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China leaves India on wrong side of digital divide

Posted by: Frederik Balfour on July 26, 2008

I’ve seen several stories trumpeting the much-anticipated news that China, with 253 million internet subscribers at the end of June, has officially overtaken the U.S. as having the largest online community in the world.

But for me the real story behind these figures is the yawning digital divide between China and India. The dusty old country of 1.1 billion denizens has just 42 million internet subscribers. That amounts to an internet penetration of less than 4% compared to China’s which is in excess of 19%.

When it comes to broadband penetration, India’s position looks even starker. According to India’s Business Standard, the country has just 4.38 million broadband subscribers, amounting to slightly more than 10% of internet users. That’s shockingly low compared to China, which boasts 214 million broadband subscribers, accounting for about 85% of all users.

I find it a more than a little surprising that a country like China, which operates a vast and sophisticated firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing information and opinions the communists deem a threat to their monopoly on power, continues to see such a boom in internet growth. Sure, Chinese internet users spend a lot of their time playing online games, downloading music, or watching Youtube wannabees, but the success of online commerce sites such as Alibaba’s Taobao are testament to how the country’s embrace of the internet is reshaping how its economy works.

So what’s holding India back? I’m sure many of you out there can enlighten me. I eagerly await your feedback.

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Reader Comments

Obama vs Clinton

July 26, 2008 10:58 PM

There is no point to compare India and China. India is a just story hyped by western countries to contain China. The reality in China is different from what western media says, it is more astonishing than the data itself.


July 27, 2008 03:30 AM

You will not understand if you don't remove your prejudice in your mind.

One thing is proven: You and many other BW reporters here don't understand China.


July 28, 2008 02:20 AM

The data only reflects the phenomenon but no explain to the reasons.
I believe this is the questions about the country economy & political issues rather than the people habits.


July 28, 2008 05:06 AM

Not another China vs India story again! The 2 countries are so different from each other that they should not be compared. Why not compare the US vs Russia? Or the US with Brazil?

Why are the American so keen on pitching China and India against each other. I urge Chinese readers not to respond else it may provoke backlash from Indian nationalists.


July 28, 2008 05:35 AM

BW reporters likes to compares becoz this will generate alot of viewers and comments. This means more $$. Capitalism rules us all.

When comparison is make one need to use an open minded view to see things and must be resilient in taking criticism. There are pros and cons here

The cons are this kind of comparison always put india in a bad losing situation which always ended up making india looks like a loser. And when some criticisms are put forward there always attach some nationalist indians to defend their country with silly reasons (we all see too often on the net) which will make india looks even worse.

The pros is it question ppl mentality, it actually force ppl, the indians in this regards to really question their believe to force them to see their own internal demons and make efforts to change it.

This kind of things takes time to adjust. What happens in india now is exactly same as what happens in china 20 years ago. The same mentality, the same unwillingness to accept critics.

Look, china is wat china is today also becoz of intense criticism from others. It takes years for chinese to change and make a different. It does make a difference and for that i m glad.

If the world does not giv up on you, how can you giv up on yourself.


July 28, 2008 07:05 PM

Lee says"Why are the American so keen on pitching China and India against each other"
The conquitadors alone could not defeat The Incas Empire if they did not use local Indians.The British could not colonize India if they did not pitch local ethnic groups killing each other first.I can not rob your house if I don't cause you, your brothers,your parents, your spouse,your childrens fighting against each other first,or I am not a criminal.


July 28, 2008 10:20 PM

Mr. Balfour, Good try. Neither the Indians nor the Chinese have responded.

You may instead want to invite comments on why US / UK is so far behind South Korea or Singapore on mobile telephony.


July 28, 2008 11:33 PM

Looks like both the Chinese and Indians are getting wise and refusing to participate in this India vs China game.


July 30, 2008 06:19 AM

Corruption in government and lack of infrastructure is holding India back. The onset of capitalism in India has been slowed down by power politics, so things look grim at least in the near term


August 3, 2008 10:25 PM

the fact of the matter is that most indians and most chinese do not care about this "battle", they have more important things to worry about


August 10, 2008 12:46 AM

Indians should follow the much revered Chinese leader Deng Xioping. In 80s he told the Chinese people to "hide from brightness and nourish obscurity". What a wonderful statement. Indians, including me, bought into the India - the next superpower - hype! We need to listen to Deng Xioping, be humble, work hard and improve our country.

Look at the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony and you will see the reality. India is at least a generation behind. We can improve only if we are humble - not arrogant.


August 13, 2008 07:29 PM

Corruption is in all country's India and CHINA even more are full of this very very wrong doings.

Im from Australia and I am just so upset at how other Leaders of your country just KEEP RIPPING YOU ALL OFF !!!

This world is so worng in the hands of humans like these.

Hu Jintao & Sonia Gandhi are not doing a good job at all.

I know for a fact that most Indians and most from china would love to live life free !!!

I for one can not understand CHINAS leader, All I can say is so so lucky Im not born in CHINA !

I would kill my self or go see this so called LEADER OF YOURS and ask some questions about how he thinks life should be.

There is nothing he could say not from what I have seen over the years from this place called CHINA.




Gabbar Singh

August 14, 2008 09:32 AM

I think communism is probably the key reason why China has progressed very well. As the saying goes, 'There is no better form of governance than a benevolent dictatorship'. Though here we have the Chinese communist party playing the dictatorial role. (But are they benevolent to society as a whole??)

I also wonder whether progress at the cost of freedom (of speech, of religious belief etc.) is worth it. I am an Indian and am extremely happy to live in India, inspite of all its problems. (BTW I have lived in the US and Europe).

A lot of my joy in life comes from the Indian way of life, the deep springs of religion and spirituality that pervade the very air and soil of India, and I revel in the freedom of speech that I enjoy.

Of course, as a country, we have to improve in many, many ways like public hygiene, poverty alleviation, better public health services, improved literacy rates etc. And we badly need to control our population growth.

But, even the poor in India (who are poorer by orders of magnitude as compared to the poor in the West) don't seem so desperate and so utterly lost as the poor in the West.

I wonder how China treats its poor. Are they a shame, to be hidden from the eye of the world? Does society look down upon them as failures??

Overall I think China may be doing way better than India on economic stats & military stats. But perhaps Indians lead more content and happier lives.

After all, what is the worth of living in a golden castle if you cannot live life by your faith and be able to freely speak your mind??


August 14, 2008 11:36 PM

Living in poverty and especially in absolute poverty is considered as lack of human right! No access to sanitized water, food, education, medicine are also part of human right issue. Also, what is the point to express oneself if no one listen or no one care or it does not make a single difference on the life of the people?
Child malnutrition, bondage servitude, child labor are also a sign of lack of human right!


August 25, 2008 06:45 PM

To Jcage. China were also facing the same problems 30-40 years ago. The things have improved there since liberalization. Same will happen in India with passage of time. The point to note is since 1991 , India has removed good amount of % points from poverty. And of course India can learn from China in many ways.

Having said that.. a malnourished poor man who has right to speak is much better than a well fed state prisioner. Freedom is heaven. It is difficult to explain that to a mainland Chinese, but the Chinese who go out of country to free countries like Australia can feel that.


September 1, 2008 03:41 PM

Who is to say the majority of Chinese in China aren't content with their life in China? Heck, here in the US of A, where we can be as free as one can be, a hell lotta us are as mad as hell with just about everything. Care to check our election polls?


September 1, 2008 03:45 PM

To Mr Noel:
You from Australia? You sure don't sound, much less write, like a native English speaker. Nice try.


September 9, 2008 02:56 PM

democracy can work well in developed nations but for developing nations they need a system that simply runs well there.

iraq is already a democracy so? free speech, free election. so what? and what about india? why not compare iraq to india...both belong to democractic nations?

remember. a mokey can do what ever he wants and say what ever he likes and pee where ever he loves but freedom needs other stuff to back up so people can be different than animals. stuff like a decent life. and chinese like me r simply trying to make our people lead better and more decent lives then we talk about stuff like democracy someday.

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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