Is the Chinese netizenry cosmopolitan, educated, and informed? (Part I)


November 23, 2012 by chinawideweb

Yes, says Chao in her recent article Five Myths about the Chinese Internet (also available here) that appeared in Foreign Policy. In this otherwise fine article, several claims were made about the Chinese Internet and its netizenry that left me and some of my China watcher friends scratch our heads. I may be nitpicking for I agree with most of what’s said in the article. The following 5 popular myths and the counter-arguments offered were largely convincing:

1. Censorship means the Chinese are left in the dark.

2. It’s the government that censors.

3. No one is allowed to criticize the government.

4. Internet censorship is carried out in a blanket fashion.

5. The Internet will lead to democracy.

I don’t, however, agree with sweeping and unqualified statements such as this one

for the most part, Chinese Internet users are cosmopolitan, educated, and informed

Much evidence suggests the very opposite. This may seem like a minor point, but if unchallenged, such characterizations become even more pervasive and misleading than they already are.

The Chinese netizenry is NOT cosmopolitan, educated, or well informed. Two of these three descriptive words “cosmopolitan” and “informed” are loaded, so let’s take up the “educated” assertion first.

Only about 20% of Chinese netizenry have some college education. A cursory flip-through the 30th Chinese Internet Statistical Report (in Chinese) released this summer by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) will reveal how much less educated the Chinese netizenry is than imagined. The following chart (based on CNNIC’s annual reports from 2007 to 2012) tells us a few things: 1) about 10% of Chinese netizenry have primary school education; 2) the vast majority, nearly 70%, have junior high or high school diplomas; 3) slightly more than 10% have associate degrees (dazhuan in Chinese, or polytechnic school education); and 4) slightly more than 10% are college educated or above. The latter two categories combined yield about 20% of Chinese netizenry with some college education.

Chinese Internet Users by Education Levels (in percentage, 2007-2011)

Source: Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) Survey Reports, 2007-2012

One may dispute the veracity of CNNIC numbers. I’m all ears if there are better sources. Interestingly, I found this Wall Street Journal article on Chinese college grads which puts the number of the Chinese with some college education in 2010 at 8.9% of China’s entire population (based on the the Ministry of Education stats). Assuming the Chinese population in 2010 were 1.3 billion, those figures will translate into 116 million Chinese with some college education (yes, a fairly big number but not in percentage). If all these college grads were also Internet users, we’d have roughly 25% of Chinese netizenry with some college level education (457 million Chinese netizens in 2010). These numbers align with those provided in the CNNIC reports.

So, the current Chinese netizenry is NOT highly educated. This may well explain why so many Chinese Internet companies focus on gaming and have made fistful of money by churning out highly popular, addictive video games. It may also explain why the Chinese government continues to emphasize its “moral authority” in regulating Internet content “harmful to youth.” Furthermore, it is worth to note that the educational profile of Chinese Internet users has reversed the patterns observed in the early 1990s when the Chinese Net population was dominated by highly educated users, not unlike the situation in the U.S. In the near future, the “uneducated” nature of the Chinese netizenry will not quickly change. The Chinese higher ed system, at its current rate of producing about 6 million college grads a year (WJS, 2012), is unlikely to move “junior high and high school” grads swiftly up into the next rung.

Additionally, it is popularly assumed that the typical Chinese Internet user is young, male, urban, and educated (as often implied by pictures like the one below).


A male-dominated Chinese Internet may be true in the late 1990s, but that is no longer the case. The gender gap for Chinese netizenry has narrowed (see the following chart of the evolution of Chinese Internet users by gender). Male and female Internet users are more or less on par, a point of considerable potential interest to researchers, business people, and policy makers.

Evolution of Chinese Netizenry by Gender (in percentage, 1997-2011)

Source: Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) Survey Reports, 1997-2012

Depicting the Chinese netizenry as mostly “educated” is about as realistic as us bestowing Avengers-like powers on this population. Fantastic.

More to come on “cosmopolitan” and “informed” claims.


5 thoughts on “Is the Chinese netizenry cosmopolitan, educated, and informed? (Part I)

  1. Your criticisms assume that a college degree is the only way of measuring a persons education.

  2. Very interesting, and you are completely right. The only thing I would add is that, compared with access to other media (TV, Radio, newspapers), Internet users are (by comparison) better educated. This doesn´t mean that they are overall “cosmopolitan, educated and well informed”, but they are more so that the Chinese that are not on the Internet. This is even more true in Sina Weibo.

  3. […] Is the Chinese netizenry cosmopolitan, educated, and informed? (Part I) […]

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