China’s Connectivity Revolution

NEW HAVEN – Long the most fragmented nation on earth, China is being brought together like never before by a new connectivity. Its Internet community is expanding at hyper speed, with profound implications for the Chinese economy, to say nothing of the country’s social norms and political system. This genie cannot be stuffed back in the bottle. Once connected, there is no turning back.

The pace of transformation is breathtaking. According to Internet World Stats, the number of Internet users in China has more than tripled since 2006, soaring to 485 million in mid-2011 – more than three times that in 2006. Moreover, China’s rush to connectivity is far from over. As of mid-2011, only 36% of its 1.3 billion people were connected – far short of the nearly 80% penetration rates seen in South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Indeed, with the cost of connectivity falling sharply – China’s mobile users are expected to surpass PC users by 2013 – and, with urbanization and per capita incomes also rising sharply, it is not unreasonable to expect China’s Internet penetration rate to cross the 50% threshold by 2015. That would be the functional equivalent of adding about three-fourths of all existing Internet users in the US.

Nor are the Chinese casual and infrequent Internet users. Consistent with what the social-network theorist Clay Shirky has dubbed a society’s penchant for unlocking the “cognitive surplus” embedded in net-based activities, survey data from the China Internet Network Information Center suggest that Chinese netizens log an average of 2.6 hours per day online – a full hour longer than the average 15-49-year-old Chinese citizen spends watching television.