China has set a goal in its plan for the country’s national economic and social development from 2021–2025 to construct “digital China” by, inter alia, “accelerating the construction of a digital economy, a digital society, and a digital government”. The expectation is to “drive changes in production methods, lifestyles, and governance methods” through “digital transformation”.
The role of China’s “digital government” in these digital initiatives was not clear until a significant document on the topic was issued in June 2022. The document further provides a glimpse of the direction that the new Chinese leadership will likely continue when they are at the helm after the conclusion of the forthcoming Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress.
China’s Digital Government Takes the Lead
In June 2022, China’s State Council issued its Guiding Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of a Digital Government. In the “Guiding Ideology” section of the document, the State Council specifies that “digital technology will be widely used in government management services” to “build a new form of digitalized and intelligent government operations”. In addition, the State Council pledges to, inter alia, fully use “the leading role of the construction of a digital government [emphasis added]” in the development of a digital economy and a digital society, in the hope of “promoting high-quality economic and social development” and “continuously increasing the people’s sense of gain, sense of happiness, and sense of security”.
The State Council continues to state in the document how the construction of a digital government will “help promote the development of a digital economy”. Specifically, the construction of a digital government will help, inter alia, “expand new space for economic development”, “accurately grasp the development needs of industries and enterprises”, and “improve the digital economy governance system”.
“China’s determination to construct such a digital government […] is impressive. However, the existence of ‘digital divides’ […] is likely to be a major obstacle to these digital initiatives.”
Moreover, the State Council explains that the construction of a digital government will “lead the construction of a digital society” by, for example, “promoting the integration of digital technology with traditional public services”, “optimizing the supply of digital resources”, and “promoting the construction of smart cities”.
China’s determination to construct such a digital government, which, in turn, helps the development of the country’s digital economy and digital society, is impressive. However, the existence of “digital divides” in the country is likely to be a major obstacle to these digital initiatives.
Digital Divides & China’s E-Government
Long before the current push for the construction of a digital government, China began following the global trend to pursue the development of e-government, in the hope of using information and communication technology to help, among other goals, increase the efficiency and accessibility of public services. Overall, considerable progress has been made, but the benefits of e-government development have been compromised by the existence of digital divides.
Such digital divides, however, do not necessarily exist only in the poorest and/or most remote regions in the country. An empirical project in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province, that I led ten years ago gave me an opportunity to see the adverse impact of digital divides in a relatively developed city.
In 2012, with support from Zhejiang University, the government of Hangzhou, and a group of e-government experts who helped design the United Nations E-Government Development Index (“UNEGDI”), I led a team to implement the China eGovernment Development Index (“CEDI”) project. The purpose of the project was to conduct, through the application of the CEDI methodology, objective, quantitative assessments of the online information and services provided by local governments in 13 districts, counties, and county-level cities in Hangzhou (“assessed areas”).
Adapted from the UNEGDI, the CEDI was designed to have three components, each of which accounts for a third of the CEDI’s total value:
- the Telecommunication Infrastructure Index (“TII”), measuring the telecommunication infrastructure in an assessed area (e.g., the number of personal computers per 100 inhabitants);
- the Human Capital Index (“HCI”), measuring the human capital in an assessed area (e.g., the adult literacy rate); and
- the Online Service Index (“OSI”), evaluating the e-government services provided by the government website of each assessed area.
The 13 assessed areas in Hangzhou were ultimately ranked according to their CEDI scores. The six Hangzhou localities with the lowest CEDI scores were all suburban or rural. However, five of these six localities had quite high OSI scores. This means that while the websites of these localities were quite well-designed, these localities were not effective in providing e-government information and services that were actually used because many inhabitants lacked either Internet access (as reflected in the localities’ low TII scores) or the necessary level of education to use the existing e-government services effectively (as indicated by the localities’ low HCI scores).
“An important lesson learned […] is that [digital] divides can only be eradicated by investing heavily in the improvement of the telecommunication infrastructure and human capital.”
In short, the detailed breakdown of the 13 assessed areas’ CEDI scores revealed distinct digital divides (arising from various levels of telecommunication infrastructure and human capital) between the urban and suburban/rural areas in Hangzhou. The digital divides were a major obstacle to Hangzhou’s efforts to promote the development of e-government. An important lesson learned from the CEDI project is that these divides can only be eradicated by investing heavily in the improvement of the telecommunication infrastructure and human capital.
Digital Divides & China’s Digital Government
The State Council is fully aware of the problem of digital divides. In the Guiding Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of a Digital Government, the State Council mentions the term “digital divides” twice:
[…] Eradicate the “digital divides” so that more results of the construction of a digital government can benefit all people in a more equitable manner.
[…] Increase the support for the construction of digital governments in underdeveloped regions, strengthen the support for rural regions in terms of [the accessibility to] resources such as capital, technology, and talent, expand the coverage of digital infrastructure, optimize the supply of digital public products, and accelerate the eradication of the “digital divides” between regions.
Given China’s current economic challenges, how the new Chinese leadership will weigh all the priorities and then set aside enough resources for eradicating the digital divides in the country will reflect their level of commitment to constructing a digital government. Perhaps, the potential of having more rapid growth in China’s digital economy will provide incentives for the leadership to take strong measures against these divides. If this occurs, the achievement will not be just about closing the digital divides, but also the disparity between the country’s haves and have-nots.
† The citation of this article is: Dr. Mei Gechlik, China’s Digital Government, Economy, and Society, SINOTALKS.COM, In Brief No. 23, Oct. 12, 2022, https://sinotalks.com/inbrief/2022w41-english-digital-government-economy-society.
The original, English version of this article was edited by Nathan Harpainter. The information and views set out in this article are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the work or views of SINOTALKS.COM.
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