All REAP Projects

Documenting China's Digital Divide

China faces an emerging technology divide: while some groups have gained much access to technology, others lag behind.

REAP studied the digital divide in China by examining disparities in access to computers, learning software, and Internet among different groups of primary school children.

We examine the divide across four dimensions:

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


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 sutdents 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 were each completed a survey questionnaire which addressed computer access and use, the quality of computer education, and access to the Internet.


Urban-Rural Digital Divide

We discovered that though the urban-rural digital divide at school is modest due to regular use of computers in both rural and urban public schools, the digital divide at school was much wider when we tested for more advanced computer skills such as using educational software. The divide widened even further for student use of computers and Internet at home: urban students reported having greater access than their rural counterparts.

Rural-Migrant Digital Divide

As the rural to urban migration continues, will urban-rural inequities correct themselves as people from rural areas move to urban areas?

Our study indicates that this is not the case. In fact, students in rural public schools have better access to computers in school than students in migrant private schools. However, there is no significant difference in what is taught in computer classes between rural and private migrant schools. We also found that migrant students in large cities have better access than their rural counterparts to computers and the Internet at home.

Public Migrant-Private Migrant Digital Divide

Is there any way to narrow down the digital divide? If migrant students enter urban public schools, will the digital divide between urban students and rural students in China begin to narrow?

We found that urban students and migrant students in urban public schools have remarkably equal access to computers. Further, the digital divide in the homes of urban and migrant students in urban public schools is not wide. However, the digital divide between migrant urban public school students and migrant private school students is still fairly wide both at school and at home. The public migrant-private migrant digital divide is significant, and the kind of schools students attend play an important role helping narrow the gap.

Han-Ethnic Minority Digital Divide

Our study revealed that Han students in rural public schools have better access to computers at school than minority students in rural public schools. However, for all rural students, computer access at home is poor. Since the Han-Ethnic Minority divide is not as wide as the Urban-Rural divide, policy makers need to improve the use of computers in all rural public schools.

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Our large-scale surveys of elementary schools in various parts of the country show:

  • The gap between rural students and urban public school students is extremely wide.
  • This gap widens further when comparing urban students to students from ethnic minority areas.
  • The gap narrows when comparing computer access and access to teaching of the most basic computer skills across urban and rural public schools.
  • The divide is still large between urban and rural schools with regard to the quality of computer instruction and access to learning software.
  • Migration does not eliminate the digital divide. Only when migrant families are able to enroll their children into urban schools does the divide substantially narrow.

The digital divide in elementary schools has implications for future employment opportunities, education, and income inequality in China. In order to recognize the full potential of all its students, China must take steps to narrow the digital divide.