painted cartoon chickens on the walls.
Farmer Jiang is in charge of this blockchain chicken operation. He’s wearing a straw hat in the rain. Behind him is a colorful mural of a chicken farmer with the same straw hat and chickens clustered around him. He’s just plain nice.
Farmer Jiang has been raising chickens for a long time, long before blockchain was a technology. His specialty has always been linxiaji (under-the-tree chickens, 林夏季). They are free-range, vegetarian-fed chickens, the kind that roam around Sanqiao’s lush canopy, getting plenty of exercise. Typical overstuffed chickens on industrial poultry farms are fed constantly in order to reach the correct weight for slaughter in under one month. These free-range blockchain chickens are raised for at least three months before slaughter. As Farmer Jiang describes the chickens’ diet of local corn, my mouth starts watering at how delicious their eggs must be.
In its origins, blockchain was structured with a set of assumptions about the social conditions under which it operates, and many of its advocates and engineers have pushed a political vision of the world that is somewhere between libertarianism and anarchy.
The GoGoChicken project is a partnership between the village government and Lianmo Technology, a company that applies blockchain to physical objects, with a focus on provenance use cases—that is, tracking where something originates from. When falsified records and sprawling supply chains lead to issues of contamination and food safety, blockchain seems like a clear, logical solution.
That is one of the many promises of blockchain. In its origins, blockchain was structured with a set of assumptions about the social conditions under which it operates, and many of its advocates and engineers have pushed a political vision of the world that is somewhere between libertarianism and anarchy. But like a lot of technology these days, it has been adopted by companies and governments to make money, including a chicken farm in a small remote village of Guizhou.
Read more: Digital Riddles: Solving the blockchain conundrum by Mamiko Yokoi-Arai, Deputy Head of Financial Markets Division; Head of Infrastructure and Alternative Financing Unit, OECD
Farmer Jiang says that raising free-range chickens is a yearly uphill battle. One set of problems was the threat of disease, and the material difficulties of making sure several thousand chickens survived over three months.
“Chickens aren’t very smart,” Farmer Jiang says as we walk around the farm, into a neatly kept feeding barn. “Or brave. If you have them outside of cages, at night they can get scared. They cluster around lights and they overcrowd each other, killing each other. A kind of chicken stampede.”
The bigger problem was that Jiang didn’t have a reliable market every year. He had to do all the selling and marketing himself. Even when he did make a sale, the profit margin was low or he sold at a loss. Buyers had a difficult time trusting him, and trusting that the chickens were indeed free-range, worth the higher asking price.
Then Zhou Ling arrived from Shanghai, to serve as the Sanqiao village aid cadre. China’s poverty-alleviation efforts deploy millions of aid cadres across China, typically younger members of the party, who provide all kinds of assistance and relief, including repairing water pumps and conducting digital literacy initiatives. [...]
Each chicken wears an ankle bracelet that is physically tamperproof, which tracks characteristics such as number of steps taken and the location of the chicken. A chicken Fitbit of sorts.
Zhou connected Farmer Jiang with Lianmo Technology, which was hoping to pilot more blockchain and Internet of Things projects, including the profitable business of poultry tracking, as China consumes five billion chickens a year (which is still only about half the American chicken-consumption rate of nine billion per year).
Jiang shows us around the rest of the farm—several pristine feeding areas, and the “control” room where the base station sits. Each chicken wears an ankle bracelet that is physically tamperproof, which tracks characteristics such as number of steps taken and the location of the chicken. A chicken Fitbit of sorts.
The front plate of the ankle bracelet has a QR code on it. All this data is viewable on a website accessible with a password, and the website includes constantly streaming surveillance footage of the chickens to ensure that they have not been adulterated in any way by an intruder. There’s also a map of the chickens’ movements. Data about the chickens is uploaded via the base station to Anlink, a proprietary enterprise blockchain that is an experiment by the sprawling ZhongAn, an online-only insurance company.
Sanqiao chickens are under heavy surveillance. In addition to wearing the ankle bracelets, the chickens are tested every two weeks by the local branch of the Ministry of Agriculture for any signs of antibiotic usage, which is illegal under the category of free-range. While it may seem like overkill, it might be a small price to pay in order to win back public trust.
These chickens are delivered to consumers’ doors, butchered and vacuum sealed, with the ankle bracelet still attached, so customers can scan the QR code before preparing the chicken. Scanning this code leads them to a page with details about the chicken’s life, including its weight, the number of steps it took, and its photograph. In Shanghai, these details are seen as a sign of authenticity and food safety, while in the United States they could easily be read from an animal-welfare angle. Farmer Jiang lets me scan an ankle bracelet, and the experience is underwhelming. While I know this is actual information about the chicken, it would be easy for Lianmo Technology to create a series of fake web pages for these chickens. Since the Anlink blockchain is an enterprise blockchain, consumers have little interaction with that part of the technology.
The village secretary’s assistant, Ren, and I head back to Jiang’s house for tea. It’s a humble home with three rooms. In one corner of the living room is a stove with a large metal top—it functions as a table, stove, and hearth for Guizhou’s chilly winters. Jiang’s mother is there, along with his wife. A flat-screen TV is behind him—the product of blockchain chicken earnings from last year.
In the end, Jiang sold six thousand chickens through the blockchain project. And as part of the communal nature of village life, several other local families were employed by the project. In a poverty-alleviation effort, profits were redistributed between Farmer Jiang’s family and the three hundred other households in the village.
Farmer Jiang has more buyers for his free-range chickens now that they are blockchain free-range chickens. But in switching to blockchain, the farmer’s overhead has increased significantly, with the cost of the ankle bracelets and the technical infrastructure.
Despite its success, the future of blockchain chicken is uncertain. Neither the code, nor the equipment, nor the software belongs to Jiang: it ultimately remains Lianmo Technology’s. Jiang tells me that last year, Lianmo Technology’s GoGoChicken project ordered six thousand chickens in advance, to sell off to JD.com’s online supermarket and other platforms. There was no such order this year, so Jiang is left on his own. Ren’s boss, the village’s party secretary, Chairman Chen, is currently in talks with a company to provide chickens to nearby Chongqing. As with a lot of startups, uncertainty swirls around how the technical infrastructure will continue to function, and whether Lianmo Technology will continue to support a project with such high overhead costs.
Farmer Jiang has more buyers for his free-range chickens now that they are blockchain free-range chickens. But in switching to blockchain, the farmer’s overhead has increased significantly, with the cost of the ankle bracelets and the technical infrastructure. By the end of the process, Farmer Jiang makes RMB 100 (US$14) on each chicken, not accounting for costs.
Still, Jiang is optimistic. He’s no longer a stranger to the process of raising surveilled chickens. With the slow influx of money to the village, a postsecondary vocational school is being built. Other projects like a “smart mushroom tent” have arrived, sponsored by the state-owned liquor company, Kweichow Moutai. The watering and the temperature and humidity of the tent are controlled automatically by a system of sensors, producing cremini and shiitake mushrooms on logs.
As we sit in his house, with our feet around the hearth, Farmer Jiang starts gathering up oranges and putting them into a plastic bag. He admits that it’s not easy for this area of Guizhou to develop economically. It’s the geography, he says. It’s remote, it’s mountainous. The terrain makes it difficult to farm certain crops. But precisely because it is remote, it boasts a pollution-free environment, with fresh air and clean soil. The problem is, the villagers don’t quite know how to put a dollar value on that. I tell him, I’m not sure anyone does.
As Ren and I leave, Farmer Jiang hands us the big plastic bag of oranges. “Take these! I grew these myself for my family! They’re organically farmed. I used the GoGoChicken poop as fertilizer.”
In the car, driving through the small mountain paths back to the bus stop, I ask Ren, “So, what do you think of qukuailian [blockchain, 区块链]?” Although we’ve seen the GoGoChicken farm, I haven’t explicitly brought up blockchain at all during my visit.
“Blockchain? What’s blockchain?” asks Ren.
The urban-rural dynamic is central to globalization, with rural areas serving as the engine, the site of extractive industries from industrial agriculture to rare earth mining. I believe our ability to confront metronormativity will determine our shared future. We are intertwined across cities, villages, and national boundaries, bound by material circumstance.
I have traveled to rare earth and copper mines in Inner Mongolia, driven along dusty highways past wind turbines and data centers, visited villages where artificial intelligence training data is made, and seen empty villages where all the young people have left for electronics factory jobs in cities. Rather than seeing the way technology has shifted or produced new livelihoods in rural China, I have been humbled to see the ways rural China fuels the technology we use every day, around the world.
Questioning metronormativity means demanding something outside the strict binaries of rural versus urban, natural versus man-made, digital versus physical, and remote as disengaged versus metropolitan as connected. To question metronormativity demands a vision of living that serves life itself, and not just life in cities. Embarking on this line of questioning demanded a big change in my own core beliefs.
Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms.
The dynamics of rural China are not isolated to China itself. Yet because of its geographic distance from the United States, it remains a kind of periphery. These rural peripheries, the edges of the world, hidden from view, enable our existence in cities. […] It is easy to romanticize rural Chinese villages as idyllic scenes of nature, small and disengaged—yet many of them are sites of economies and agricultural practices that are foundational to our world. And as numerous historians, such as Robert Brenner and Sue Headlee, have shown, shifts in agriculture and rural politics were crucial for the transition into industrialization and capitalism throughout the world. […]
Read more: Lessons from the Field: What we can learn from women in rural villages—and why they need our collective support by Gülden Turktan, President, IWF Turkey
“Why are you here?” I am here because looking at technology in rural China, in places that produce the technology we use, places that show how globally entangled we are with one another, allows me to confront the scarier question that technology poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now?
Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms. These assumptions about humans and the way the world should work are more powerful than sheer technical curiosity in driving the creation of new technologies and platforms. Embedded in these tools are their makers’ and builders’ assumptions about what humans need, and how humans should interact.
It is not enough to critique these assumptions, because in simply critiquing, we remain caught in the long list of binaries: Tech is dehumanizing, tech brings liberation. Tech dragged the world into the mess it’s in, tech frees it from this mess. Tech creates isolation, tech connects marginalized communities. The difficult work that we face is to live and thrive beyond binaries and assumptions, and to aid and enable others to do so.