China's commitment to a strong ICT network benefits both investors and rural comunities, say Cheng Donghong and Jia Hepeng.
A much higher proportion of people in China use information communication technologies (ICTs) than in any other developing country with a similar per capita income — the country is home to an estimated 338 million Internet users.
This is partly due to China's strong economic growth over the past 30 years, which has created more social wealth and higher disposable incomes, leading to stronger demand for ICTs.
Another factor has been the growth in large-scale manufacturing, which has lowered production costs and made ICTs increasingly affordable to broader populations.
But is this growth in ICT use serving development goals, or is it merely lining corporate pockets?
A rich harvest
Balancing these outcomes is a serious challenge for policymakers. But the two are not wholly incompatible.
For example, investing in ICT infrastructure in remote regions will almost certainly generate little profit at first, but can bring greater financial returns in the longer term.
China Mobile, the country's largest telecommunications operator, has invested heavily in rural areas. The company claims that more than half of its new users since 2007 are in rural areas, even though the per capita income in these regions is only a third of that in cities.
The development of rural areas that results from being better connected and better informed also brings long-lasting financial returns.
In the rural Ningxia Autonomous Region, for example, telecoms operators and ICT companies have joined forces with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) in setting up a centre to provide online information, text messaging services and ICT training for poor rural farmers.
So far the project has trained about 170,000 farmers to use the Internet. And since mid-2007, farmers in the region's Pingluo County have used the centre to sell produce worth an estimated 230 million yuan (US$34 million).
By providing economically valuable and relevant information on agricultural technologies and markets, the operators have secured growth in the use of their services and created sustainable returns.
But we cannot rely on economic factors alone to fulfil developmental objectives. In China, the strong government and its firm commitment to promoting social development are also crucial.
Many Chinese telecoms corporations are owned by the state, and ICT companies are strongly influenced by government attitudes. This puts the government in a strong position to establish ICT projects that provide social services and promote social development.
It has already achieved much in this arena. The government's Village-to-Village project, launched in the early 1990s, has extended television, telephone — both landline and mobile — and Internet connections to rural areas. By 2010, more than 716,000 villages will have access to satellite TV signals.
The project is not particularly profitable — for example, the network in Inner Mongolia is worth less in financial terms than the network in Beijing, despite being hundreds of times bigger. But the government's influence means that companies have been keen to get involved.
Of course, there are disadvantages to such a centralised system too.
The most notable drawback is that there is little incentive to link to local communities. This can lead to the provision of training or technical support where it is not needed or the introduction of farming technologies that are inappropriate to local conditions.
But there are clear signs that the situation is improving.
The Safety and Mutual Help Network, for example, is an emergency service for rural areas that represents a new form of partnership between industry and local communities.
The network was established when rural communities in Shandong Province asked for a security service because many young people were leaving to work in cities, and the old and weak left behind became vulnerable to attack, robbery and accident.
The telecoms company China Unicom responded by connecting every telephone line to the public loudspeaker in the village broadcasting station so that in an emergency anyone can quickly send out an SOS message to the whole community. Nearly seven million people across China are now signed up to the project.
Social organisations such as CAST are also increasingly helping rural communities.
For example, local CAST branches have established instant-messaging links that allow farmers and experts to communicate efficiently on agricultural, technological and production issues. They have also developed an online chat room for both sides to exchange their experience and expertise.
In one rural suburb of Dalian city, the local CAST branch helped 2,000 farmers develop mushroom farming — increasing their income by US$2.9 million — through online video training and chat rooms.
Chinese ICT companies are also beginning to work more closely with local organisations overseas. For example, the Chinese telecom manufacturer Huawei sponsored Bangladesh's entire delegation, including academics and members of local civil organisations, to attend the World Congress on ICT for Development held in Beijing in September so they could learn from China's experience.
By working more closely with end-users and community organisations, Chinese ICT companies are ensuring that its rapidly expanding ICT networks deliver real developmental benefits.
Cheng Donghong is the executive secretary of China Association for Science and Technology.
Jia Hepeng is editor-in-chief of Science News Bi-Weekly and former China coordinator for SciDev.Net.