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Social Justice Tourism

A tech travelogue set in rural China obfuscates material conditions

Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang. FSG Originals x Logic, 256 pages.

The joke was on me when halfway through Logic creative director Xiaowei Wang’s tech memoir Blockchain Chicken Farm, I came across a Shenzhen-based genomic company that had pioneered a sustainable, space-saving way of using genetically modified soybeans for data storage and for a second, believed it to be real. After all, Blockchain Chicken Farm had so far taken me to the titular farm in Guiyang and shown me how big data could train AI farmers and optimize pig-raising. Soybean DNA data storage is exactly the kind of lawlessly futuristic innovation that’s on brand for both blockchain-chicken China and Silicon Valley, which confuses gimmicks with progress and routinely invites snark like “start-up company idea: book rentals for people who want to read without buying books. I would pay $5 to rent a couple books a month.”

But I was also confused because in Wang’s account of their journey in China, unless you know better, there is very little solid ground on which to parse inferences from speculations, facts from generalizations. Blockchain Chicken Farm is, in Wang’s words, an attempt to “[look] at technology in rural China” in order to “confront the scarier question that technology poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now?” Unlikely juxtapositions can appear at any moment, because that’s the kind of whimsical place that rural China on the verge of urbanization is. In Wang’s telling, technology has transformed the countryside, thanks to a rush of big tech investment in response to authoritarian leader Xi Jinping’s Rural Revitalization Strategy, put forward in 2017. (Wang’s research suggests most of the book takes place between 2016 and 2018, but it is unclear how much time they spent in China in total.) Tech companies like NetEase and Alibaba took advantage of the central government’s goal of launching digital agriculture programs in the countryside, “as if Google decided to turn itself into a branch of the United Nations, or as if Amazon decided it suddenly wanted to offer assistance to an Appalachian coal-mining town by helping its citizens start candy businesses and giving them Amazon-backed loans.” The analogy, while catchy, ultimately frames the myopia of Wang’s understanding of China outside of its familiar big cities. The core of Blockchain Chicken Farm fractures as Wang spins further and further away from engaging with specificity and the material reality of the transformation taking place.

The superficiality of Wang’s approach is enraging because this transformation is a source of legitimate fascination and study, one that confronts the most urgent, global aspects of our relationship to labor, technology, capitalism, and government today. Uber wants to be more like Amazon; Amazon is acting more and more like Chinese delivery and service platforms such as Meituan; Meituan wants to be more like a bank. Technology has not only changed the fabric of urban-rural economy in China, but also the texture of life itself. Wang, a techno-optimist at heart, believes that there must be crucial ways to reorient the vestiges of a Cold War moral binary in service of a more decentralized definition of innovation and a more inclusive and equitable tech industry that will lead to a better world.

Technology has not only changed the fabric of urban-rural economy in China, but also the texture of life itself.

In triangulating between tech reportage, memoir, and speculative fiction, Blockchain Chicken Farm’s experiment in form is partly to blame for the naivety of Wang’s conclusions. With no discernible itinerary, chapters shuttle erratically across the country and occasionally back to Wang’s home in the Bay Area, sacrificing logistical coherence for thematically adjacent episodes, or profiles on a range of farm workers, app users, and tech companies they sought out with impassioned curiosity. It is this same passion that ends up preventing Wang from repairing their blind spots. Wang was initially attracted to the Chinese countryside to correct their so-called “metronormativity,” a notion they borrow from queer theorist Jack Halberstam that originally described the mythical queer migration pattern, from life in the stereotypically backwards and intolerant rural to becoming happy and liberated in cities. Wang believes “our ability to confront metronormativity will determine our shared future. We are intertwined across cities, villages, and national boundaries, bound by material circumstances.” Wang wants readers to stop centering their urban selves in the grand history of social change in the twenty-first century, but this fictive urban self is premised on an arbitrary transpacific assumption, one that, in effect, frames a dichotomy between “urban” America and “rural” China. Wang’s benchmark for urbanity consists mostly of everyday tech use, so that it forms a neat punchline when, for example, the farmer at the blockchain chicken farm can’t answer what blockchain is when asked.

Wang seeks to challenge the West’s privileging of the cool, skyscraping parts of China—as well as Silicon Valley’s obsession with scale and efficiency—by revealing how apps, software, and elusive digital infrastructures are entangled with the lives of a population usually relegated to the periphery of Sino-American narratives. But this periphery is premised on another false urban-rural binary. In reality, “the rural” in China is never far away—many urbanites in first-tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai have parents in the villages; migrant labor constantly reconfigures the borders of urbanization. In its attempt to distance itself from the genre of China books that have dragons on their red covers, and to (wisely) skirt around the touchy identity politics of writing as an American rather than an Asian American, Blockchain Chicken Farm ends up falling into a trap of its own making.

To be fair, in the current climate of Sino-American discourse, the chances of literary survival are slim. Criticism of China has a tendency to start from convenient caricatures or to make facile connections to history (e.g., the propensity to trace every idea back to Confucianism or “Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China . . . ”). Humanize Chinese subjects and you risk being labeled a CCP sympathizer; come to the globalist conclusion that to each imperialist power their own complicity and land in the vicinity of whataboutism. This is not to say that ethnography in modern China is impossible, but that it requires more discernment and more honesty about your intentions than ever. The stakes of journalistic encounters in a closed world are high.

Wang doesn’t need be a rural policy expert to write what is essentially an Eat, Pray, AI memoir, but taking on a subject as historically contentious as the “Chinese rural” requires at least a baseline level of contextualization. While the “countryside” can be a distinct place with particular geographical features, “the rural” has always been a political fiction. At the outset of the book, it is unclear how Wang defines “the rural,” or how they distinguish between farmers, rural populations, peasants, or any number of terms. A Wired interview betrays Wang’s lack of interest in making these distinctions: “There were a lot of places and encounters that didn’t make it into the book because they had already become frictionless, linear, subsumed seamlessly into global capitalism . . . I also visited countless other villages, centered around both tourism and e-commerce, where their economic development plans had been well thought through and weren’t drastically different than a lot of places throughout North America and Europe.” By analogizing the Chinese rural’s place in the global capitalist economy this way, Wang ends up mirroring the tendency of venture capitalists to break down material conditions into conceptual parts, seeing lowest common denominators in lieu of crucial differences. It is also remarkable that subsidies, a foundational aspect of China’s current rural policy and a main stickler in the 2018 U.S.-China trade war, are omitted from any discussion about the economic development of the “rural” areas to which Wang traveled.

Instead, they romanticize the Chinese peasantry as heirs of a poetic, eternal-present cosmology that could inspire change in a progress-anxious American society. This would not be so offensive if peasants, or rural household account holders, were not de facto second-class citizens in their own country. The two-tier household registration system, introduced in the 1950s, separated the population into agricultural (rural) and non-agricultural (urban) hukou, partly to control domestic migration and prevent urban unrest, at least at first. Without going into a full etymology—it would’ve been so useful if Wang had included the history that I am now compelled to outline—we can trace the current policy usage of “the rural,” the one Wang claims as a legacy of collectivization, to the “reform and opening up” era of the 1980s and ’90s that eventually led to the sannong crises by the end of the latter decade.

In this period, rural labor became subservient to the expanding, export-driven economy in coastal cities; rural income declined as rural populations abandoned farming for urban industries; and villages struggled with public debt as peasants were burdened by taxes without governmental relief. Later, the agrarian capitalism introduced by former president Hu Jintao’s “new socialist countryside” did little to lessen urban-rural wealth disparities and nothing to slow intra-rural inequality. Under Xi, the double-edged sword of poverty alleviation has become both an economic imperative and a source of legitimacy for his rule. In short, poor and disenfranchised, it really, really, sucks to be a peasant in China. No amount of digital farming investment from Alibaba AI lab will translate into political empowerment, except as increased income that funnels back into the consumption cycles and labor exploitation that these tech giants engineer and own (such as the annual Double 11 Shopping Festival and its leviathan logistics industry).

So, without corresponding data or analysis, it is immediately suspicious to read unqualified inferences like “as China is a country built on experiments, Rural Revitalization just might succeed in creating sustainable growth in the countryside.” (Do we believe—what kind of numbers matter—when China declared last November that “extreme poverty has been eliminated nationwide”?) By flattening the dynamic urban-rural flow into an abstract, timeless rural, Wang unwittingly follows their instincts toward a strategic essentialism similar to the one that the Chinese government has used to mobilize the peasantry in its neoliberalization agenda (as many scholars on rural China have pointed out). It reads as disingenuous to report on tech’s impact in the Chinese countryside and ask what could Silicon Valley learn from these transformations without at least acknowledging the historical context of the top-down state policies that have made China’s “futurist” innovations possible, or asking what material conditions Silicon Valley and tech China have in common—hint: gig workers; monopolies—that could make such a comparative project meaningful as more than just a brochure of politically trendy ideas.

One innovation model that Wang becomes zealously, philosophically invested in is the second-degree production phenomenon known as shanzhai. But I am not sure if Wang understands what shanzhai means (they refer to “shanzhai Godard movies” to mean bootleg DVDs, when shanzhai Breathless would really be a cheap remake of the movie itself), or if they are conscious of the irony of appropriating shanzhai as a catch-all term for the spirit of open-source manufacturing and development when the collaborative, experimental model that evolved from knockoff phones and handbags was already declared post-shanzhai by the early 2010s, the first decade after China entered WTO and the government began intellectual property rights reforms that included crackdowns and a national branding campaign, “From Made in China to Created in China” (as Fan Yang analyzes at length in Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization). You could say Wang has shanzhai’d the term shanzhai, since cheap, anarchic re-contextualizing does lie at its heart.

Finding creative expression in the labor of a precarious class of enterprising migrant workers without taking their circumstances into account feels like a form of literary colonialism.

Repurposing the notion for 2020 Silicon Valley, shanzhai represents for Wang the potential to “decolonize technology” from tech’s elite: “I 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 centralize authority. To turn back the worship of scale and renew our commitments to care.” While the sentiment is a valuable attempt to radically shift our thinking about intellectual property, finding creative expression in the labor of a precarious class of enterprising migrant workers without taking their circumstances into account feels like a form of literary colonialism. What might have been added by Wang having a conversation about “commitments to care” with someone who works eighteen-hour days in a shanzhai parts factory?

This lack of rigor limits Wang’s credibility as a correspondent. Hopping from village to village and dropping into tech company offices for interviews, their encounters follow a pattern of I am now here in X, meeting with Y, to find out more about Z. Sometimes Wang gives the impression of parroting what they were told without any pushback. In one chapter featuring a rice-farming cooperative, their report sounds like a narrativized PR deck. In another episode, where Wang follows controversial celebrity cyborg Naomi Wu around, the tone is either one-dimensional awe or asynchronous reflection. “How often is it that a person of color is said to be innovating?” Wang asks, as if they see a person of color when they see a Chinese cyborg in China. This passage could be summed up by an Asian American quip on Twitter: “me in china: wow everyone here has an asian gf.”

It is as if Wang is constantly conceptually short-circuiting, unable to follow up with what is in front of them without harking back to a reference point in the States—a mode not uncommon in tech literature, in which the value of any page is measured by the actionable insights it contains. Still, Wang is aware of their outsider privileges as an American traveler, at least as far as the exceptional treatment they receive in China and how the role of the observer-traveler limits the extent of their immediate moral responsibilities (they frequently “stare” and “watch”). In an early visit to Tianjin, listening to their grandmother recount growing up in pre-Communist China, Wang is quick to conclude that “the past confronted my grandmother constantly in the way she was unable to tell her personal stories without talking about political events”—an ironic observation considering that Wang went on to write an entire book based on their personal experience without talking about political events.

A few chapters later, set a few years back in time, during the middle of a trip with a friend, an Inner Mongolian ex-convict, Wang looks at their own “Han Chinese American expat, Harvard educated, dutiful American citizen and taxpayer” identity and writes, “it is easy to feel guilty about privilege when it is in the abstract. Instead, I looked at him and took his hand.” But there is nothing abstract about the freedom of movement afforded by an American passport in China (pre-coronavirus pandemic), in glaring contrast to the surveilled existence of a local ex-convict from a suppressed ethnic minority group, who could probably never leave the country or enjoy any number of state welfare programs.

Perhaps sensing a dead-end in the depravation of such inequality, Wang leaps from this moment of connection into a meditation on surveillance:

Surveillance. . . is in fact deeply tied to race, ethnicity, and white supremacist constructions of criminality. Just as platforms off-load risk onto gig economy workers, unchecked capitalism creates economic inequality and off-loads the risks and fears onto us all . . . As the activist Tawana Petty puts it, it’s recognizing the difference between “safety” and “security.” This work is deeply tied to transformative justice and the work of prison abolition. Until we do this work, we will not be able to move past surveillance as normalized activity and we will not be able to adequately advocate for the right to privacy for all.

It is possible that there is more to Wang’s Inner Mongolian friend’s life story that might inspire an impassioned soliloquy ending in a vague rallying cry for universal freedom and justice, and that they have omitted the details of the story to protect him. But then why include the anecdote at all, except to expose the shortcomings of treating the suffering of disenfranchised others as an abstraction itself? Even if we accept Wang’s criticism of global capitalist carceral systems, to assert that surveillance is deeply tied to “white supremacist constructions of criminality” while neglecting the Chinese government’s own surveillance tradition, and without invoking the surveillance state in Xinjiang, is amnesiac. It seems especially trite to report from the hinterland of China only to arrive at what any recent liberal making Instagram slideshows can tell us.

In defense of omitting Xinjiang from Blockchain Chicken Farm, Wang explained in a podcast interview, “Well, one, to actually honor everything that’s going on, I am not a Xinjiang scholar. I want to let someone who is an expert talk about this. But two, people will just be like, yeah, Xinjiang genocide, police state, and then they’re also in the U.S., just totally fine with the police state here.” In the book’s preface, Wang’s disclaimer warns that mentioning particular tech companies in the book does not equal endorsement. Why should the same not apply to political events? If the manuscript managed to include Covid-19 and the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, why introduce Xinjiang cryptically as “a tumultuous part of the country that is responsible for 84 percent of China’s cotton production”—especially while feeling at somewhat tentative liberty to predict the success of Rural Revitalization elsewhere in the book, when part of Xi’s poverty alleviation strategy includes forced labor in Xinjiang? Instead of encouraging their readers to “critically engage with the work of scholars and journalists in order to understand the role that tech companies play in maintaining racial capitalism worldwide,” why not critically engage with this role in the book itself?

It seems especially trite to report from the hinterland of China only to arrive at what any recent liberal making Instagram slideshows can tell us.

A gimmicky project that hinges on gimmicky Sino-American projections, Blockchain Chicken Farm exemplifies symptoms that might cohere into a genre if we are not careful: social justice tourism. Similar to its predecessor eco-tourism, social justice tourism is pseudo-ethnography that selectively uses its destination as a conceptual shortcut in order to legitimize cosmopolitan interests at home, without historicizing any actual connections between the two locales. The book is a journey that begins with becoming an accidental other (“surrounded by dozens of pin-size black worms . . . in a small village in southern China, at the border of Jiangxi and Guangdong”) and ends with a Eureka moment about “undertaking the work that must be done” while sitting on “a quiet terrace bar in Hong Kong as dusk falls,” where “the city has become a world of strange contrasts, with riot police standing guard outside cosmetic stores as people buy mascara . . . the tropical air smells faintly sweet, laden with the figures of Hong Kong’s colonial past and the decline of empire.” (Which figures? What decline, of which empire?) The quest to dismantle “metronormativity” ends up stuck on the urbanite pedestal where it began.

Wang’s work finally indicts itself when we take up Sianne Ngai’s reading of the gimmick as a formally impoverished object with a false claim to value: “always dubious if never entirely unappealing . . . fundamentally gratuitous yet strangely essential . . . capitalism’s most successful aesthetic category.” As tech reportage, Blockchain Chicken Farm leaves much to be desired in its explanation of how tech has changed rural China in ways that matter to Wang’s leftist politics; as memoir, it fails to convince readers that the dynamic life forces in rural China have guided any of Wang’s thinking, so much as simply confirmed their biased hypotheses about techno-optimist futurity. And as speculative manifesto—well, imagine insisting on going all the way to China to write Sinofuturist fiction about Silicon Valley. The journey—built on analogies as intellectual labor-saving shortcuts—becomes an ur-capitalist project, in which the investment in an optimistic future is based on an ahistorical evocation of the present. In the end, the suspicion that reading Blockchain Chicken Farm activates is not so unlike the post-shanzhai tech innovation that Wang is so enamored with. Instead of rationalizing the rhetoric of community and care by reaching for a foreign concept that never needed to be reclaimed in the first place, wouldn’t it be better praxis to just by drop-shipped shanzhai merch from a friend’s Shanzhai store, where all profits go to RISE: “the first refugee and asylum seeker organization in Australia run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees”? At the very least, it’d be funny.