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The myth of China's online superiority

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on December 5, 2007

Are young Chinese really more cyber-savvy than Americans? Yes, says a recent survey by ad agency JWT and Barry Diller’s IAC. According to the survey (here’s a summary), 86% of the Chinese surveyed said that they live some of their lives online, compared to only 42% of the American 16-25 year olds.

Diller, who was in Beijing recently touting his plan to invest $100 million in Chinese online ventures, not surprisingly cited this survey as evidence that China is the place to be for Internet businesses such as his. “Like many other areas in comparing Americans to the energy and progress elsewhere in the world, China’s speedy evolution in its use of the internet is fast eclipsing that of the US. I think this is great for China, not so great for us,” Diller said. (For more, see this Eye on Asia post from late November.)

At the Atlantic, James Fallows helpfully points out several of the holes in the contention that Chinese “seem to be way ahead of Americans in leading a digital life,” as Diller says. “They ‘seem’ to be way ahead? I suppose, in the same sense in which I ‘seem’ to be way taller than Yao Ming. Both of these seem true only if you ignore the actual facts.” Fallows argues that Chinese are indeed ahead when it comes to online games and text messaging, but that’s it. “I do know, from observation in elementary and high schools and also in colleges, that apart from game-playing and text messaging, Chinese kids are in no sense ‘ahead’ of American kids in use of the internet. In the areas Americans would probably consider significant — for instance, mastery of search devices — Chinese kids are generally behind.”

One big problem that Fallows doesn’t mention: The study was a “random online survey” of 1104 Chinese. Since China is a country with an Internet penetration rate of only 12%, those 1104 Chinese who responded to the survey are not exactly representative of most young Chinese. What about the other 88% of Chinese who aren’t online? Obviously, they can’t respond to an online survey about how important the Internet is in their lives, because the Internet isn’t part of their lives at all.

Another problem: Young Chinese who are online spend so much time on the Internet because so many of their other entertainment options are so bad. Chinese TV is state-controlled and notorious for its boring and staid programming. The government imposes a severe quota on the number of imported movies that cinemas can show, so young people don’t go to the movies the way that their American counterparts do. Staying home and playing video games on a Wii, PlayStation or Xbox isn’t an option for most young people either, since the gaming console companies typically have been wary about selling their games in a country where counterfeiting is rampant. So no wonder far more Chinese kids spend so much time playing games or watching movies or TV shoes online. It doesn’t mean they have any sort of big advantage over young Americans, though.

Reader Comments

Katie Leung

December 5, 2007 6:10 AM

Bruce insecurity

Leading that table does not mean superiority or inferiority complex, that table is really not an achievement or anything, I don't even think many Americans would take that seriously and go berserk like Bruce.

And as a Chinese, I am quite sad that most of young people nowadays spend too much time on the Internet instead of doing something more useful for themselves and the country. I don't even think Chinese people would even take pride in such survey and feel "superior" lol.

Bruce, please grow up, you graduated from Princeton, you should know better.

Sometimes I wonder if Bruce is really a professional journalist that graduated from Princeton or just some random unemployed blogger on the net that just write everything he likes without even thinking deeply into the matter.


December 5, 2007 9:52 AM

Bruce, what is wrong with you? First of all, who said anything about an advantage of young Chinese over young Americans? All the study shows is that connected young Chinese spend more time on the web, not that they have some sort of a distinct advantage by the virtue of being online alone.

There was never a myth of Chinese online superiority either, just articles on the fact that those who are connected are usually on broadband and catching on to all the interesting things the web have to offer at a good clip. Trying to paint a survey measuring how much connected Chinese citizens surf the web and contrasting it to how much time Americans spend on doing the same.

If you have such a disdain for everything Chinese and use your blog to consistently imply that the Chinese are desperately behind their Western counterparts in every way or trying too hard to oppress their citizens to stimulate economic development in certain areas, even when that has nothing to do with the issue you're trying to tackle, why do you work on an Asia blog? It's like having Ann Coulter as a writer on the Huffington Post.


December 5, 2007 10:24 AM

I hope you don't mind some constructive criticism Bruce but I think its important to place things in perspective with issues like this. The vast majority of Chinese IT growth has been in recent years whereas the U.S has been a consistant innovator in this realm for decades, half a century almost.
I felt that your post was a little defensive possibly about the growth of the Chinese economy but its important to remember the average chinese only earns about $4000 purchasing parity, with such large populations China and India will inevitably surplant the U.S, Japan and Germany as dominant economies in the world as they have already done with the UK, France and Italy.
Cultures differ and attitudes differ from country to country but people are always people.


December 5, 2007 3:47 PM

You can look at Hong Kong and some other parts of East Asia on how China is going to play out.

Also, let's not forget that China's population is a lot larger than the US's, so Internet penetration rate of 12% represents a huge number.


December 5, 2007 11:05 PM

Yet, nobody can argue that internet and communication are a lot cheaper in China than in the US


December 8, 2007 6:45 AM

"Chinese TV is state-controlled and notorious for its boring and staid programming."
Are you sure? Or are you just simply talking about something you don't understand?
It was quite boring ten years ago but no longer. Now they have filled with those soap series, talk show...
Bruce, please come to China at least once and if you come to Beijing I can show you around...

But if don't really believe what you said-you are just paid to say so...hehe

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