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In China, an Urban-Rural Digital Divide

Rural internet access is expanding, though users are less active

September 23, 2016 | Media

In China, it seems that not only do rural internet users spend less time online each week than their urban counterparts, but also that the time they do spend online is diminishing—at least, on average.

Internet Users and Penetration in China, 2012-2016 (millions and % of population)

China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) estimates there were nearly 710 million internet users as of June 2016, or about 52% of the population. The average urban internet user spent 27.2 hours per week online in 2015, according to the same report, up slightly since 2014. But the average rural internet user spent only 23.8 hours online each week—and that figure was actually down by about 20 minutes since 2014.

Meanwhile, a separate CNNIC August 2016 report explains that rural users are a growing population. That they are spending slightly less time online may seem counterintuitive, but it can happen in growing markets: The newest users coming online don’t spend as much time on their new activity as experienced internet users do, so even as the market grows, average usage can appear to fall.

Data on what urban vs. rural internet users actually do online also suggests rural users are less active on digital channels than their counterparts in cities, however.

Digital Activities Conducted by Internet Users in Urban vs. Rural China, Dec 2015 (millions and % of internet users in each group)

There is no single online activity participated in by 90% of rural internet users, and for every activity studied, rural internet users are less likely to participate.

The biggest differences here are often things like payments and ecommerce, which urban internet users in China tend to do more often—fewer than half of rural users surveyed made a payment or purchased something online, for example.

Smaller differences like instant messaging, reading the news and searching online suggest that while rural users are like their urban counterparts in the basics of the internet, they haven’t completely integrated the internet into their lives.

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