global tech

How Technology Is Transforming the Chinese Countryside: An Interview With Xiaowei Wang

Photo: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Xiaowei Wang is a Bay Area–based designer, developer, and scholar whose work explores and connects disparate spaces like art and academia, coding and cooking, and rural Sichuan and Silicon Valley. Her current research focuses on how technology is transforming the Chinese countryside (and vice versa), and will be the subject of a forthcoming book, Tech Goes Down to the Country (recently announced as part of a special series by FSG in collaboration with Logic magazine that will be published in 2020). The narrative of China as a rising cyber-superpower is one that is increasingly central to foreign policy on both sides of the Pacific, but is all too often framed by abstract buzzwords, rather than ways that reflect the reality of 1.3 billion people. As a geographer, Wang believes that to understand China’s technology trajectory, it’s useful to take a more experimental approach and map it through the landscape and the body. Here, she elaborates on the contrasts between high tech in the Chinese and American countryside, divergent national perspectives on innovation versus stability, and the possibilities of Sinofuturist cooking.

The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

China’s rapid pace of urbanization has been a momentous story over the past decade, but more discourse is now focusing on the rural. Why is rural China crucial to the story of emergent Chinese technology?
For one, the countryside has recently become very important again in Chinese policy and rhetoric. Many Americans think that the Chinese government has a centralized vision and decades-long plans, but it doesn’t. It’s constantly changing and is very responsive to things. After a huge push to urbanize the country and grow massive city populations, it questioned the sustainability of that model. It started asking, “There are all of these hollowed-out villages, what do we do?” So it began policies for rural revitalization.

Related to this, success for Chinese start-ups doesn’t come from catering to the one percent or the 10 percent in the same way as apps in the U.S., which might target middle-class urban millennials. They need to cater to the broader public, and about half of that broader public lives in the countryside or are from the countryside. It’s interesting to think about Chinese history and see how the peasant has gone from this figure representing liberation and the soul of the nation, to being almost scoffed at during China’s urban boom, to becoming a valued demographic again.

What are some of the most interesting developments happening now in regards to big tech and the countryside?
Lately, we have seen big technology companies like Alibaba and Tencent who are exploring soft power through rural initiatives. There’s a new Alibaba rural-development strategy that looks like something that the Rockefeller Foundation would put out, and addresses questions that normally an NGO or the government might, like financial inclusion, economic livelihood programs, or literally providing discounts on fertilizer to farmers. If you imagine this in the U.S., it would be like Google deciding to focus on a couple of towns in the Midwest where they would offer Google health care and Google banks and discounts on Google fertilizer — to be purchased through Google, of course.

When you’re spending time in tiny villages in Sichuan, Shandong, or Guangdong, what type of innovations are you most surprised to observe?
I always find the advanced infrastructure to be the most shocking. For instance, observing the rural distribution centers for e-commerce. They might be very physically remote, high in the mountains, and you wonder, How can they get this bottle of shampoo that people ordered to the correct address?

On top of that, I find it incredible that there’s even internet or cell service in the mountains and extremely remote areas. As you know, living in California you can go out for a hike right in Berkeley, and there’s no cell-phone service. In China, I’ve never been anyplace without it.

Xiaowei Wang
Xiaowei Wang Photo: courtesy of Xiaowei Wang

The Silicon Valley concept of technological progress is tied to disruption, and the ethos of “move fast and break things.” Would you say there’s a different ethos and set of associations for China? And how does this relate to the countryside and agriculture?
I do think that in China, narratives of technological progress are much more tied to ideas of social stability, centralized control, and this imagined collective future.

People forget, especially in the U.S., that China’s a pretty young country. When it first started off, things were not stable, especially around food and agriculture. There was a lot of starvation, and then the Great Leap Forward, which led to famines, etc. And now when people talk about progress in China, a key mark of progress is being able to choose what you want to eat. Maintaining stability for such a large number of people really does end up driving government policy.

How does this compare to the role and reach of technology in rural America?
I feel like being in California and the Bay Area, that rural-urban divide between the two countries feels definitely more amplified. I mean, look at the contrast between the Bay and the Central Valley. Of course, when you read the history of technology writers, they love to talk about farm mechanization and how California has been at the center of it. Near Santa Cruz there is Driscoll’s, which is pioneering next-level science and technology — it’s putting berries on the blockchain.

What are your thoughts on how the rise of Chinese technology is currently covered in Western media, or generally perceived by those outside of China? It seems like there’s an intertwined Orientalism and xenophobia.
There is definitely a kind of neo-Orientalism at work, and I think the fear of China and Chinese technological development is a very convenient one for both the left and the right. From the left, China is seen as an authoritarian, repressive regime using these technologies for awful things and human-rights abuses. On the right, it’s Trump threatening a trade war. So it’s interesting that people all across the spectrum currently have this fear of China, and I think it’s ultimately tied to the anxieties that the U.S. is experiencing right now as a fragmented, declining empire … and seeing, on the other side of the world, another country emerging.

How is the development of China as a global tech superpower seen by average Chinese people? What’s the perception like on the home front?
It is definitely class related. In remote rural regions, if someone hears that I live in America, they’re very apologetic and say things like, “Oh, America is beautiful; we’re so sorry about this bathroom that is a hole in the ground. You probably don’t have that in America.” There’s still this intrinsic belief that “the foreign moon is more round” [a reference to the Chinese idiom: 外国的月亮比中国的圆]. 

Then you go to a city and wealthier urban people will say, “Yeah, I went to Europe and it was really inconvenient; I couldn’t use my apps, and I had to use cash, and everyone seemed so slow, and the food is just terrible.”

You’re working on a series of “Sinofuturist” food recipes that will be included in the book. The term Sinofuturism emerged from related concepts like Afrofuturism, but has proven somewhat controversial to define. What’s your personal definition?
I view it with positivity and optimism, and I think it’s empowering. The parallel it shares with Afrofuturism is this reimagining of a political and technological history where China wasn’t subject to colonialism, where there was a different trajectory than the Imperial powers crippling most of Asia as well as Africa. It’s also a rebuttal to the limited and inaccurate image of technology and science in the West, which only centers around the idealized Enlightenment-era man who is rational and heroic. I think it’s really exciting to rethink technology through the lens of other cultures, like that of China, where collectivity, community, and family are important.

It also counters the idea that innovation was started in the Renaissance in Europe, and shows how deep-seated invention and engineering is in Chinese history and identity. China has been one of the technological leaders of the world for thousands of years — this isn’t new.

What made you decide to create a cookbook out of this research?
Ultimately, I just wanted to make talking about Chinese technological development much more concrete for people — so to combine food, tech, and embodied experience.

When the recipe book started, I was sitting in a remote town in Inner Mongolia, going through some complicated personal stuff. We were decompressing, and the way of decompressing was just looking through an app on our phones and talking about food and all of the different things that we might or might not order. “Yeah, I would get the hot pot.” “Then I would get the frozen tofu.” “Hmm, I can’t really eat duck’s blood.” We were just doing this for hours, and it seemed like we couldn’t talk about how intense this emotional process had been, but we could offset it by looking at pictures of food on a food-ordering app. It was like, “This is how you process feelings.”

What kind of recipes will you include?
Food is the ultimate technology of the self, so this book will take the medicinal aspects of ingredients in Chinese food and amplify that.

One recipe I’ve started doing is a “hot pot divination.” I think our attraction to AI is that it gives answers that are so finite. “Yes, definitely give that person a loan,” or “No, that person is totally unreliable.” It’s a way of coping with the general uncertainty of the world.

So I see a fascinating similarity to this divination aspect that’s present in traditional fortune-telling. With hot pot, you may think, Well, you don’t know what’s at the bottom. You know, there could be some answers on the surface, but underneath there might be something entirely different.

How Technology Is Transforming Rural China