David Wertime

What Does a Typical Chinese Web User Look Like? The Surprising Answer

(iStock photo)

Chinese Web users know they’re a diverse crowd. Two years ago, Shen Yin, Editor in Chief of The Founder magazine, wrote a widely-discussed anecdote about two friends, “L” and “W,” both entrepreneurs. While W was a “genius” beloved by bloggers and academics, he could never find the success that “L” encountered with his focus on “millions of migrant laborers.”

No wonder. According to a recent white paper by IDG Accel, a venture fund focused on China, there are two very different main types of Chinese Internet user. The first is what the IDG report calls “baifumei,” or “good-looking and rich” users. (The term is more often used to refer to pretty young women.) These users number 50 million, or about 10% of Chinese Internet users. They are the Chinese web users of popular imagination: Educated, aged 25 to 40, white-collar, with incomes over US$1,200 per month. They live in Beijing, Shanghai, and other “Tier 1″ cities.

Then there are what IDG calls the “Grassroots” (they might wryly call themselves “diaosi,” or “nobodies”). They are blue collar workers, small-business owners, and those without any job at all. With incomes of less than US$500 per month, they live outside the gleaming homages to Chinese neo-capitalism, in rural areas or second-, third-, and fourth-tier cities. They tend to be younger, aged 15 to 25. And there are 300 million of them, comprising the “vast majority” of Web users.

Even though the “baifumei” have more money, the report continues, they are less willing to pay up. With their Internet savvy, they can quickly search for cheaper or free alternatives to paid content, and they are less likely to read or click on advertisements. Grassroots users, on the other hand, “frequently pay for virtual goods and services,” in part because they are not yet Internet-savvy enough to search for free alternatives.

This information isn’t just important for would-be entrepreneurs. Observers often question whether Chinese Internet chatter can be taken to represent Chinese public opinion writ large. The answer is no, of course; but it’s the best available proxy, and one that gets better the more that Chinese Internet users “look like” the rest of China. The IDG report makes clear that Web surfing in China is not an elite past-time.

More importantly, the report stresses that the groups’ behaviors will converge over time, as grassroots users earn more money and become more Internet savvy. Meanwhile, a recent BCG report projects that Chinese Web users will add 200 million people to their ranks over the next three years. As the Internet penetrates deeper into China’s heartland, the demographic schisms between the “webbed” and “unwebbed” will likely diminish even further.

So watch this space–China’s Internet will only get more important over the coming years.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.