Beijing's elegant suggestion to spread mobile technology in the countryside.
- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Some Chinese government researchers don’t appear to think much of the country’s 651 million people living in the countryside. In its 2013 annual report on the development of the Internet in rural China, the state-run China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which monitors and analyzes the Chinese web, advised Chinese telecom companies to roll out "idiot-proof" smartphones for rural customers.
The report, released Nov. 27, cites the statistic that rural Chinese are underrepresented online: At the end of 2012, Internet penetration in the countryside was 23.7 percent, compared to 59.1 percent in cities. But the number of rural residents who used mobile phones to go online in 2012 increased by 20.9 percent, and rural Internet users surf the web via smartphone at a slightly higher rate than urban netizens (75.3 percent versus 72.3 percent over the past six months). To better serve rural residents, researchers suggested telecom companies attempt to shaguahua their products — that is, make them for "stupid melons," Chinese slang for ‘idiots.’ Because "most residents of rural villages are not very knowledgeable or cultured," the report argued, they will be less inclined to use cell phones to go online "if the equipment systems are too complicated."
The Internet gap is one Chinese that authorities, who see the web as a driver of future economic growth, are keen to shrink. On Sept. 18, Shang Bing, a vice minister of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates the Internet, said that the country plans to invest $323 billion in broadband Internet infrastructure by 2020, emphasizing authorities’ intent to get "villages and counties" online. But given China’s existing infrastructure deficiencies and the relatively lower cost of mobile Internet use, most Chinese web users will be logging on via smartphone for the time being.
This appears to be the first time that CNNIC has said Chinese rural netizens "require" simpler mobile interfaces. The name-calling may be more than a slip-up: It also insulates authorities from blame. If China’s rural netizen ranks grow slower than hoped, the report implies, it will because of those yokels in the countryside or the companies that failed to adapt — and not because of the Chinese government’s inability to provide services.
Derogatory language aside, CNNIC was trying to address serious income and education gaps between China’s rural and urban areas. The study noted that as of the end of 2012, urbanites still made 3.1 times more money than their rural counterparts, who lack the same educational opportunities as city dwellers. But that doesn’t mean they need ‘idiot-proof’ cellphones. As anyone who has witnessed a three-year-old playing with an iPhone can attest, formal education is by no means a prerequisite for mobile technology mastery.