United or Divided by the Internet? The Annual Report on Chinese Internet Usage (2012)

Last month, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) published its annual report on Internet usage in China for the year 2012. It reports a total number of 564 million users. This means that 42% of the Chinese population are by now using the Internet – up from 8.5% in 2005.

The mere number of webpages is stunning: there are almost 123 million pages by the end of 2012, which is an increase by 42% only between 2011 and 2012.

The report also provides some information on the occupational background of users. Most of them are students (30.2% for urban, 25.1% for rural areas), followed by self-employed persons (16% and 18.1%.), and employees (9.9% and 10.1%). Expectedly, government cadres (0.7% and 0.5%) constitute the lowest share. Even if they are encouraged, in a 2006-2020 government strategy paper, to engage in informatization, cadres will of course not be able to outnumber the vast numbers of other users.

The great majority of users access the Internet at home (91.7%); only 22.4% use the Internet in cafés or bars. This can be seen as in line with government policies, which aim for more control of users. (In private homes, individuals can only rent bandwidth from state-owned entities and are thus easier to control.) Crackdowns on Internet cafés used to be frequent but have recently not been in the news so much anymore.

The majority of Internet users, in terms of user accounts, make use of messaging tools, search engines, and music websites. Over 66% use it for blogs and social networking platforms (such as QQ, the Chinese ‘facebook’). Almost 55% use the Internet for micro-blogging (the reports mentions 309 million accounts, which is probably too moderate; see Marina’s earlier post on Chinese micro-blogging). The number of user accounts have increased by over 20% compared to the previous year – and, by the way, outnumber those accounts for online shopping (242 million).

So much on big numbers. The less positive news is that Chinese Internet usage mirrors the uneven economic development between China’s different regions and provinces. Of a total of 2,680,000 websites, 435,864 are in Guangdong, 398,462 in Beijing, and only 972 in Tibet. In overall, 23.7% of the rural population uses the Internet, compared to 59.1% in urban areas. Over the last four years, the share of users has gone up continuously in both cities and countryside, but the latter doesn’t seem to be catching up – the great divergence persists.

As the TeaLeafNation has pointed out, Beijing’s Internet usage is comparable to that of Hong Kong and Israel, while Jiangxi province lags behind Uzbekistan, Bolivia, and Tuvalu. The magazine has also visualized these differences in a map of China, revealing the overwhelming correspondence between Internet usage and economic development.

The opposite would have been surprising in fact. What is conspicuous, though, is that the more remote provinces are catching up more quickly in terms of internet usage than in terms of economic development. (That is, the entire provinces are catching up, not rural areas as such.) One reason is possibly the increasing availability of cheap smartphones, which present an affordable alternative to computers. China has almost 420 million smartphone users by now. Nearly three-quarters of web users go online via their smartphones. Only five years ago, the reverse was true, when only one-quarter used their phones to access the Internet.

The report doesn’t provide numbers on this, but it is plausible that the countryside is, or will be, profiting from the larger smartphone market. Considering the fact that already by now the largest part of micro-blogging takes place via smartphone (over 65%), the rural areas may not be that cut-off from the rest of China when it comes to digital social networking and, possibly, participating in a digital civil society.

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University

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