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NYT Magazine Article Misconception About the Composition of Chinese Netizens

On the Mar.7th issue of the NYTimes Magazine, an article named “China Cyberposse“, written by Tom Downey, offers an in-depth review of the “Human Flesh Search Engine” phenomenon on China’s cyberspace.   It is one of these valuable times that NYTimes runs something beyond the cliche about Chinese society, and offers insight about how people actually live their lives there.   Yet like most of the other NYTimes articles on China, there are just some little details here and there in the article that keeps on bugging you, and makes you feel like they are not the results of actual experience or careful research, but from pre-conceived judgments.   This comment from the article seems to be particularly misconceived to me:

“While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.”

It seems to be a reasonable inference here:  less than a third of China’s population is on the web, and internet access requires certain income and education level, and thus netizens of China must be from richer regions or are the elites of remote places.

Yet as someone who surfs around China’s cyberspace everyday, I usually have the suspicions that the people who spend most time online in China, the most active of Chinese netizens who dig out stories of corrupted officials and excel at “human flesh searching”, are those who are not that privileged.   My basic assumption is that, if the netizens are the elites, and the biggest beneficiary of the current political and economical system, why do they have so much to vent, and why do they have so much incentive to say things against a system in which their interests are so invested?  It just seems counter-intuitive.   Plus if you look at some of the “trivial” yet most popular discussions online, ( usually on extra-marrital affairs or sexual explorations), you wonder, who exactly are those “elites” that have that much time to go online and talk about those “trivial” issues?

The other side of my instinct comes from my experience last summer doing research about the Chinese migrant workers (those who migrate from rural and remote areas to seek employment in big industrialized cities).  I traveled to a dozen of factories in the Yangtze-delta and Pearl-delta areas to gather data about the working and living condition of migrant workers.  One of the most striking thing I learned is how accessible internet is to the younger generation of migrant workers.  They usually use cell-phones to read news online and do instant-chatting, some of them even try to save up together to buy second-hand desktops to use in their dorms.   Their elders, however, when asked, usually make comments that they are too old for “such popular culture” and would rather save money to send home.  Thus you might argue income level are not the the predominant barriers for internet access, but a certain cultural conception of it.

Since the NYTimes article excerpt really runs against my instinct, I was trying to look for data to support my view.  CNNIC, China Network Information Center, gives out reports twice a year about the internet development in China.  The latest one, the 25th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, comes out in January 2010 ( but it has not been translated into English yet. You can access the English version of the 24th here ).

Three things I found in this report that can support my intuition:

1. The majority of China’s netizens, 52% are NOT from the top 10 provinces/cities with most GDP per capita.

2. The majority of China’s netizens, 75.8%,has only received high school education or less.

3. The majority of China’s netizens, 56.2%, has a disposable income less than RMB1500 ( $220), the most modest benchmark for what is considered to be middle-class in China.

I.  I searched for the list of cities/provinces in China that have the most GDP per capita, and here is the rank for 2009 with the number of their internet users ( those who live in those cities/provinces, not necessarily those who hold registration there, which means that if a migrant worker from Hunan went to Guangdong to seek employment and lived there for more than 6 months, he would be counted as an internet user in Guangdong, not Hunan).

Ranking of Provinces by GDP per capita GDP per capita Number of Internet Users Living in the Provinces
1. Shanghai
RMB 11320.41
2. Beijing
RMB 10298.30
3. Tianjin RMB 9295.48 5.64mil
4. Zhejiang
RMB 6582.88
5. Jiangsu
RMB 6437.91
6. Guangdong
RMB 5861.92
7. Neimeng
RMB 5467.30
8. Shandong
RMB 5262.96
9. Liaoning
RMB 5013.66
10. Fujian
RMB 4854.18
Sum 184.83mil

Since the total number of internet users up to December 2009, according to the CNNIC report, is 384 mil, it leaves people living in the richest Ten Places in China counting for 184.83/384=48% of China’s internet users, not even making up half  of the group.  Also, the fact that the CNNIC report counts the migrant workers as internet users in cities where they are working, means that internet users who are regular inhabitants in those most developed places are much less than 184.83mil.  And if you are not convinced that the migrant workers would count for a large sum of this 184.83 mil, please look for the chart in part III about the income level of Chinese netizens.

II. The chart below is the education level of internet users:                                                                                                       

The horizontal columns from left to right reads:  primary school and below; middle school; high school; vocational school; bachelor degree and higher.

This chart means that 8.8%+26.8%+40.2%=75.8% of the internet users have only received high school level or lower education.   Even for a country like China, where the  average education level is probably middle school or below, you wouldn’t call a high school graduate “an educated elites” .

Also an interesting trend to note is that the percentage of people who have only primary school or less education is increasing, while the percentage of college graduate is decreasing.   This just means that a large percentage of the college graduates have had access to internet for a while already, so it is harder for the group to increase their representation in the whole group.  On the other hand, more people who have primary school education or less have not been exposed to internet before, and thus this group has more potential to pull up their representation.

III.  The third chart is the income level distribution of China’s internet users;  the unit of income on the left is RMB, whose exchange rate to dollar is roughly 1 dollar = 6.8 RMB

There are many discussions, both domestically and internationally, about what should be the monthly income level for China’s middle class.  The most modest benchmark I find, is RMB1500, while others contest that it should be RMB 5000.   If we adopt the more radical standard, this would leave middle class only 5.6% of the internet users, which seems rather counter-factual to me.  But even if we use the modest benchmark, RMB 1500, middle class and above would only count for 43.7% of China’s netizens, not being the overwhelming majority.

There are of course issues with the accuracy people report their incomes.  The CNNIC report was conducted through phone interviews of 72,ooo people, and one can certainly imagine interviewees being modest to speak about their income levels in official surveys.  On the other hand, the RMB 1500 benchmark for middle class is definitely very, very modest as well.  Many of the migrant workers I interviewed in the past Summer, can earn up to 2500 Yuan/month, ( but of course through 16hr*6days of work every week), and I don’t see how they can be counted as the middle class in China.   So if we take the modestiy of numbers on both sides, they might actually balance out each other, leaving the “43.7%” result not too far off from reality.


The point o f this post might seem to be trivial, since it is not against the main argument of “China Cyberposse”.  Yet I think it is an important issue to bear in mind about who really are the majority of netizens in China.  Contrary to Downey’s point that it is because netizens are the elites that makes whatever happen on internet “less than peripheral”,  I think it is exactly because the netizens are the mass, and the most grass-root population, that makes them so powerful.  They suffer the most from the current system, and they really have so little to lose in this game to hold up to their rights.

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