power of china
A new “Internet Plus” plan could expand opportunities for rural Chinese residents.
Earlier this month, China’s State Council published an implementation plan for ‘Internet Plus’, an initiative to use the Internet and related technologies to drive the next stage of economic development. First announced in March by Premier Li Keqiang in his annual government work report, Internet Plus focuses on deepening the integration of the Internet, cloud computing and big data into traditional manufacturing. In the process, the government also hopes to boost the growth of China’s domestic tech industry.
The state Council action plan (in Chinese) identifies four main objectives. Chinese leaders hope to improve and strengthen the security of Internet infrastructure, expand access to the Internet and related technologies, make social services more convenient and efficient and, above all, increase both “quality and efficiency”. economic development – in other words, moving from labour-intensive manufacturing to a higher point in the value chain. By 2025, according to the plan, Internet Plus should be a “significant driver of innovative economic and social development”. Think of it as state planning meets the Internet of Things.
The plan outlines eleven areas of government work to achieve these goals by 2025, all of which tie into other key initiatives by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Fearing that wage increases could push China out of low-end manufacturing, dragging down already declining growth rates even further, the country’s leaders are taking steps to build a domestic innovation capacity with a “Made in China 2025” roadmap (in Chinese). Concerns over NSA spying have led to a push for the technology to be “secure and controllable.” In order to rationalize the administration and delivery of social services, the government has drawn up a draft government big data strategy. A proposed “social credit system” would improve government social surveillance to Orwellian levels.
These plans, and the Internet Plus initiative to integrate modern communication technologies into them while maintaining strict social control, have been criticized as ineffective and overly optimistic. Taking the skeptical view, George Chen writes that “If Beijing misses the point and continues to censor access to information, Premier Li’s new Internet Plus strategy is likely to incentivize more Chinese people to shop online rather than have a significant impact and term on the country’s long-awaited economic transformation”.
This prediction may come true when it comes to innovation, but one area where Internet Plus has a better chance of success is modernizing China’s agricultural sector and improving living standards in rural areas. The post of the Internet Plus plan focusing on the modernization of agriculture identifies four areas for government action:
- Encourage Internet companies to create platforms to support new forms of agricultural production, such as large-scale farming and peasant cooperatives—strengthen marketing channels and direct agricultural production towards consumer demand,
- Connecting all aspects of agricultural production to the internet – for example, promoting internet-connected environmental monitoring systems that are automatic and provide real-time data,
- Create pilot programs aimed at connecting more villages and rural businesses to the Internet,
- Use the Internet for more efficiently and safely trace agricultural products “from farm to table”, an attempt to combat the frequent food scandals in China.
These are significant efforts. The digital divide between rural and urban China, like the income gap between the two, develops. internet penetration in rural areas oscillates around 30%; in urban areas it is double. In recent years, rural residents have overcome the challenge of weaker internet infrastructure than in urban areas by migrate to mobile. Internet Plus initiatives that support mobile Internet access, loosen restrictions on mobile financial services apps and boost e-commerce will be critical for continued economic growth in rural China. The same time, e-commerceand e-commerce apps, continue to grow: the total value of e-commerce in China in 2014 was $2.1 trillion. Government support could make a big difference in helping rural businesses and farmers get their produce to urban consumers with disposable income. Work in pairs with a recently announced initiative to provide support to migrant workers who choose to return to their rural homes and establish small businesses, Internet Plus could create many opportunities for rural areas in central and western regions of China that have too often been left behind in the rush to take advantage of the investment glut on the coast.
A key challenge will be navigating the alphabet soup of central agencies tasked with overseeing Internet Plus efforts in the agricultural sector. Implementing agencies include Ministry of Agriculture, National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Commerce, General Administration of Quality Supervision , Inspection and Quarantine, China Food and Drug Administration and State Forestry Administration. A lack of coordination of efforts between these central agencies and the respective local authorities could result in misallocation of state resources, redundant or contradictory policies, or opportunities for local officials to exploit policy overlap for their own gain – all the problems we have seen resulting from ineffective policy coordination in China in the past. However, effective leadership at the highest levels of the government could overcome some of these challenges, which could lead to a significant increase in the livelihoods of Chinese rural citizens.
Lincoln E. Davidson is a Fellow in Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His research interests include rural China, Chinese cyberpolitics, and cross-Strait relations.