In Blockchain Chicken Farm, you use the term “fragmented authoritarianism” to describe the Chinese government’s poverty alleviation efforts. Can you briefly explain this term? Do you think that technology has enabled this fragmentation, or does it predate these new advances?
Fragmentation definitely predates these new technological advances. I borrowed the term “fragmented authoritarianism” from anthropologists like Aihwa Ong at Berkeley. There are all these sayings in China: “heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” for example. It is not just China. We can also think of the United States. The national or federal government can also feel far away. Even in the U.S. on a state-by-state level, it is difficult to piece together the entire picture of what the government is. What interests me is that tension between the perception and the reality of government. For example, reading news reports of what the government is doing is often very different from what is happening on the ground.
The use of technology on the rural farm level is specific to China. After the book came out, though, many people in the digital agricultural industry in India reached out to me. In Asia, there are many small farmers trying to deal with the fact that agricultural production has shifted to an industrial scale. There is definitely a tension between the Chinese central government and local communities using innovative forms of technology, such as shanzhai. The government realizes that this technology is not the most optimal for business as they often run into problems with the protection of intellectual property. However, there is a way of twisting the narrative where places like Shenzhen are rebranded as an “epicenter of innovation” which respects intellectual property. So much of the work of the government is controlling the narrative, and the old Shenzhen was definitely in tension with the Chinese government.
How is technological literacy being spread across rural regions using 山寨 (shanzhai), which generally has a bad reputation in China?
Shanzhai is both a practice and also an ethos. Shanzhai is a practice in China where things are copycatted, which often has a bad reputation. It is a case of extreme open source; David Li and Silvia Lintner are two scholars who often talk about it. Farm equipment can be modified, repaired, and changed without needing to pay to use the patent. The Guangzhou rice farm is a case of farmers maintaining a sustainable economy for themselves. There are ways of navigating these situations in certain regions of China so that you can be left alone by the Chinese government. In this respect, they are parallels to software as well.
The practice of shanzhai extends beyond China. For example, at the airport in Guangzhou, there are many who fly to countries across Southeast Asia and Africa with innovative new electronics. A prayer clock that shows the direction of Mecca is a good example of a product from shanzhai, since it responds to local needs at an accessible price point. It is important to consider how much a piece of “innovation” really costs. Whether software or hardware, a lot of markup and income come from the intellectual property. Shanzhai has a very strong way of spreading this across China. The issue of reputation comes down to intellectual property. A lot of the anti-China sentiment in the U.S. began with the idea that “China does not respect IP;” but many scholars in the U.S. have argued that IP protection kills innovation. In a time when these questions of access have become extremely clear and heightened, the need for shanzhai and openness feels very pressing. It will definitely spread. China has such big ambitions to become a global power, especially with the Taobao village and poverty alleviation. Both Alibaba and government officials are pointing to these models as evidence of success and looking to export them elsewhere, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative.
You say that the future of Farmer Jiang’s blockchain chicken farm is uncertain, since it’s so heavily dependent on the technology firm rather than the local farmers. Will these non-urban yet corporatized rural communities survive in the long term?
Unfortunately, they are unlikely to survive. This is because community erosion occurs far more easily when there are economic systems controlled by top-down, centralized initiatives — in this case, the Chinese government. It is definitely more difficult to erode a community that has its own robust system of both economic and technical practices. As a counter to the example of the blockchain chicken farm, I mention in the book a rice farming village in Guangzhou that I visited. They have countered what the local county officials or the agricultural bureau have pushed upon the community. They have decided to change their governing structure and the way that they carry out the system of rice paddy land lottery is very reliant on each other. They use communal decision-making and tools such as farm machinery that they are hacking and shaping together for themselves. They do this themselves because the kind of machinery for the small scale of farming that they want to do is not readily available for purchase. This kind of community is much stronger and there is a longer, more sustainable timeline. Even during the pandemic, I check on WeChat to see what different people I visited are up to, and this rice farming community is still in business. There was little top-down disruption and they continue to sell their organic rice line.
Has the move towards decentralized production and incorporation of AI technology in industrial processes set China ahead when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
The move towards contactless payment methods has definitely put China ahead in terms of social distancing. In Blockchain Chicken Farm, I talk about the decentralizing processes that are happening in industry, which is also a large factor. Many industrial processes in the U.S. are very vertically consolidated — not only within the industry, but also within the company itself, which adds to the disadvantage during the pandemic.
In Blockchain Chicken Farm, you feature step-by-step recipes on how to feed AI and eat your own user data. Why did you decide to include these and how did you develop them?
Blockchain Chicken Farm originally began because I wanted to make a recipe zine. I started looking at old recipe books. It was really striking because there was so much in the recipe books about technology and especially technological change. One book, Mary Sia’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, wrote about how people boil rice. A lot of Han Chinese food is boiled or steamed since it is more fuel-efficient than baking, which requires a lot of wood. Since the landscape in certain areas of China did not have a lot of trees, people had to adapt their cuisine. Recipes offer an incredible way of thinking about the past, as well as imagining the future. They allow you to encapsulate larger systems down to something that you can eat. I really loved it as a format in order to speculate about technology and the future. It took a lot of repetition. Some of them definitely did not work at first and I had to eat a lot of gross food. The soybean fritters were a disaster the first time, but I eventually got it right.
In 2019, four out of five payments in China were made through either Tencent’s WePay or Alibaba’s Alipay. In Blockchain Chicken Farm, you describe how local police departments are modernizing their surveillance and taking part in “learning exchanges” with other police forces internationally. How are these developments affecting social movements critical of the Chinese government, especially in light of the recent Hong Kong protests?
Darren Byler’s work looking at the digital surveillance of Uyghur Muslims is an example of how insidious these “convenient” technologies can become, since they also act as ways to surveil the population. It also speaks to how much control and how much targeting there is. The same technology that goes into serving you the correct ad when you are physically near a particular coffee shop can also be used by governments, and there is a lot of crossover. It has enormous impact, especially when now you can track the movements of people and also go through their financial transactions and personal messages. The other end of things is that when I visited a police station in China, all of these systems are software that is made very badly. I always think of the movie Brazil, where a fly falls into a typewriter and they have a case of mistaken identity and the wrong person is arrested. What I saw on the ground is strangely similar to the U.S., where there are small tech companies and start-ups trying to get their first big client. What better client is there than the local government? But there are all these data incongruities and issues that come with it. Both sides are terrible and equally scary.
There is also this new dimension that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the collection of physical data. Temperature checks, facial recognition, and emotion recognition are all happening, and it feels like this is the next stage of control. That is the power of political spin: it pushes the narrative that you are much safer, and primes you to accept even more technology and controls to “solve the problem.”
Data sovereignty is a prominent issue that was brought up with the Hong Kong security laws. Even if you are outside of the physical boundaries of China, you can still be prosecuted for certain things. This occurred with TikTok too. One question is where is the data stored? From a regulatory perspective, it matters if you store data in Singapore in comparison to China.
Doing internet infrastructure work in China requires having a physical CD of data which has to be kept within the country and live on the country’s data servers. It becomes very physical in that way, and so when the government considers extending regulatory control — especially in the case of Hong Kong — it becomes a nightmare for regulators and creates a lot of uncertainty.