Bridging digital gap for aging rural communities


An elderly lady learns to use a tablet. Photo: TUCHONG

As we enter the new era of digitization, emerging technologies such as big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence are profoundly transforming our lives, exerting a subtle yet significant influence on economic development and the spatial structure of society. Digitization of rural life is inevitably becoming immersed in this wave. On one hand, the digital age is driving the transformation and development of both the digitization of rural life and rural governance. Naturally, rural life has opened the window to digitization, enveloping rural inhabitants in a digital environment. The construction of a new digital system for rural governance has become a new era path for advancing the modernization of rural governance systems and capabilities. Simultaneously, the digitization of rural governance actively and effectively responds to the digitization of rural life, objectively providing momentum to accelerate the process.

On the other hand, the rapid development of digitization in rural life is being propelled by the national strategy for digital rural development. Since 2018, various government departments have successively issued strategic plans such as the “Outline of Digital Rural Development Strategy” and the “Digital Rural Development Action Plan (2022-2025),” clearly specifying requirements and long-term plans for rural digitization, injecting a strong strategic impetus.

However, digitization not only facilitates innovation in rural governance technology and efficiency improvements, injecting information technology vitality into rural life and adding hues of informatization and intelligence, but may also pose technological risks and ethical challenges. The “aging-friendly” dilemma of rural life digitization pertains to addressing the reality of an aging rural society, eliminating obstacles for elderly rural populations to embrace digital life and meeting their daily digital life needs. This challenge is an urgent issue that the digital rural strategy must address, and a prominent problem that rural governance digitization urgently needs to resolve.


Relying on the application of digital technology, the establishment of digital platforms, and the innovation of digital governance methods, the digitization of rural life aims to better align rural living with modern urban lifestyles. However, the traditional lifestyle habits and lack of inherent digital literacy and skills among the elderly rural population lead to a “bidirectional rejection” between themselves and the digitization of rural life. Moreover, this phenomenon exhibits characteristics of group differentiation, resulting in multiple participation challenges. Simultaneously, inadequate management of the structural issues in rural governance, characterized by a fragmented approach, can generate objective negative forces. This, when compounded, creates new exclusion problems, leading to uneven digitization in rural areas.

Firstly, the elderly population in rural areas has a relatively low level of internet exposure. Aging is an unavoidable reality in rural life digitization. According to the 2023 “Report on the Aging Population in Rural China,” the population aged 60 and above in rural areas reached 160 million, accounting for 57.1% of the total elderly population in the country. Among them, 10.8% are living alone, and 38.7% are empty-nesters. In terms of internet participation, the elderly rural population is largely excluded from digital life. The 52nd “Statistical Report on Internet Development in China” by the China Internet Network Information Center stated that as of June 2023, the number of rural internet users reached 301 million, accounting for only 27.9% of total internet user population. The report further revealed that the 160 million elderly rural population have minimal exposure to the internet.

Secondly, the elderly rural population faces systemic challenges in digitization. Some elderly individuals in rural areas, due to visual or intellectual impairments, low educational backgrounds, or advanced age, are unable to use smart devices such as smartphones and thus cannot participate in digitization. Another segment of the elderly rural population, while capable of basic internet and smartphone usage, faces systemic challenges in digitization. Firstly, their daily lives are deeply intertwined with traditional rural social structures, making it challenging for them to accept modern rural digital governance and leading to inherent mutual rejection of the digitization of rural life. Secondly, economic constraints limit access to digital tools such as computers and smartphones for some elderly individuals. Thirdly, a lack of basic digital literacy, limited awareness, and the capability to embrace new technologies restricts their participation in the digitization of rural life. Fourthly, certain groups have limited exposure to digital spaces, lacking judgment regarding the rapidly changing digital landscape, particularly in terms of identifying subtle information scams, meaning their risk prevention capabilities are poor. Finally, these negative impacts contribute to widespread psychological anxiety and resistance towards the digitization of rural life.

Lastly, structural issues limit the digital adaptability of the elderly rural population. In the process of rural life digitization, the negative forces generated by the “fragmented governance” structure cannot be underestimated. Firstly, excessive development and formalism in rural governance digitization, such as frequent but inefficient digital reporting and expensive idle digital platforms, can impose a heavy burden of digital work. Secondly, regional, structural, and generational differences in the development of rural digitization infrastructure, such as 5G base stations and household fiber optics, lead to differing impacts on the digital interests of the elderly rural population. Thirdly, the lack of context-specific implementation of rural digitization inevitably creates supply-demand contradictions. Inclusive digitization policies, differentiated foundations for rural digitization development, elderly population participation capabilities, and demands are challenging to accurately match. Fourthly, in the process of participating in rural life digitization, particularly in articulating and assessing demands for public services, differences in participation capabilities among different groups can lead to “interest encroachment” and “digitally induced poverty.” Without specific “care” tilted towards the elderly population, they may fall into “digital poverty,” despite equal participation.

Coordinated approach

Addressing the challenges of “aging-friendly” digitization in rural life requires diverse participation and collaborative efforts from various sectors of society. The full potential of legal, operational, and supportive multifaceted protection systems, as well as the synergistic effects of various structural forces such as coordination and compensatory safeguard mechanisms, needs to be harnessed.

First, it is imperative for multiple stakeholders, including the government, businesses, social organizations, and families, to collaborate. The government should play a leading, coordinating, and guiding role, establishing gradual and regionally- tailored development goals for rural digitization to prevent overeager tendencies. Efforts should be intensified in promoting and guiding “aging-friendly” initiatives, creating platforms and links for the collaboration of diverse entities, including enterprises, social organizations, and families, to collectively address the challenges. Forward-looking development plans for life digitization based on a life-course perspective should be expedited. Enterprises and social organizations should undertake the mission of improving the “aging-friendly” level of rural life digitization through technological innovations. They should also focus on comprehensive digital technology innovations, including basic user experiences, product sensitivity, design aesthetics, operational ease, safety, and convenience. Priority should be given to developing AI-based, interactive, human-computer “aging-friendly” technologies to address technological challenges. Families should assume the primary responsibility for the “digital nurturing” and support of the elderly rural population. This includes ensuring timely access to electronic devices such as computers and smartphones through the purchase or by “inheritance” from younger generations, technical support for using smart media terminals, and necessary “hands-on teaching” to facilitate “digital nurturing.”

Second, a coordinated system of legal, operational, and supportive safeguards is essential. Learning from international experiences, regulations related to “barrier-free networks for vulnerable groups” should be studied, establishing a comprehensive legal framework for safeguarding the digital rights of the elderly rural population. While improving inclusive policies and systems, local governments should explore practical policies and systems tailored to rural life digitization “aging-friendly” needs, as well as relevant standard systems. Implementing a rolling three to five-year cycle of targeted actions for rural digitization is crucial. Differentiated advancement in the construction of “aging-friendly” convenience facilities in rural digitization should be promoted to address deficiencies. Sustainable actions should be taken to enhance the digital capabilities of the rural elderly population. Tailored projects and responsive courses for enhancing digital capabilities should be developed. Ongoing special remedial actions should be carried out to combat the infringement of digital interests of the elderly population, excessive development of rural digitization, and formalism, thereby lightening the burden on rural digitization efforts. Top-down, comprehensive support should be strengthened, focusing on inclusive support and differentiated incentives for technology, talent incubation, and establishing a special fund for “aging-friendly” guarantees in rural life digitization. Joint efforts involving various stakeholders should be systematically implemented to carry out special support projects for digital tools, technical standards, management mechanisms, talent deployment, and other special support initiatives.

Third, a coordinated mechanism for multifaceted connections and compensatory guarantees is crucial. Establishing a seamless transition mechanism for traditional rural governance to digital governance that is tailored to the elderly population is essential. This mechanism should facilitate the participation of the rural elderly population in rural life digitization and digital governance, particularly in expressing and accessing demands for public services, while retaining offline “elderly-friendly channels.” Relying on village-level organizations, resident teams, grid personnel, and social voluntary service organizations, a support mechanism involving “digital assistants” and “digital ambassadors” for rural areas should be explored. The relevant guiding, regulatory, and support systems should be improved to provide necessary guidance, assistance, and volunteer services for the digitalization of rural life for the vast population of village residents, including the elderly. Additionally, a mechanism to rectify and compensate for the infringement of digital rights of the rural elderly population should be established. Through corresponding compensation and life relief mechanisms, care and compensation should be provided to elderly individuals whose digital interests are compromised. Moreover, accelerating the construction of a supervisory and assessment mechanism involving multiple entities and the elderly population’s joint participation, emphasizing the “aging-friendly” assessment, can encourage improvement and enhance the “aging-friendly” level of rural life digitization.


Mao Cheng is a research fellow at the Hubei Provincial Research Center for the Theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Editor:Yu Hui

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