Digital divide narrows between Chinese youth in urban and rural areas

Jane Zhang

The digital divide between mainland Chinese youth in the country’s urban and rural areas has narrowed, according to the latest government data, helping expand the number of connected users in the world’s biggest internet market.

The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), an agency under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, reported on Wednesday that the difference in internet penetration rate between the two groups closed to 3.6 percentage points last year, from 5.4 percentage points in 2018.

That resulted in a total of 175 million juvenile internet users across China, representing online access for more than 90 per cent of people under 18 years of age in the world’s second largest economy.

China had more than 904 million internet users as of March this year, according to a separate report released by the CNNIC in April.

The rising number of young internet users, especially from China’s poorer regions, bodes well for Beijing’s long-term plans to roll out critical digital infrastructure, backed by advanced technologies like artificial intelligence as well as a tech-savvy workforce.

More young connected users also represent an expanded pool of consumers for the country’s hi-tech sector, which provide everything from smartphones and video games to super apps that combine online shopping, social media, entertainment and financial services.

In the latest CNNIC report, about 93.9 per cent of young Chinese internet users preferred using a smartphone to go online, where their top activities involved studying, listening to music and playing video games. That data was gathered from a survey of 34,661 students in 31 provinces across the country.

The CNNIC also reported that 46.2 per cent of young internet users watched short videos, while 19.8 per cent consumed live-streamed content online.

Why China’s digital divide, exposed by coronavirus crisis, is not going away

Still, there remains plenty of work ahead to close the digital divide between Chinese youth in the country’s poorer regions and those in the more affluent regions.

That became all-too apparent when schools nationwide were forced to shut down, as the government tried to contain the spread of the coronavirus earlier this year. Online learning was made compulsory, but that put many students living in remote areas at a disadvantage because they did not have sufficient internet access.

Rural areas in China had an internet penetration rate of 46.2 per cent, compared with 76.5 per cent in the urban areas, according to the CNNIC report released in April.

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