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Bridging the urban-rural digital divide

Author  :  NIE SHICHONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-02-19

According to the 46th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, internet users in urban China reached 654 million in June, 2020, and the internet’s popularity rate in urban areas was 76.4%. In rural areas, the two numbers were 285 million and 52.3% respectively. On the whole, networking levels and internet popularity still lag behind in rural areas compared with urban areas. However, with increasing popularity of broadband networks, optical fiber communications, mobile internet, 4G technology, as well as faster speeds and lower fees for cyber communication services, the internet’s access rate in rural areas has considerably improved. In particular, the use of smartphones has significantly increased the internet’s popularity in rural areas. By June, 2020, the proportion of those who access the internet through mobile phones in China reached as high as 99.2%. This implies that the internet gap between urban and rural areas can certainly be bridged.

According to studies on internet disparity and inequality in urban and rural areas, the digital divide can generally be divided into three dimensions. The first dimension is the “digital access gap,” which refers to the gap in internet infrastructure and the supply of cyber communication services. This is fundamental to coordinating urban-rural digital development and narrowing the digital gap. The second dimension is the “digital use gap,” which refers to behavioral disparities due to different technological capacities and skillsets. The third dimension is the “digital resource gap,” which refers to differences in the amount of data resources between urban life and rural life, as well as differences in dealing with and applying other digital resources such as cloud computing, big data, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence. This is the key to pursuing coordinated development between digital villages and smart cities.

With e-commerce, short videos, online shopping, and other internet applications extending and infiltrating into rural areas, the main obstacles that limit internet access in rural areas have been further removed. Production methods and daily life are experiencing a digital transformation in rural areas.

The digital gap refers not only to differences in cyber communication infrastructure and information acquisition, but also to imbalanced social opportunities for living and personal development, or the differences in establishing social relationships and realizing social development through information technology. With digitization and information communication technology as the base, the urban-rural network, reduces the overall costs of social communication and strengthens the channels for social contact; it also enhances the individual’s ability to obtain information and strive for development opportunities in social life.

Information technologies and digital platforms not only provide knowledge and information for individual development, affecting living opportunities in the networking society and information age, but also increase opportunities for social mobility. In the context of a Chinese society in which acquaintance society dominates social ties, differences in human interest, personal relationships, and social capital become important factors for social divides. As cyber information technology and mobile social platforms develop, the network of social relationships and social capital is extended and reproduced. The two are intertwined, and together, they divide the digital gap. However, it is noticeable that with deepening reforms in China, opportunities and channels of social mobility for urban and rural residents have largely expanded. As a result, the social divide caused by digital gap between urban and rural areas has been in some sense bridged.

In coordinating the digital development of urban and rural areas, the building of digital villages should not be planned according to the standards of smart cities. Instead, to advance integrated urban-rural development, the demographic structure and its demand should be considered. Since the gap between urban and rural areas is gradually being eliminated in today’s China, as integrated urban-rural development is underway, traditional urban-rural research perspectives are receiving new challenging questions. Meanwhile, digital society research needs to seek new perspectives. Researchers should reexamine the leapfrog growth of cyber information and digital technology and its universally beneficial and equalizing features.


Nie Shichong is from the Center for the Study of Sociological Theory and Methods at the Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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