Tuesday, December 20, 2011

China's Internet Users Today

During our years in Beijing and Shanghai from 2006 - 2009, I worked for about half the time researching internet use in China for the Pew Internet Project, an arm of the Pew Research Center. Unable to do my own fieldwork (foreigners are forbidden to do surveys in China without a Chinese partner), I gleaned what I could from survey work from my friend Guo Liang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and from other helpful researchers at  the China Internet Network Information Center, which has done its own surveys of internet development in China since 1997. For me, the most interesting (and surprising!) results I found were about the Chinese people's high tolerance for government oversight of internet use.

So, I am always interested when the Pew Research Center issues its Global Attitudes reports, which include information about China. Their newest report, called Global Digital Communication, was just released.

Like many other readers of surveys done in China, I look for the footnotes about data collection, survey methods, and any other tidbits I can find to bear in mind when I look at the numbers. Pew remarks that the 2011 Global Attitudes Survey was conducted under the direction of their longtime collaborator, the Princeton Survey Research Associates, -- except in China --, where data were purchased from the Horizon Research Consultancy Group (a private survey firm), based on their own self-sponsored survey, "Chinese People View the World".  During my time in China, Horizon was the go-to survey firm among foreigners.

Another critical point to bear in mind is that the pool of respondents in china is disproportionately urban.  As a matter of perspective, some of the so-called "towns", as opposed to "cities" where the survey was conducted include many I recognize as having populations in the millions. Urban, indeed. In China, I found the differences between city life and country life to be staggering in both recorded statistics and observable lifestyle.

With those caveats, here are some things I noticed about China this time around: 93% of respondents say they own cell phones. This is a hefty increase from 50% in 2002 to 67% in 2007 to the present. China is far from alone in the world in such increases in cell phone ownership, of course. But it is worth comparing with cell phone ownership in the US at 61% in 2002; 81% in 2007; and (now eclipsed) 85% in 2011

As for what people do on their phones, the Chinese numbers exceed  the global median of 21 countries surveyed in all categories:

Do you--
make phone calls: 98% (China 99%)
text: 75% (China 80%)
take pictures or video: 50% (China 54%)
use the internet: 23% (China 37%)

Anecdotally, on the sidewalks and metro, in the elevators and markets of China, I saw more people more frequently texting than anything else. Texting is very cheap in China, and while people do talk on the phone, they seem to do it with less abandon than texting.

As far as social networking, among the 8 poorest countries surveyed, with a GDP per capita of under 10,000$, China has the highest percentage (over 30%) of social networkers. Social networking is off-the-charts as a social phenomenon in China; it is one of few ways to publicly let off steam, project your voice far and wide, become a presence. With China's newly proposed requirement that people post with their real names, rather than made-up names, the dynamics around social networking will surely change.

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