The Untold Technological Revolution Sweeping Through Rural China

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. Wei radiates a bonhomie that reminds one of America’s postwar boom: “It’s a feeling that you have a right to the future, a right to imagination beyond the immediacy of the day,” as Wang puts it. The technological boom produces genuine moments of rural prosperity, when it works.

Though sometimes it doesn’t, quite. As a former software engineer in San Francisco, Wang has a grim appreciation for the dark side effects that technology can bring — the “breaking things” suffix to the diktat of “moving fast.”

Consider the boom in the production of pork, a hot commodity among China’s increasingly prosperous diners. 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 entire “digital towns” where young rural workers sit all day long clicking on pictures of pigs, labeling them as sick or healthy, to feed the A.I.’s smarts.) In the short run, the A.I. does indeed help optimize soaring pork production. It’s a win for diners, for pork producers and for government, which yearns for China to achieve “food security.” (“The food bowl of the Chinese people must always remain firmly in their own hands,” as Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has said.)

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

Certainly, technology is good at “scaling” — making things grow big, run more efficiently, move more speedily. With its hundreds of millions of rural poor clamoring to join the middle class, China craves scale. (“The West doesn’t understand our problems. We just have too many people,” Wang is told.) But efficiency can cause problems of its own, leaving China caught in a dilemma: the need for scale, the peril scale brings.

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 in advance to sell off to an online supermarket, and in the second year, nothing. Meanwhile, those Taobao villages also contain some embittered merchants who hate the e-commerce platform, because it allows buyers to demand refunds long after they’ve received their goods. One shoemaker has lost so much money this way that he’s forced to make lower- and lower-quality shoes to keep his profits up. “It’s all a scam,” he says.

Wang has written a nuanced and thought-provoking account, and it is not easy to tell, after you’re done reading it, how rural China will fare — whether its 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. Visiting the “Cloud Computing Museum” of Alibaba, Wang sees the firm’s first homegrown server from years ago, adorned with a poem:

line by line
builds the foundation
for eternity
just like sand
grain by grain
calms the roaring sea.