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2018-07-24 07:23:49 Commentary

The landscape of northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is dominated by rolling hills and arid plains. As part of the Chinese government’s ambitious plans to develop the country’s far western regions, this rugged province is central to the future of China’s agriculture and cloud computing industries. To see the scope of these changes for myself, I headed three hours southwest of the provincial capital of Yinchuan to the prefecture-level city of Zhongwei, which ambitious local officials are trying to turn into a desert agricultural hub.

Zhongwei has undergone a radical transformation over the past few years. On the agricultural front, a breed of melon grown from packed gravel — known as xisha — has revitalized the region’s agricultural economy. Meanwhile, not far from the crumbling earthen remains of the Great Wall, the government is building a new “Great Green Wall,” designed to combat desertification by transforming sand dunes into orchards of apples, goji berries, and other cash crops. But Zhongwei officials are also looking beyond agriculture and banking on a high tech revolution to turn this small prefecture into a world-class cloud computing hub, crowned by a newly opened Amazon Web Services data center.

The early economic returns seem promising. According to official figures, in 2017 the local GDP hit 37.4 billion yuan ($5.6 billion) — up from 28.6 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) in 2013. New policies and top-down directives are helping to revamp Ningxia from a rural backwater into a forward-looking province. But questions remain about the region’s ability to attract and retain local talent. Curious about the kinds of opportunities available to the area’s residents thanks to the city’s grand plans, I decided to take a closer look.

Ningxia is a key part of President Xi Jinping’s “Go West” development campaign — a vast infrastructure program designed to redistribute economic wealth to the country’s long-impoverished hinterland. Over the past 10 years, agriculture in both Zhongwei and Ningxia as a whole has been transformed, thanks to a focus on new cash crops and concerted government efforts to reclaim desert wasteland for agricultural use.

One of the most notable changes in recent years has been the gradual development of xisha melons — essentially a special type of watermelon — by farmers who were experimenting with growing practices in the area’s harsh landscape. Locals claim that xisha melons are much sweeter and richer in selenium — ostensibly a cancer-fighting antioxidant — than traditional watermelons.

In 2008, demand for xisha melons exploded after they were featured in promotions during the Beijing Olympic Games. Soon more farmers began planting xisha, and by 2015, 14,000 acres of Zhongwei farmland was devoted to their cultivation. Profits soon followed. According to a Ningxia news report, in 2015 the average melon growing farmer was earning more than 2,000 yuan from melon sales, and people were calling them “golden melons.” Today, xisha melons are sold across China and around the world, complete with a QR code production tracking system for quality assurance — an initiative organized by the local government. According to one local, “[after 2008] every household in our village could afford to build their own brick house.”

Only when the region’s goals align with those of its young people will it truly be able to achieve its lofty ambitions.

The regional government has lauded the success of this local specialty as a testament to the transformative power of domestic innovation. Yet while xisha melons may have been a boon to the livelihoods of farmers as well as to the local economy, years of planting them has depleted the soil of vital nutrients, calling into question the sustainability of the growth they have fostered. Some villages have started to move on to planting other local specialty crops like goji berries and jujube trees instead, which are better suited to arid, sparse soils. This switch indicates a growing awareness both of the need for sustainable farming methods and of the limitations of rapid economic development schemes.

As large-scale farms take root at the reclaimed edges of the desert, local cattle ranches and orchards are being redesigned in line with eco-friendly principles. Large agricultural companies — most buoyed by government subsidies — have started setting up operations in Zhongwei. One such firm — Ningxia Xiangyan Industrial Group — reportedly grows over 12,000 tons of apples a year and operates a large American-style cattle ranch on 2,000 acres of reclaimed desert. There, recovered farmland is used to grow alfalfa, which is then harvested as cattle feed. The wastewater and organic waste from the cattle is treated and turned into fertilizer, keeping the land fertile and the desert at bay.

Yet, despite Zhongwei’s attempts to build a sustainable, modern agricultural industry, local youths remain unconvinced about the prospects of both agriculture and Zhongwei itself. While China’s 19th National People’s Congress pledged to create opportunities for youths looking to return to their hometowns, the reality is that few young people are interested in such a life — at least in Zhongwei. None of the 18 to 20 year old students I spoke with had plans to work in agriculture, and most expressed a desire to leave Zhongwei. Local college student Shi Yitai hopes his degree will allow him to escape the countryside for life in a big coastal city. “I know growing xisha has made our village moderately prosperous, but my generation won’t be growing melons,” he said.

In a bid to upgrade and diversify the local economy beyond agriculture, in 2013, Zhongwei’s mayor Wan Xinheng announced a grand plan to transform the city into a cloud computing hub. To this end, Wan helped establish the Ningxia Zhongguancun Tech Park in the middle of Zhongwei. A quadrangle of sleek new office buildings, the complex doubles as the newly established grounds for Ningxia University’s Zhongwei campus. Although adorned with a handful of high tech company logos, the offices themselves remain largely empty, with one exception: A thriving call center occupies nearly half a floor of the building and is full of hundreds of call operators.

In the building next door, Ningxia University students discuss their concerns about an increasingly competitive job market. “Few companies come to our school looking to hire,” said third-year e-commerce student Zhao Wenyang. “Last year there was one — the call center.” At this, the students laugh sarcastically, before Zhao proclaimed loudly, “We didn’t go to college to work at a call center.”

A visit to an area known as Western Cloud Base, located outside of Zhongwei, brought me to a 600-acre encampment of rectangular data centers — many still under construction. A large monument proudly proclaims the campus’ mission statement: “Creating low-cost, energy-efficient cloud computing infrastructure.” While there, I visited the model data center for the Chinese tech company Qihoo 360, fully integrated with an expensive self-cooling natural ventillation system. Yet the building employs only a handful of staff to monitor the server rooms. Many companies have chosen to keep their tech staff in China’s larger cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai. When I asked Yang Fan — a computer science student at Ningxia University hoping to find a job in the tech industry — whether he thought Zhongwei’s cloud computing push could help him find a job, he replied, “They don’t hire students like us … they only want security guards.”

The rapid, state-subsidized development of Zhongwei and Ningxia as a whole has indeed led to economic gains. But the campaign’s goals are not entirely aligned with the hopes and dreams of the next generation. While much progress has been made on the agricultural front — and the local cloud computing industry is growing — neither industry has much to offer local educated youths. As a result, most local students are faced with a dilemma: They have no desire to take up agriculture or similar work, but they remain excluded from many high-paying tech jobs.

This mismatch between local government policy and the desires of young people is not unheard of in China, and local policymakers should do more to listen to the opinions of young Chinese and foster the types of opportunities they are looking for. Government-led initiatives are indeed successfully transforming the economic landscape of Ningxia, but only when the region’s goals align with those of its young people will it truly be able to achieve its lofty ambitions.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell

This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.

(Header image: A man climbs a hill in a scenic area in Zhongwei, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, March 15, 2008. VCG)