Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Research at PESD

Documenting China's Digital Divide

REAP Project


Increasingly powerful information and communication technology (ICT) devices have influenced the provision of many services, such as education and health, and have also been linked to the ability of individuals to find employment. However, if ICT is available to only some groups of individuals in a society, but not the others (or, the digital divide), the resulting disparity in access to ICT would likely contribute to income inequality and poverty for those individuals without access.

This study explores the nature of China’s digital divide with a focus on differences in access to computers, learning software, and internet at school and at home among different groups of elementary school-aged children in China. First, we document the digital divide, focusing on computer ownership, computer use and Internet access. Second, we seek to understand the quality of access to computers and their use.

We examine the digital divide in four different dimensions:

  • urban-rural (students in urban public schools vs students in rural public schools)
  • rural-migrant (students in rural public schools vs migrant students in private migrant schools)
  • public migrant-private migrant (migrant students in urban public schools vs migrant students in private migrant schools)
  • Han-ethnic minority (students in Han-dominated rural areas vs students in rural areas that are inhabited by ethnic minorities)


In 2009 and 2010, our research group conducted surveys of students in four sets of elementary schools:

  • urban public schools in Beijing, including urban students with Beijing residency and migrant students in urban public schools
  • migrant private schools in Beijing
  • rural public schools in Ankang Prefecture, Shaanxi Province
  • rural public schools in ethnic minority areas in Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai Province

The students in each set of these elementary schools were given a survey questionnaire addressing computer access and use, the quality of computer education, and access to the Internet.


Urban-Rural Digital Divide

Given the fairly regularized use of computers in both urban and rural schools, the urban-rural digital divide at school is fairly modest. However, the urban-rural digital divide at school becomes wider when examining more complicated skills of computer operations such as using educational software. Yet, the urban-rural digital divide is even wider when we examine the student use of the computer and Internet at home.

Rural-Migrant Digital Divide

As the rural to urban migration continues, is it possible that the urban-rural

es may correct themselves as more and more people from rural areas settle down in urban areas?

When examining the rural-migrant digital divide, we see that rural students in rural public schools have systematically better access to computers in school than migrant student in private migrant schools. Interestingly, there is not much difference in the skills learned in computer classes between rural schools and private migrant schools, including using educational software. The evidence is mixed when examining the rural-migrant digital divide in and around the homes of rural and migrant students, in that residing in Beijing even as a migrant student means that their households will have access to computers and the Internet.

Public Migrant-Private Migrant Digital Divide

Is there any way to narrow down the digital divide? If migrant students enter urban public schools, is it possible that when they do so that the digital divide between urban students and rural students in China will begin to narrow?

Indeed, we find that urban students and migrant students in urban public schools have remarkably equal access to ICT. Moreover, the digital divide between urban students and migrants students in urban public schools at home is not wide.

However, the digital divide between migrant students in urban public schools and those in private schools is fairly wide both at school and at home. Thus, it seems that the public migrant-private migrant digital divide is significant, and that schools play an important role in the digital divide.

Han-Ethnic Minority Digital Divide

Finally, we find that students in rural public schools have better access to computers at school than minority students in rural minority public schools. Yet, access to ICT at home for both rural students in Han-dominated areas and rural minority students is extremely low. Although, on the whole, the Han-Ethnic Minority digital divide is not as wide as the Urban-Rural digital divide, there is a clear need for policy makers to improve the use of computers (once they are in schools) in all rural public schools.

Summary Figures


Using data from a set of large-scale surveys in elementary schools in different parts of the country, we find the gap between computer and Internet access of students in rural areas and urban public school students is extremely wide. The gap widens further when comparing urban students to students from minority areas. The gap is less wide when comparing computer access and access to teaching of the most basic computer skills across urban and rural public schools. However, the divide is still large between urban and rural schools when examining the quality of computer instruction and access to learning software. Migration itself does not appear to eliminate the digital divide. Only when migrant families are able to enroll their children into urban schools does the divide substantially narrow. If the digital divide in elementary schools today is a harbinger of employment, education, and income inequality tomorrow, China needs to seriously address this issue in the near future.