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China is crushing India in the race to connect people online

Commuters work on their laptops as they wait for the bus to arrive at a bus-stop during a power-cut at Noida
Reuters/Parivartan Sharma
India’s digital future is still in the dark.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

India is trying to get its over-a-billion population online.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative has sought to make digital the primary means of communication and transaction in the country. To spark grass-root innovation, the government launched the Startup India programme in January 2016. Despite all this, China has India beat in digital prowess.

A March 16 report based on Pew Research Center polls has found that in 2016, 71% of the Chinese use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone—Pew’s definition of internet users—versus only 21% of Indians.

“Since Pew Research Center began tracking advanced technology adoption in the two countries in 2013, the Chinese have consistently reported rates of internet and smartphone use that are at least triple that of Indians. That trend has continued through 2016,” the report said.

The massive gap is reflected in smartphone ownership, too. In spring 2016, almost seven in 10 Chinese owned a smartphone, compared to just 18% of Indians, the Pew report said.

Users in both countries follow similar demographic trends. The “younger, more educated, and higher-income Chinese and Indian people are more likely to own a smartphone than their older, less educated, and poorer brethren,” the report states. Like in most parts of the world, urban smartphone users outnumber the rural ones in the world’s two most populous countries.

Yet there are disparities. As many as 94% of Chinese people in the 18-to-34 year age bracket own a smartphone, compared with only 29% of Indians in that age group.

Around 87% of Chinese above the median income level own a smartphone; only 24% Indians in the category do.

“The digital divide between the two countries mirrors differences in their broader economic trajectories,” Pew Research Center senior researcher Jacob Poushter writes. The number of middle-income people in China jumped 15 percentage points from 2001 to 2011 while those in India grew only from 1% to 3%. India’s $2.18 trillion GDP in 2015 was just a fifth of China’s $10.42 trillion.

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