Who Uses the Internet in China?

Embassy Beijing November 1996

Summary: Four percent of the high income (over U.S. $120 per month) group in China's medium and large cities have become e-mail users according to an August 1996 market survey by Lingdian Research of Beijing. Highest rates of Internet experience are found in Guangzhou (10.9 percent) and Shenyang (5.8 percent); in Beijing 2.5 percent of the high income group had used e-mail. Eighty percent of Internet uses in China use the Internet for e-mail only; language barriers between Chinese users and the largely English speaking net, connection costs, and the slow speed of the balkanized domestic Chinese network are factors which have slowed the growth of World Wide Web users in China. Once a critical mass of e-mail users has been attained and more Chinese-language web sites become available, Chinese net use should increase even faster. A list of Chinese-language web sites provides a glimpse of the growth of the Chinese language branch of the Internet. End summary.

Will Internet Break Down Barriers Between Organizations?

Just how many Chinese are on the Internet? Estimates start at several hundred thousand and vary widely. Over three hundred thousand modem-equipped computers are now sold in China every year. There are over 10,000 registered users including organizations such as business and government offices which have many individual users. There are also tens of thousands of individual users on the Chinese academic network (CERNET) . While the Internet has grown rapidly in China over the last several years, discovering just who uses the Internet in China and the effect Internet has on China's rapidly changing economy and society have been much harder to elucidate. Will Internet help break down the social and organizational barriers that, blocking cooperation and communication, dramatically reduce the effectiveness of Chinese organizations? Or will it just become merely more of the same -- a high tech medium for exchanges between contending feudal bureaucratic states? Or will the private sector find that e-mail improves cooperation and coordination and use this new medium to circumvent government barriers to entrepreneurship? As part of our effort to understand the social and economic impact of the world wide web in China, this report looks at how individual Chinese use the Internet.

Internet: Will It Join Beepers and Cellular as a Key Business Tool?

The Lingdian Research Co. survey of 350 high income (over RMB 1000 or US$ 120 per month) people between the ages of 18 and 60 years old in many Chinese medium and large cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang, Harbin, Changsha, Jinan and Chongqing found that 3.6 percent of the group used an Internet account. By comparison, 72 percent of the people in this group have a home telephone, 35 percent have a cellular telephone, and 69 percent have a beeper. Lingdian Research told ESTOFF that the survey (which appeared in the October 25 issue of the weekly Nanfang Zhoumou) is a section of a larger, confidential survey on the telecommunications industry made for a corporate customer. Lingdian suggests that as many as half of those who said that used the Internet may have confused Internet use with e-mail on wide area corporate or government networks. The growing use of e-mail and other forms of network communication, whether it be on wide area corporate networks or on the Internet itself is significant. About 35 percent of the respondents said that they had accounts with the Post Office's ChinaNet, the largest of the three, separate (connected with the other two Chinese Internet networks only via foreign countries) Internet-connected networks in China.

Internet Use Varies by Income and Location: Guangzhou High, Shanghai Low

Internet use varies by location and income bracket. According to the Lingdian Research survey, Guangzhou at 10.9 percent has the highest rate of Internet use, followed by Shenyang (5.9 percent), Chongqing (4.9 percent), Harbin (3.9 percent), Changsha (3.5 percent), Beijing (2.5 percent), Jinan (1.1 percent), Shanghai (1.1 percent), and Nanjing (almost none). Lingdian Research points out that the results are skewed by the much higher proportion of high income people in Guangzhou (15 percent) compared with Harbin and Shenyang (both about 6 percent). Beijing falls in the middle with 10 percent of its population falling into the high income group. The survey found that income rose with income from 2.6 percent in the 1000 - 1200 RMB per month bracket, to 4.6 percent in the 1201- 2000 RMB per month bracket and 8.3 percent in the 2001 - 3500 per month bracket. Use fell to 3.3 percent at incomes over 2501 RMB per month. Highest rates of Internet use were among high level managers (8 percent) in private companies, middle and upper level managers of foreign companies or joint ventures, and government officials at the division chief level above (5.4 percent).

Key To The Future: Information Providers Make the Net Speak Chinese

As larger numbers of Chinese-speakers come on the Internet, the net will approach a critical mass in which Chinese users will find that a large proportion of the people one would like to reach are available on the net. Connection costs are high compared to the income of Chinese employees (in Beijing RMB 12 or US$1.50 per hour). Thus Chinese use the Internet at the office rather than at home and prefer E-mail, which can be read off-line, to browsing the net at much higher connection costs. During a recent visit to Tsinghua University, Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology officer saw Chinese students using the CERNET (Chinese university branch of the Internet which has its own connection to the U.S. west coast) visiting many U.S. web sites, playing MUDs (text-based Internet fantasy role playing games between players in widely separated locations) and corresponding with U.S. graduate schools. Although the public security bureau regularly sends lists of banned sites to be blocked to the CERNET node as it does to other Chinese Internet entry points, a wide range of foreign sites which are not politically sensitive remain available. Chinese find the language barrier high on the world wide web. Nothing like the web browser add-on machine translation software used by some Japanese web surfers to translate English web pages into Japanese is available in Chinese language version in China. If Chinese web use is to expand from today's user base in that small fraction of the Chinese population that feels comfortable in English, much more Chinese language material must become available on the Internet. More and more Chinese language services are now appearing on the net

PRC Web Sites Accesible from the United States

Using inexpensive software (such as TwinBridge Asian Language Partner) available from companies such as TwinBridge, UnionWay and NJSTAR (easily found by a net search) chinese-speaking American cybernauts can join in on the Chinese language action. Beijing On Line ( provides commercial and lifestyle information. The Chinese Economic Information Network ( service provided by the Chinese State Information Center, now under construction, will eventually provide authoritative information and analyses of Chinese national macroeconomics trends. The Great Tide Financial Information Network ( provides information on finance, stocks, bonds, and Chinese state bonds. Users can pay a fee to get real-time information from the Shenzhen stock exchange and about companies listed on the exchange. A directory of Chinese-language web sites world wide can be found at http://www.

Other interesting sites for Chinese-speaking cybernauts include:

-- in English.

Geographical List of Mainland China Based WWW Servers

    • in English Peking University homepage
    • in Chinese Intellectual Property Law database
    • Information Services, Tsinghua University Library

in Chinese but with English abstract summary. Keyword searchable database of MA, PhD abstracts over the last five years for ten major Chinese universities. A cooperative project of Tsinghua University and IBM China.

-- The electronic monthly Huasheng Yuebao in Chinese

Comment: Today E-mail, Tomorrow Widespread Use of Web Browsers and On-Line Databases?

The Lingdian Research survey gives us a broad picture of Internet use in China. The small sample size (350 people) from each city which are further broken down by income bracket means that given the low percentage of users in each city the margin of error is likely such that the ranking of cities for Internet use may not be entirely correct. A change in two or three respondents in some categories would change the rankings. Putting Guangzhou at the top,. Beijing in the middle and Shenyang and Harbin towards the bottom makes intuitive sense. Given the economic dynamism of the South and the sluggish state sector dominated old industry rustbelt of China's Northeast we would expect a higher proportion of users in Guangzhou. The low Internet ranking of Shanghai is a surprise.

E-mail is gradually joining the cellular telephone, the fax machine and the beeper in the arsenal of Chinese businesspeople. The next steps, wider use of the world wide web and on-line databases, are constrained by higher connection costs, the language barrier, and lagging Chinese database technology. Improvements in Chinese language Internet service can be seen in the on-line search engines developed by IBM China (for example the MA and PhD thesis database at Tsinghua University mentioned above) and other organizations which provide keyword search capability.

E-mail comes naturally to people in keyboard cultures; more convenient for people not used to keyboards is the handwritten fax. Improvements in Chinese language software that made entering Chinese text fairly quick and easy can also be used for writing mail messages. E-mail differs from the fax by the technical method of transmission; using on-line databases and connecting to World Wide Web sites is qualitatively very different. Users in China will likely find, as others have in the United States and other counties that there is an amazing and confusing mass of information on the web. A great market for commercial on-line databases (such as the Shenzhen Stock Exchange information web site menitoned above) will likely emerge among those willing and able to pay. The great majority of users who hope to find free or nearly-free information on the net will determine how fast world wide web use will grow in China. Commercial services resembling Compuserve and AOL in are beginning to emerge. The willingness of the government to allow information entrepreneurs to set up shop on the net will be key. If the Chinese government will allow there providers to offer services more exciting than say, the People's Daily (Renmin Ribao) the prospects for wider use of the world wide web in China will be good.