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UPDATED: October 27, 2010
China Strives to Improve E-Governance in Countryside

The Chinese Government has been working to bridge the wide "digital divide" between urban and rural areas caused by imbalances in the Internet access and information literacy.

In China's underdeveloped countryside, the lack of popularity of the Internet, which has long been recognized as a critical base for e-governance, has presented considerable challenges to the government in delivering effective public services, said officials and experts at the 4th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance being held from October 25 to 28 in Beijing.

The emphasis of good e-governance should be on creating a more equitable society by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor and eliminating persistent poverty, said the conference' s general co-chair, Peter Haddawy, also director of the International Institution for Software Technology at the United Nations University.

China has more than 700 million rural residents, accounting for over half the country' s total population. About 15 percent of rural residents managed to surf the Internet once in the second half of 2009, which is one-third the number of urban net users, according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) this year.

In addition, "the development of the Internet in China' s countryside has begun to slow down," the report said, implying the possibility of a widening 'digital divide' between rural and urban areas.

Despite several efforts in recent years, weak infrastructure and poor education levels of the rural population have continued to hamper the promotion of the Internet in the countryside, said Du Weicheng, deputy head of the Information Center at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Therefore, the Chinese Government was now exploring different and more pragmatic methods to improve e-governance in these areas, rather than merely trying to spread the use of the Internet, Du said.

"In the past five years, we' ve been encouraging our local sectors to make the best use of telephones and televisions -- the traditional platforms that have allowed the sharing of agricultural policies and information," Du said, adding that he found hotlines very popular among farmers.

By 2009, more than 96 percent of Chinese rural households had access to mobile phones and televisions, according to the Annual Report on China' s E-Government Development in 2010.

"In the near future, we' ll optimize our cell phone-based customized short message services to cater to the farmers' need for information on supply and demand, as well as for technical counseling," Du said.

Nevertheless, the important role of the Internet in developing rural areas has never been ignored.

"Today, China has about 30,000 websites concerning agricultural issues. We plan to cut that number while improving the quality of the ones that remain," Du said.

The official website of the Ministry of Agriculture currently attracts some six million clicks every day, he said.

"Limited or no access to the Internet has hindered rural residents from enjoying the public services provided by the government as conveniently as their urban counterparts," said Jin Feng, head of the Information Center of east China's Jiangxi Province.

A large proportion of the rural population also misses out using the Internet as an important channel for voicing opinions, although it is becoming increasingly so for urban residents.

"About 80 percent of the complaints posted on the 'message board' of the website of the provincial government are from urban citizens," Jin said.

An important requirement for e-governance was to "give a greater voice to the poor, particularly rural communities," said Haddawy.

Thanks to the government's subsidies, many villages in Jiangxi managed to set up a service center equipped with computers and an instructor to teach farmers the basics of the Internet, Jin said.

Dr. Sharon Dawes from the Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany, said that in poor rural areas, higher levels of literacy and basic education were the foundation of progress in e-governance.

"Education provides opportunities to prepare people to be good consumers of information. I believe that information can help lift people out of poverty," she said.

The central committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council have stressed the significance of "informatization" in rural areas in the "No. 1 Document" of the central committee, the first document issued every year, for five years in a row.

(Xinhua News Agency October 26, 2010)

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