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Southwest Chinese Province Is Now Leading China's Tech Ambitions


Cities throughout the world see the tech industry as the key to their future, including cities in China. Many Chinese cities are trying to move from manufacturing into high-tech and service industries, and that has created an opportunity for one of China's poorest provinces, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported when he visited last year.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Every year for the past three years, southwest China's Guizhou province has put on a huge international expo to highlight its new role as a big data hub. Dell, Qualcomm and other tech firms have booths here. Guizhou is landlocked and mountainous, and its economy ranks 25th out of 31 Chinese provinces. But it picked big data to make the most of certain natural advantages.

RAY CHAN: (Through interpreter) It's blessed with a special climate. The average annual temperature here is only 59 Fahrenheit.

KUHN: That's Ray Chan, in charge of big data projects for Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics company that makes iPhones, Kindles, PlayStations and other gadgets in China. He says big data is the key to Foxconn's strategy to upgrade its business.

RAY: (Through interpreter) We got our start in manufacturing, but we're actually transforming ourselves into a service company.

KUHN: As a matter of fact, China's government wants all of China's industries to upgrade with the help of new technologies such as cloud computing, networked appliances and eventually artificial intelligence. That requires analyzing huge amounts of data to make companies more efficient and storing that data on servers. And that's where Guizhou's climate comes in. There's a cutting-edge example of it about an hour outside the provincial capital.


KUHN: So here I am at the Foxconn Green Tunnel Data Center. What they've done is, they've set up a sort of wind tunnel in the space between two mountains. And in the tunnel, they've got 6,000 data servers, and the wind flows through this tunnel at about 2 to 3 meters per second. It saves them a lot of money on electricity and cooling costs.


KUHN: Companies in Guizhou are not just collecting big data on businesses, they're collecting it on people in order to improve urban services and education. Xia Yiping is co-founder of the bike sharing firm Mobike. Riders use a smartphone app to locate and unlock their bikes, which are equipped with tracking devices. Xia says all this generates a lot of useful data.

XIA YIPING: So we use this data to improve our product experience, and secondly, we use the data to dispatch, redistribute the bicycle based on the user requirements.

KUHN: But privacy advocates are concerned that the rise of big data could empower Big Brother. So I ask Xia Yiping.

Are you worried that big data could make it easier to have too much surveillance of citizens?

XIA: I think it's (unintelligible) actually realize that. And, actually, they're drafting a lot of the legislations around that to protect our private information.

KUHN: China's new cybersecurity law bans companies from selling users' personal data to third parties. Chen Gang is the Communist Party secretary of the provincial capital, Guiyang. He says big data has not only fired up the city's economy but also kept its environment clean and its society orderly.

CHEN YANG: (Through interpreter) Through the use of big data, there's been an obvious improvement in public safety. We've protected the good guys and punished the criminal elements.

KUHN: That big data, he adds, comes from an abundance of surveillance cameras on the city's streets.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting last year from the Chinese city of Guiyang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.