Wiring Small-Town China

The fiber-optic tentacles of China’s internet extend deep into the heartland

3 min read
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If your picture of a gritty, coal-choked town of 140 000 souls in central China’s Henan Province doesn’t include high-speed Internet access, look again. More than 40 percent of the population of Yima, a town that is neither rich nor poor by Chinese standards, regularly goes online. Even outlying mud-wall villages have 8 megabit-per-second connections.

That connectivity is transforming the way the good citizens of Yima work, communicate, study, and entertain themselves. Six months after upgrading to a broadband connection and launching a Web site for his pig farm, Liu Zhaiguo—a wily peasant-cum-entrepreneur straight from central casting—was selling a third of his production at premium prices via the Net to buyers in neighboring provinces who did not even know Yima existed before seeing Liu’s site (http://www.ympy.com.cn).

Liu is not unique. Farmers in a neighboring village, the poorest in the region, consult a newly installed intranet run by the agricultural ministry to decide what to plant and where to sell.

Nor is Yima unique. Small Chinese cities turn out to be far more connected than generally thought. The assumption that China’s exploding population of Internet users—conservatively estimated in January at 100 million—are concentrated in and around Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other metropolises is just plain wrong.

A pioneering study in 2003 of Yima and four other small cities by Internet expert Guo Liang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing, showed that cities and towns all over China were using sophisticated information technology. They used it to promote e-government, find new markets, rationalize work flows in businesses and municipal governments, and, yes, fritter away billions of hours in real-time combat and conversation. A follow-up study this year revealed that change is continuing apace and once-prevalent dial-up links have given way almost entirely to high-speed broadband connections.

“Yima is more developed compared with its neighbors,” acknowledges Zhang Jianwei, director of Yima Telecom Co., which installed the city’s Internet infrastructure and is one of two Internet service providers in town. “But almost all county-level cities in China”—there are about 2000—“have broadband now.”

If Yima remains ahead of the curve, there are two reasons. One is Communist Party chief Zhang Yinghuan, who has adopted with singular zeal the central government’s call to promote “informatization.” Merging into the "information highway," he told IEEE Spectrum, as his staff scribbled furiously to keep up with his utterances, “is a vertical revolution that has changed people’s mentality, social structure, and economic development.”

Hyperbolic, no doubt, but not far from the truth. Each of Yima’s 1500-odd government and political officials has undergone a two-week training program on intranets, document management, and the Internet. Bureau chiefs who refuse to take the exam or who fail it are demoted and replaced.

Since mid-2004, all interrogations in the State Inspection Bureau, which investigates corrupt officials, are now carried out and recorded in a state-of-the-art facility with six hidden video cameras manipulated from a control room. Data is entered into an intranet that officials can use to consult and compare cases from across the country. “This system guarantees the rights of the detainees and allows us to use the video in court as evidence,” an official said.

The second reason Yima is ahead of the IT curve is China Telecom Co., in Beijing, whose local affiliate spent more than US $800 000 to build Yima’s Internet infrastructure, including the fiber-optic backbone, routers (Cisco Systems and Huawei Technologies), and servers (Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo Group).

Guo Liang, a social science researcher, says he is convinced that the Internet is helping to make China a more open society, and anecdotal evidence from Yima bears him out. He points in particular to the impact of tens of thousands of Internet cafes in which young people, most of whom cannot afford a computer and Internet subscription, pay 15 to 25 cents per hour to go online. “This is helping to erase the digital divide before it happens,” he says. Some 60 such cafes have sprung up in Yima in less than a year, with a total of nearly 1000 screens. Gaming is still the most popular activity, but it’s rapidly ceding ground to online education and other forms of information retrieval.

Then there are subtler changes in attitude that are more difficult to measure and, perhaps, to control. “I love to read negative news reports online, especially ordinary people’s complaints,” one respondent told Hu Xianhong, a Beijing University researcher who conducted the Yima survey in Guo’s study. “Those courageous reports could never be released in the traditional media.”

That is not necessarily the kind of openness that Communist Party chief Zhang is striving for, but it is part and parcel of China’s ascendance into the ranks of information superpowers.

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