What can we learn from rural development in China

I have no idea where and how I picked up “Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside”. The author Xiaowei Wang brings you on travels through rural China and makes some pertinent observations.

Rural living is not that bad

Starting with the standard idea that somehow rural culture and rural people are backward, conservative, and intolerant. We might be very wrong. It is not rural but industrial agricultural practices that is backward. We need to get back to some of the old lessons from our rural communities, such as stewardship and community. As the author says herself, “I hope this book reaffirms the power that you hold in being human and demonstrates ways certain technologies might actually serve open systems”.

A book that makes you think

The book introduces you to lots of fascinating concepts, starting with the Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs), the Hokou system, fragmented authoritarianism, patriarchal authoritarianism (citizens cannot be trusted), Pearl parties, Shehui Ren, Hukou, family, multilevel marketing and much more.

Such as combining AI with Chines medicine

A group of AI researchers at the Alibaba AI lab use traditional Chinese medicine, a five-thousand-year-old system of medical practices and philosophy, to train AI. Instead of Western philosophies of mind, they started from Chinese theories of the body, Chinese medicine, and Buddhist thought. In Chinese medicine, there are eleven vital organs that work holistically to sustain life, and this list does not include the brain. Brain functions are scattered throughout the body. Mo Gawdat will be delighted.

Such as blockchain chicken

The GoGoChicken project is a partnership between the village government and Lianmo Technology, a company that applies blockchain to physical objects, focusing on tracking where something originates from. The front plate of the ankle bracelet has a QR code on it. All data is viewable on a website accessible with a password. The website includes constantly streaming surveillance footage of the chickens to ensure that they have not been adulterated in any way by an intruder. Data about the chickens is uploaded via the base station to Anlink, a proprietary enterprise blockchain experiment by the sprawling ZhongAn, an online-only insurance company. 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.

Such as AI farming pigs

Pork dishes are a large part of Han Chinese cuisine. Pigs were domesticated in China as far back as 7000 B.C.E. A 1929 anthropological survey showed that 70% of animal calorie intake in China was from pork. Pork nourishes the blood and strengthens qi, the vital life force that flows through all living beings. Dishes are expected to balance all five flavours for medicinal benefit—sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, sour.

Industrialised farming

China is the only country in the world to have a pork reserve, consisting of millions of live pigs and uncountable pounds of frozen pork, hoarded from domestic and foreign sources. Information about food is central to food safety, making industrialised farming, including modern pig farming, an information business. Two-thirds of pork production is now concentrated in large corporations determined to do their patriotic duty: create China’s pork miracle using an industrial approach. Small farmers are unable to keep to biosecurity measures as tightly as industrial operations. It’s so much cheaper to buy pork than to raise your own.

Optimisation of pigs

An entire industry of scientists, swine technicians, genetic testing companies, educational institutions, and industrial-farm managers exist to optimise porcine life. Corporations like the Pig Improvement Company harness computational genetics and cutting-edge biology to design pigs specifically for industrial farming. Industrial pig swill is a finely tuned version of animal Soylent—a combination of GMO soybeans, grains, protein powders, and sometimes treated food waste. We are feeding pigs themselves. And so pigs unknowingly cannibalise each other, infecting and reinfecting their own kind. Remember the mad cow disease? Industrial pig farming uses only a few breeds, such as the highly popular hybrid DLY (a cross between Duroc, Landrace, and Yorkshire). Even the unwanted attributes of these pigs are slowly being refined edited out.


This highly optimised, industrial farming of meat is leading to the unchecked creation of devastating new pathogens. The appearance of new human diseases such as bird flu and other novel influenzas like COVID-19—zoonotic diseases that cross from animal to human—coincide with our modern era of optimising life.  Of industrialised agriculture and subsequent habitat loss. Sixty per cent of all emerging diseases are now zoonotic, and 80 per cent of new pathogens come from the top pork-producing countries—places like China.

Feedback loop

The logic is striking. The demand for pork drives industrialised farming of pigs, which increases disease transmission. The constant emergence of diseases drives the implementation of new technologies. These technologies go on to make pork cheap, driving even more availability and demand, as is not the balm to any problem—it is just one piece of the ever-hungry quest for scale.

The reaction by local farmers

Right now, delicious, chef-lauded pork in China is being produced by NetEase. The farm in Lushan has the precision of an electronics factory and the feeling of the world’s most sterile, meticulous resort. On this farm, pigs live an optimised life, with an optimal amount of exercise and an optimal swill mix. They even listen to a soothing soundtrack, carefully designed for stress relief.

Such as ET Agricultural Brain.

Human farmers are inefficient in an optimised world. So why not replace the farmers with AI models, which have access to endless data and computation time? Alibaba is proposing just that, with its ET Agricultural Brain. Agricultural Brain makes decisions based on data and offers a precision beyond human capacity. These models are fed training data from specific clients, such as big industrial farms that raise pigs and grow melons, or even agricultural drone companies like XAG, which it helps crunch through sensor data to finesse autopilot capabilities.

Millions of dollars

It takes millions of dollars to create AI models like ET Agricultural Brain and an enormous amount of computation time and data labelling. The economics of these technical requirements concentrate control over these models in a handful of companies. AI will be stuck in a downward spiral as a tool to optimise life, shaping it into a closed system. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of life in an AI world: a static, closed world.

Such as Shanzai

New shanzhai is open-source on hyperspeed. The designers and engineers of new shanzhai products build on each other’s work, co-opting, repurposing, and remixing in a decentralised way. New shanzhai stands in stark contrast to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology, pushing us to think about access, maintenance, and the conflation of intellectual property and civility. And in a time when American corporations are threatening university students researching new technologies with patent lawsuits, shanzhai feels more urgent than ever. Shanzhai holds the power to decolonise technology.

Tech transfer

“Technology transfer” is the process that many development experts describe, the seeding of tech products, software, assistance, and advice from the metropolitan United States to places like China, Kenya, and even rural America. But for technology absorption to happen, such places need the ecosystem, tools, and knowledge to begin to create their own products tailored to their contexts. Shanzhai pushes the boundaries of what we currently think of as innovation and argues for the right not only to use a device or software but also to collaboratively alter, change, and reclaim it—a shanzhai economy instead of an innovation economy.


Some regions in China rely on methods that are ancient. The rice-fish-duck system, for example, is a dynamic living system that requires no chemical fertilisers or pesticides. The system uses fish in the flooded paddies eating insects as a natural insect repellent.

Rice harmony

Rice Harmony’s form of organic rice farming ensures that the fate of one person is tied to everyone else’s. Every five years, farmers switch paddies through a lottery system, ensuring that no family is stuck with a paddy in a lower or higher region forever. Any change in one rice paddy affects another. Yet the cooperative structure centres the community as the locus of decision-making, creating a collective investment that is resilient under the strain of strong personalities and politics.


Rice Harmony serves as a reminder of the humility in innovation, its ability to renew to change political and social structures. Innovation is literally an ecosystem for Rice Harmony—an ecosystem that does not scale across thousands or millions of users but across the spectrum of time instead, regenerating the soil and community ties from one planting season to the next. For that, you don’t need VC funding, a legion of engineers, or millions of users.

To shanzai

See shanzhai as a verb used to cast a different kind of spell. To shanzhai. To turn protocols into practices that bind us together rather than centralise authority. Entire entrepreneurship programs exist, funded by VCs, designed to foster what VCs see as the core values of innovation. To shanzhai means we give up parts of our ego rather than innovating a quick fix that scales to millions.

Such as the Real Population Platform

Biometric data from face scans, state-issued personal identification numbers, fingerprints, and criminal records all come together on the Real Population Platform. To collect more data, the local government has been partnering with companies like China Unicom, the mobile carrier, to advertise the advantages of registering on the Real Population Platform.

About rural Tabao

Shangdiping has been settled by army fighters searching for a mountain stronghold. It is becoming part of the market economy, and its transition is full of magical juxtapositions. Families that live in Shangdiping had a life defined by subsistence farming. The rural village collective allocated each household enough land to plant to feed themselves. Depending on weather and luck, the yearly harvest would yield enough food for a year, maybe a little extra if they were lucky. Taking care of the land was an incentive in itself since it determined how well your crops would grow the following year.  

Tech as a catalyst

Now economic experiments are being unveiled as part of Rural Revitalisation. These experiments rely on technology and the internet as catalysts, creating new socioeconomic ecosystems of rural entrepreneurship. Such initiatives use e-commerce, mobile payment, and broadband, bolstered by the traditional Chinese art of massive infrastructural projects.


Which huge impact on nature. For urbanites across the world, nature exists as either a natural resource or a park to be conserved in imagined untamed beauty. Farmers require more from their relationship to nature, and being a Taobao village has worsened this, creating added pollution and waste. A once complex relationship to nature has flattened and been diminished to cash cropping, the earth becoming factory, once rich soil becoming dirt.


At these Rural Taobao Service Centers, Taobao contracts with one or two local villagers as brand ambassadors. This is the ambitious part of the Alibaba Rural Taobao Strategy: rural economic growth. Alibaba also has its rural research institute, AliResearch, which examines the business cycles of Taobao villages to understand their successes and failures. Part of tackling poverty means being able to measure and map it. There are disputes among experts in the field of international development on how to do this, especially on how to measure poverty in communities that rely on farming. And the metrics applied are wrong. In 2018, Alibaba announced plans to export the Taobao village model. The World Bank is interested in this model for other places in the world, including countries like South Africa. 

About Alibaba

The lack of hard currency in Dinglou indicates that traditional banks have been replaced. Alipay has become a financial institution contained in a mobile device. All across China, mobile payment has replaced cash. Alipay has solved the issue of nervously checking bank accounts every day after an order ships. Alipay functions as a sophisticated escrow account. A buyer can send money to a seller via Alipay, and Alipay holds the money. Alipay has become a pivotal part of rural economic infrastructure in areas where traditional physical banking has been inconvenient for many villagers. In 2019, Alipay had seven hundred million users, with nearly two hundred million transactions a day. It also has a credit-scoring system, Sesame Credit, for Alipay loans. With this risk-assessment camera in place, farmers can then use Alipay to apply for loans. A view: “Alibaba sucks us dry,” a farmer says. “It sucks the blood out of us, and it will suck the blood out of this village.

About drones

There are about thirty thousand drone operators in China, and they are in increasing demand. Agricultural service teams started forming, both buying and making their own equipment that would work on these small-scale farms, helping farm owners harvest as well as spray pesticides and fertilisers throughout the year. XAG trains and recruits drone pilots (a Uber for drones). XAG takes the feedback of its drone pilots, involving them in the process of updating drone hardware and features. That is combined with the earlier mentioned AI.

About private sector schooling

One focus of recent government policy is to decrease the gap between rural and urban schools by using a wide variety of methods. For China to truly reach sustainable economic success, to move more people into the middle class, it needs a populace with a higher level of education. Some of these online education initiatives are private, sponsored by companies including Alibaba and NetEase, and others are experiments in public education.


If pig life can be optimised through gene editing and automation, can human life be optimised as well? The optimisation of life is a distinctly modern endeavour. Others have similar convictions: if we can quantify human consciousness and emotions through mechanisms like AI, we might be able to reduce suffering by optimising our world to decrease those emotions. A belief that this optimised version of human life will take over, replacing humans in the workplace, as caregivers, or even in romantic relationships. We are told humans will be free from work in this state of optimised life. And we will also be able to optimise our own tiny human lives—maybe for freedom.


Transforming work into abstract, quantifiable, optimised labour erases “any of the human and social purposes or the creative satisfactions that work has always had in other societies.” It is easy to automate work using AI once you’ve made work devoid of meaning. For thousands of years, the work of these farmers has been stewarding and maintaining the earth rather than optimising agricultural production. After all, life is defined not by uncertainty itself but by a commitment to living despite it. What we face are the more difficult questions about the meaning of work, and the ways we commit, communicate and exist in relation to each other. Answering these questions means looking beyond the rhetoric sold to us by tech companies. It also speaks to the stark line that emerges: between those who fund code and those who write and use code.

Envisage a future in which GMO foods and DNA data storage come together

If you truly were your user data, could you eat yourself? They could collaborate with large cloud storage companies to plant soybean data fields with customer data encoded inside each bean. Achieving food security with data localisation. Soybean reserves could also be data reserves. Unlike cold computer storage, DNA storage has a long half-life of five hundred years. Imagine cloud soybeans with embedded data are sold to the public for a highly discounted price. After these beans are digested, the data becomes thoroughly obliterated, ensuring data privacy.


We have a sense of how entangled we are in a surveillance culture and, especially these days, how that culture proliferates with smart devices like Alexa in our homes. We don’t mind being surveilled by Alexa because we have nothing to hide Privacy is seen as what we give up for safety, and safety is the freedom from fear. We must question the culture of surveillance and carceral punishment that condition us to think living with fear is the only way of understanding we are alive.


“Can data ever know who we really are?” Data cannot truly represent the full spectrum of life, and it remains a thin slice of the world. Philip B. Stark calls “quantifauxcation”: the attempt to assign numbers or quantify phenomenon as if quantitative data can offer certainty. Some strategies for quantification, says Stark, include saying things people want to believe, and adding opaque complexity to models, since complexity has become conflated with accuracy. There is nothing to be said about bare existence that gains power through classification. When holding a chubby six-month-old against your cheek, his small round toes curled, you see a joy that transcends any columns in a database, any notes on a record, any human-programmed algorithm. Our right to life hinges on our endlessly creating ourselves.

Wrong starting point

Will technology optimise the life of farmers and help rural development. As always, it starts with metrics and data. And unfortunately, we are still using the wrong sets. If we could just merge the good from the old with the good from the new. Buddhist tech? Teaching AI Chinese medicine is a great start.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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