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2022-03-17 11:31:27 Voices

Residents of Guizhou, a remote, relatively impoverished province in China’s mountainous southwest, like to quip that the region “has neither three contiguous feet of flat land, nor three consecutive days without rain.” Satellite imagery bears out this joke: Nestled between mountains, Guiyang seems permanently shrouded in clouds.

Today, however, the city is perhaps better known for a different kind of cloud. Last spring, Guiyang hosted the 7th China International Big Data Expo, part of the province’s attempt to re-position itself as China’s cloud computing capital. Some 50 kilometers outside of Guiyang proper lies Gui’an New District, once an obscure township that in 2017 became the site of Apple’s first data center in Asia, operated in partnership with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data. If you register an iCloud account in China, you’ll get a notification that your data is being hosted by GCBD.

A snapshot from Google Earth showing Apple’s first data center in Asia, in Guizhou, May 2021. Courtesy of the author

A snapshot from Google Earth showing Apple’s first data center in Asia, in Guizhou, May 2021. Courtesy of the author

Apple isn’t the only tech firm building data center in Guizhou. The Gui’an New District authorities proudly trumpet data center deals with companies like Tencent, Huawei, and Qualcomm. The influx of new investment is already transforming the economy in this poor, landlocked part of the country. As we crossed through newly built tunnels and over the towering bridges that connect Guiyang with Gui’an, we passed wide roads and gleaming high-rise buildings on land that was occupied by mountain farms only a decade ago.

While the rapid pace of urbanization in China is not a new story, the scale of changes underway in Guizhou are nevertheless dramatic. Time-lapse satellite imagery shows shantytowns becoming cities, hills being levelled, and bridges and tunnels breaking down the barriers once posed by mountains and rivers. The world’s largest single-aperture spherical telescope, FAST, was built in a natural sinkhole in Pingtang County, about 150 kilometers from Guiyang. There’s something eerie about gazing down at this 500-meter behemoth through the lens of a satellite camera, as though it were looking right back at you.

Even satellite imagery can fail to capture the changes underway around Guiyang: As of late 2021, Google Earth imagery still showed the now-finished GCBD data center as a half-built complex, surrounded by dirt. Yet Guizhou’s dizzying rate of development is only one part of the story. Cities can be built overnight, but people move far more slowly.

Mr. Wu poses for a photo, 2021. Courtesy of Zhang Wenxin

Mr. Wu poses for a photo, 2021. Courtesy of Zhang Wenxin

Visitors to Guizhou tend to see in its karst landscapes as either geological wonders to appreciate or obstacles to modernization; they rarely consider their connection to the present and their impact on the identity of those who call the province home. Now in their sixties, the Wu brothers know every nook and cranny of the maze-like cluster of karst caves that wind between the valleys of their home on the banks of the Getu River, their internal compasses honed by childhoods spent exploring. “None of it has really changed,” they told us as they casually pried open a raised stalagmite to reveal the pink rock inside.

There’s something eerie about gazing down at this 500-meter behemoth through the lens of a satellite camera, as though it were looking right back at you.

These rocky outcrops and the caves they conceal are trademarks of Guizhou’s karst forest landscape. An inland plateau once home to a vast ocean, crustal movements caused tectonic plates to rise and fall, and the seas gradually receded to reveal flatlands and mountain ranges dotted with caverns, sinkholes, waterfalls, and underground rivers.

In 2021, a geologist passing through Guiyang’s Longdongbao Airport was surprised to discover that the stone used in the airport bathroom contained shellfish fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years. That same stone, dotted with fossils testifying to Guizhou’s distant past, is used in construction projects across the province.

Reports on Guizhou’s big data boom tend to highlight the ways FAST and the province’s data centers are harnessing the region’s unique geology, nestling themselves into caves and valleys to lower energy and building costs. Tencent’s soon-to-be-completed Seven Star Data Center embodies this design aesthetic. The company hollowed out an entire hill for its data hub, taking advantage of the province’s temperate climate and vast underground spaces to keep its servers cooler economically.

But not all companies have sought to localize their operations to such a degree. Not far from Tencent’s data center, Huawei has built a campus in its preferred European kitsch style. Designed to resemble a European town, its buildings feature Romanesque carvings and other trappings of Western architecture, with only a few superficial nods to the surrounding environment like an artificial river modeled on the province’s numerous waterways. The nearby Apple data center is likewise a reflection of that company’s aesthetic, rather than local conditions. A flat, clean, minimalist white cube, it sticks out among the surrounding karst formations.

A view of the Huawei campus in Guizhou province, 2021. Courtesy of the author

A view of the Huawei campus in Guizhou province, 2021. Courtesy of the author

The degree to which tech companies are localizing their operations also remains limited. This February, the Chinese government officially launched its “data in the east, computing in the west” initiative, or dongshu xisuan. The idea is to leverage the rich natural resources of the west — cheap land, abundant hydropower, and naturally cooler temperatures — to process the vast quantities of data generated in the country’s more densely populated coastal regions. Guizhou, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia are expected to serve as the project’s backbone, but to date, most data-related jobs in these areas are concentrated in low-end fields like data cleaning.

Similarly, despite the vast quantities of data collected by the FAST telescope, there is little sign Guizhou will become a center of astronomical research anytime soon. Most FAST data is instead sent on for analysis to research institutions in Beijing and around the world.

Guizhou is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in China. A handful of Miao women in traditional garb do the cleaning and sweeping at an under-construction data center in Gui’an. At the end of the day, they can be seen embroidering cloth with traditional patterns. Their relatives back in their villages are now getting used to solar streetlights and lifestyle apps run by GCBD.

A view of the Tencent campus in Guizhou province, 2021. Courtesy of the author

A view of the Tencent campus in Guizhou province, 2021. Courtesy of the author

There are some potential upsides to Guizhou’s marginalization. Over the course of our trip, we encountered a young college graduate of the Miao ethnic group who told us he works in the Guiyang branch of a leading technology company. Although his employer continues to base its core business and R&D work in first-tier cities, Guizhou’s relative unimportance afforded him more time and space to pursue his own interests. He believes that artificial intelligence should not be developed to imitate humans. He spends his free time playing around with AI and writing a science fiction novel about big data surveillance.

This is not the first time China has sought to modernize Guizhou. During the country’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), the inland province was a fortress of sorts, as military enterprises, universities, refugees, and even cultural relics were relocated from the occupied coast to the relative security of the mountains. In the 1960s, as China faced the specter of war with the Soviet Union and the United States, Guizhou became a center of the “Third Front,” Mao Zedong’s attempt to relocate vital defense and industrial projects to the relative safety of the country’s interior.

While documenting the province’s big data centers, we came across the site of a shuttered former Third Front manufacturing plant. There, we found bumper cars parked where aircraft engines were once made, another sign that time — and development — are not always as linear as we might think.

Iris Long also contributed to this article.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A snapshot from Google Earth showing the FAST site in Guizhou, May 2021. Courtesy of the author)