The China Quarterly

Special Section on the Internet in China

Digital Divide and Social Cleavage: Case Studies of ICT Usage among Peasants in Contemporary China*

Yuhua Guoa1 and Peng Chena2

a1 Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University. Email: (corresponding author)

a2 Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University


During its structural transformation, rural China witnessed the emergence of four types of village: traditional, industrialized, commercial and villages in cities. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), including fixed phones, cell phones, television sets and the internet (with personal computers), are now commonly used in Chinese villages but in ways that differentiate villagers according to variables such as occupation, villager membership and social status. The adoption of ICTs by peasants not only represents but also accelerates growing peasant differentiation; in other words, the function of ICTs could not penetrate the barrier of social structure. Meanwhile, structural transformation in China has been an activator to shaping peasants' diversified ideas about information, and the demand for and usage of ICTs. An analysis of peasants' ICT adoption thus enables us to identify the basic trends and characteristics of social transformation in contemporary China.

(Online publication September 22 2011)

Yuhua Guo is professor of social anthropology in the department of sociology of Tsinghua University. Her research focuses on peasants' oral history and the issue of social justice in the process of social transformation. Her recent publications include “The Narrative of ‘Suffering People’ as the Historical Testimony” (Shehuixue yanjiu [Sociological Studies], 2008, No.1).

Peng Chen is a PhD candidate in the department of sociology of Tsinghua University. His main research interests include urban movements, sociology of citizenship, rural sociology, and his recent publications include “Urban Homeowners' Legal Rights Activism in Contemporary China” (Shehuixue yanjiu [Sociological Studies], 2008, No.1).

* This research is funded by the Nokia Research Centre in Beijing. Guo Yuhua is the principal investigator; the research team include Sun Liping and Shen Yuan (professors in Tsinghua University), Chen Peng and Pan Yanjun (PhD students at Tsinghua), Chen Qiuhong and SI Zuoxian (MA students at Tsinghua), and Jin Jun (Tsinghua post-doctoral fellow). It was translated into English by Jin Jun. Thanks to Harriet Evans, University of Westminster, for valuable advice and comments.