Eli Bildner senior contributor

A Map of Two Chinas — Internet Penetration and Economic Development

This article also appears on Tea Leaf Nation partner sites ChinaFile and The Atlantic.

On Friday, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that income inequality in the country exceeds a warning level set by the United Nations.

China’s publication of its Gini coefficient – a widely used measure of economic equity – drew attention for a number of reasons. For one, China has not published its Gini coefficient since 2000. More significantly, China’s figure of 0.47 exceeds a UN-established benchmark of 0.4, indicating an increased risk of social unrest.

A Tale of Two Chinas?

But the recent release of another, less-heralded set of statistics underscores the challenges Beijing faces in spreading growth beyond the nation’s flush coastal provinces and gleaming metropolises.

Last Monday, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) published its annual report on the nation’s internet usage and infrastructure. According to the report, the Chinese internet continues to boom, with usage swelling 10% to 564 million users in 2012. But the report also shows that the country’s internet use – much like its economy – is highly uneven.

While web penetration in Beijing surpassed 72% in 2012, fewer than 30% of residents in the interior province of Jiangxi are internet users. To put those figures in perspective, Beijing’s internet usage is comparable to that of Hong Kong or Israel.  Jiangxi, on the other hand, lags behind Uzbekistan, Bolivia, and Tuvalu.

In terms of the production of online content, the gap is even wider. Beijing-based websites host over 38 billion web pages, or an average of 1,890 pages per city resident. Tibetan-based sites host fewer than 3.5 million pages, or just over one page per person.

Tea Leaf Nation highlights some of the CNNIC findings in the maps below, which show that Internet penetration corresponds roughly with the level of economic development by region (with the notable exception of Inner Mongolia, a resource-rich but sparsely populated area).

Does this mean there are two Chinas? The Connected China — where residents are relatively wealthy, connected to the world of social media and can access outside information despite government censorship, and the Disconnected China — where residents are relatively poor, still reliant on heavily regulated state-media for information and closed off to new ideas?

One reason for optimism is that Internet penetration tends to grow with time and further development. According to the CNNIC report, 20 provinces saw double-digit growth in the number of Internet users in 2012, and provinces such as Ningxia, Anhui and Guizhou are among the areas with the fastest growth.

Internet Penetration by Province. Source: CNNIC (Image copyright Tea Leaf Nation)
GDP Per Capita by Province in 2011. Source: China Bureau of Statistics (Image copyright Tea Leaf Nation)

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Eli Bildner

Since moving to China after graduating from college, Eli Bildner has lived in Yunnan, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. You can read more of his essays and poetry at www.elibildner.com.
  • David Drabble

    Wow it’s amazing how well Taiwan is doing on both measures! The CCP have done a really great job there.

    • Jenn

      That’s funny. I laughed, really.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eli.bildner Eli Bildner

      +1. Well played, David, well played.

  • John Wang

    Petition: Move the capital of China to Taipei

  • http://twitter.com/aristeon84 My New Life in Asia

    We must not forget that China is still a developing country. In this respect, I think that what China has achieved is remarkable, most especially of compared with the long stagnation in Western economies. Nevertheless, it will take China a long time to achieve the same evenness of development we see in Taiwan.

    • Hua Qiao

      And why will it take so long for China to reach Taiwan’s status? Taiwan was just as backward as China in 1949. Nope must be some reason for that. What could it be? Maybe Taiwan’s leaders realized that an open economy was a better system? Maybe the suffocating control and intimidation of the Party in every aspect of society might have something to do with it? Rule of law? Corruption? Embezzelment on a grand scale? Surely, Taiwanese are not innately smarter. So what is it then?

      • BigCAD

        I would hazard that Japanese influence prior to the takeover by the Nationalists, a concentration of educated and rich mainlanders fleeing the rise of an inverse society and the KMT war chest all had a part to play. Granted Maoism was and still is the greater killer of potential and productivity.

      • Kingandrew

        Taiwan has pursued close economic ties to the US, but its record on political freedom is far from stellar. Single-party martial law government was impose from 1949 until the 1990s. Corruption was a well-known problem for Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT generally, which was a big part of why so many mainlanders backed the CCP in the late 40s civil war. Trends over the past 15 years have seen real change in Taiwan, however, with real opposition figures winning elections and open debate on emotional issues. Interestingly, these developments have taken place at the same time that relations with the PRC have become much more friendly and open.

        So economic gains probably had much to do with Cold War US interest in supporting non-communist Chinese, rather than inherent features of the system in Taiwan. As political relations between the players have shifted, Taiwan’s economy has continued to benefit from the earlier development while gaining access to new markets and cheaper labor on the mainland. Taiwan has had the good luck to have a special relationship with the world’s two biggest economies.

  • http://twitter.com/EdSander Ed Sander

    I think this article misses a few important points. First of all I think it is – currently – rather obvious that higher income provinces will have higher internet penetration, simply because more people can afford a computer or smartphone. The second important fact is that the internet penetration in rural areas and among lower income groups is expected to increase much faster than the average GDP in the coming years. The reason? More cheap smartphones which open up the Internet to new groups of citizens. In China there are already more mobile internet users than through PCs and laptops.

  • http://www.getchee.com/ Edward Eng

    Hi Eli,

    Interesting article and maps. With regard to the GDP map, I’m not sure I’m following it correctly. I took a look at a GDP chart on wikipedia to compare Henan and Inner Mongolia. Then I compared the chart to the info on the map. It seems the figures don’t match or are swapped around. Am I missing something? Can you or someone else help me understand this better? Thanks.


    • http://twitter.com/elibildner Eli Bildner

      Hey Edward — really sorry to only see this comment now. I think the issue you’re looking at is that GDP figures are per capita (PPP). So while Henan’s absolute GDP (listed in that Wikipedia article) is over twice that of Inner Mongolia, it’s population is also three times that of Inner Mongolia’s. Hope that helps.

      • http://www.getchee.com/ Edward Eng

        Ah, okay. I think that clarifies it. Thanks.

  • GOD

    What is Taiwan doing in that illegal map?

  • Candy Smith

    This is interesting. I am glad you shared this one. Thanks a lot for sharing.