Reporter Journal / Chen Weihua

China has made great leap forward in internet and smartphones

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-03-20 10:51

One of my friends felt quite upset recently when asked by an American whether there is Wi-Fi in China.

Not only there is Wi-Fi in China, she said that like most Chinese living and working in the United States, she really felt lagging behind every time going back to China.

Young people in major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing no longer carry a wallet, or cash or credit card when going out; they pay everything with the apps on their smartphones.

China had a jump-start after the reform and opening-up since 1978. And of course, Chinese men no longer wear pigtails like when they were in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

A Pew Research Center report released last Thursday compared internet and smartphone use in China and India, two emerging economies. The finding is a steady climb in China as India lags. This is despite the fact that China has often been criticized in the West for internet censorship and India lauded as the largest democracy.

The Chinese have consistently reported rates of internet and smartphone use that are at least triple that of Indians. That trend has continued through 2016, according to the Pew center, which began tracking advanced technology adoptions in the two countries since 2013.

In the latest Pew poll, 71 percent of Chinese say they use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone, Pew's definition for internet users. The rate is only 21 percent in India.

Meanwhile, 68 percent of Chinese say they owned a smartphone as of spring 2016, compared with 18 percent in India.

The Pew report cited China's fast expanding middle class, per capita gross domestic product and Chinese investment in digital infrastructure as contributing to China's lead in this regard.

Separate statistics show that in 2016, there were 207 million smartphone users in the US, accounting for 63.9 percent of its population. Meanwhile, 88.5 percent of people in the US are internet users.

Americans traveling in Chinese cities might be surprised to find that every business from coffee shop to noodle shop to ice cream shop all provide free Wi-Fi service, even when sometimes a public restroom may not be available.

Not providing free Wi-Fi is not only not cool, it affects business. This does not seem to be the case in the US, not in Washington and New York City.

When I was riding the New York subway two days ago, I saw posters in the car celebrating the Wi-Fi connectivity in all 279 underground stations by Dec 31, 2016. That was indeed remarkable. When I arrived in New York City in 2009 on this job assignment, there was no cellphone signal in the underground subway system, not even in the stations.

I was told then that a good excuse to tell the boss that you did not answer his phone was because you were in the subway.

The same is true in Washington, where internet access is available only in Metro stations, not when the train starts running in the tunnels.

As I was writing this journal on Sunday, the RCN cable and internet service in my building in Washington went out.

In China, people take it for granted that cellphone signals are uninterrupted when they ride subways underground, thanks largely to their jump start in the digital age.

US President Donald Trump talked a lot about his ambition to revamp infrastructure. I am not sure if internet access, such as making Wi-Fi connectivity in his hometown New York City's subway system available everywhere and anywhere, is part of the plan. (By the way, increases in weekly and monthly subway fares went into effect on Sunday.)

To me, it should be just a piece of cake for a nation that is home to Silicon Valley, which has sent people to the moon and has spent $600 billion on the military every year.

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