Society

The world wide wok

The internet reaches Qianwei

Or alternatively, you could use it to go online

The first mention of the information superhighway dates back to 1983, and a Newsweek reference to a plan for a fibre-optic cable link between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

The superhighway is now something of a terminological relic, just as ‘the World Wide Web’ is rarely used to describe the myriad of content hosted online.

Despite this, the superhighway’s basic principle of computers and sub-networks exchanging data remains largely unchanged. But its usage has branched out far beyond America’s east coast. According to the Western China Metropolis Daily it has even reached the boughs of a phoenix tree in a back garden in Qianwei in Sichuan province.

The tree belongs to Lu Hui, a woman earning widespread interest from China’s netizens for her own determined efforts to get online. Lu has rigged up a homemade wireless network, with a dish fashioned from a wok. The cooking pan has been hoisted up into the tree’s branches, high enough to pick up a signal from 3 kilometres away.

A journalist from Western China Metropolis Daily visited Lu, after reading about her endeavours (where else, but on the internet). Thinking the feat impossible, or a hoax, the journalist confirmed to the newspaper’s readers that Lu was actually able to surf the web using her improvised kit.

Lu’s efforts stemmed from her frustration with local internet access. The Chinese government shares her interest in widening access to rural locales, and has policy commitments that every village will have access to a telephone – and every township to an internet connection – by next year.

The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), which has reported on the country’s internet development twice a year since 1998, notes a continuing disparity in internet penetration between rural and urban areas, however. Lu’s own home province Sichuan has 13.6% of households with access compared to Beijing’s leading 60%.

But, in the long run, the rural-urban digital divide will narrow. Rural usage is growing much faster in percentage terms, although the CNNIC admits that internet penetration in the countryside got off to a slow start thanks to cost, technology constraints and a lack of understanding of how to use it. Lu Hui is unusual here; she has some computer training and her boyfriend studied electronics.

Other aspects of the most recent report (January 2009) are more celebratory. The CNNIC claims the national internet penetration rate (22.6%) has slightly overtaken the global average, following the June 2008 revelation that the country had more users than the US in absolute terms. The January data suggests that 298 million Chinese are online; a 41.9% increase on 2007. In overall population terms, though, the Chinese are at less than a third of the US level, and also trail Russia and Brazil.

There are areas, however, in which China’s internet culture may benefit from leapfrogging technologies. More than 117 million users accessed the internet over their mobile phones last year, an increasingly cheap and reliable option. More strikingly, almost 91% of China’s access is broadband, almost twice the European Union’s broadband penetration rate.

The online audience remains an overwhelmingly young one, with the 10-19 year old age bracket as the largest user group. Usage tails off especially rapidly amongst the over-forties.

Still, the average China netizen is spending 16.6 hours per week online, 162 million Chinese have started their own blogs and 234 million read news websites. These numbers are only likely to increase.

Despite her recent celebrity, Lu says the internet is just a hobby. In fact, the Metropolis Daily reveals that Lu hopes instead to “get rich because of rabbitry” – she is a rabbit farmer.

That’s not something that you’d be likely to hear in Silicon Valley – but probably a more sensible choice in Sichuan.


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