China’s Smartphone Generation

Commuters use their phones riding a Metro train in Shenzhen City, China Photograph by Wu Hanren/AP Photo

Every day at noon, workers spill out through the red gates of the Xue Fulan garment factory on the outskirts of Beijing to enjoy one precious hour of lunchtime freedom. They are mostly in their late teens or early 20s, living in no-frills dormitories within the factory complex. Most saunter out on a hot summer day with a water bottle in one hand and a smartphone in the other.

While personal computers are rare inside the factory, many of these young migrant workers—who are just climbing onto the lowest rung of the urban economic ladder—are now on the Internet daily. With 12-hour workdays, their free hours are scarce, but they still find time to use social media and dating apps, play video games, and read lifestyle and news sites, where they can catch a glimpse of the upscale urban life they aspire to.

Last week the government-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center reported that 591 million people in China now have Internet access; that’s 45 percent of the population. Just six years ago, only 16 percent of China’s population was online. Among the drivers of the steep rise in Internet penetration: the rapid adoption of Internet-enabled mobile devices, especially among groups that previously lacked regular connectivity, including China’s migrant workers. More than three-quarters of China’s netizens (464 million people) now use a mobile Internet device—instead of, or in addition to, a laptop or PC.

Kantar Media, a U.K.-based global consumer research and consulting firm, polled nearly 100,000 Chinese Internet users about their online habits and preferences in 2012 and just released its analysis of the study: 59 percent of respondents said that online chat and dating were their favorite uses of the mobile Internet, while 43 percent described themselves as “frequent” users of social media. Notably, the number of Chinese netizens who claimed they had visited a social media site in the past day was higher among mobile Internet users (32 percent) than among all netizens (26 percent). Weixin (“WeChat”), Tencent’s popular social-media app, is almost exclusively used on smartphones and tablets.

Megacity commutes are also correlated with more time online. In 2012, Chinese commuters who travelled more than one hour to work were three times as likely to go online daily as those whose commutes were under a half hour. As China’s large cities sprawl, traffic jams proliferate as well. Shen Ying, a general manager at CTR Media, Kantar Media’s joint-venture partner in China, believes that the “fragmentation of ‘social’ time created by longer commutes” goes hand in hand with the “desire for social networking.” Fortunately for China’s lonely subway passengers, Internet access on Beijing’s subway is more stable than on New York City’s.

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