Digital divide widens in China

Two-thirds of rural Internet users go online via mobile phone Copyright: Flickrspoonymushroom

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[BEIJING] Despite recent rises in Internet use, a wide digital divide still separates rural and urban China, according to a new report.

The ‘Survey Report on Internet Development in Rural China 2009’, published by the China Internet Network Information Center last month (April), is the fourth such annual report. It surveyed people using the Internet in homes, offices, cafes and on mobile phones.

The survey found more than 106 million rural people now use the Internet — up by a quarter on the previous year.

But just 15 per cent of rural Chinese are using the Internet compared with 45 per cent in cities. In 2007, the figures were five and 22 per cent respectively. So, although internet use has risen, the gap has widened from 17 to 30 per cent.

The report found that a lack of knowledge about the Internet, insufficient infrastructure and high costs are the three main obstacles to its spread in rural China. It suggests that the economic gap is the main barrier.

Economic factors certainly affect how rural people access the Internet. Two-thirds of rural ‘netizens’ use mobile phones to go online. That is up 20 per cent since 2008. Mobile phones are more affordable than desktop and laptop computers, and a new 3G network in China has made mobile Internet access more convenient, the report says.

But it is not only the economic gap causing the digital divide, says Guo Liang, researcher with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing — the Chinese partner of the World Internet Project. He pointed to online content, telling SciDev.Net: "Current services on the Internet are mostly designed for urban netizens".

Guo said that Internet use in rural China — where people go online mainly for entertainment — is still in its early development.

"In the long term, there will be a bigger demand in rural areas on information services that directly influence rural production," Guo said. "This is different from the urban pattern." According to the report, 83 per cent of rural netizens access music and 70 per cent play online games. These figures are similar to those for urban usage. 

But in more practical applications, rural areas lag. For example, almost twice as many urban netizens use the Internet for online shopping  as do rural users.

"In big cities of China, the development of the Internet is almost saturated, but in rural areas there is still great potential," said Guo.

Link to full report ‘Survey Report on Internet Development in Rural China 2009[1.01MB](Chinese only)