When you realize how, where and especially how much young Chinese go online, it misrepresents the picture to simply refer to the internet as a media form. It is much more than this. It is a lifestyle and an arena, because there is an awful lot going on inside their digital world.
For one thing, “netizens” themselves tend not to lump TV and the internet together. They have not totally given up watching television. Well, not at the moment at least. In terms of TV viewing time, young adults in Shanghai and Chengdu, a typical second-tier city in Sichuan province, spend pretty much the same amount of time watching TV, according to Synovate’s research in China for its “Young Asians” study.
However, time spent on the internet in Shanghai is massively high compared to Chengdu. The difference can be explained, in part, by the vastly different penetration rates of PC ownership in Chengdu, and lower level of web connectivity at home in second-tier cities compared to Shanghai, China's most sophisticated and international city.
Where have Shanghainese surfers found the extra time to feed their digital habit? Well, it appears to come from being "virtually" everywhere. Like elsewhere around the world, netizens in Shanghai have shifted a lot of their pursuits online. Nearly one-half of 20-to-24-year-olds who go online have purchased a product through the web and over one-third already bank online.
Interestingly, online purchases are more common than online banking in China, unlike in more developed markets around the world, because of the proliferation of virtual cash in China. E-cash is a widely-accepted form of payment. Q-coins, which are offered by QQ.com, one of China's largest instant message service providers and a major web portal, are particularly popular. In fact, China’s financial regulators are taking a closer look at how to adapt the concept of e-cash for this market as internet proliferation grows beyond young, urban adults into the mainstream.
Beyond online purchases and of course games and casual surfing, the internet is also a major arena for everything from education to dating for many young Shanghainese. Many even recognize that the internet can play an integral role in their career development, as nearly 30% have used the web to help them define their next career step. In Chengdu, we have not seen this happen--yet.
Of course, the internet has replaced some traditional media. Three-quarters of the Shanghainese we interviewed have used the internet to search for information about news and sports. But it has quickly risen to supplant lifestyle magazines: Shanghai netizens are searching for information about fashion and their idols on-line, where they know they will have a multitude of web sites to refer to, among them being the recent phenomenon of blogs.
Why would these people revert to online as an information source over traditional media? Many surfers regard news on the internet as being more trustworthy. Six out of ten surfers in Shanghai consider the web to be the most helpful information source, while TV came first with only one out of ten people. Online media also achieves dominance in terms of being viewed as the most helpful source when making actual purchase decisions in Shanghai (30% for online versus 11% for TV).
In Chengdu, meanwhile, TV remains king, but this is probably because the penetration of computer ownership there lags behind Shanghai. However, the dominance of TV in Chengdu, and other second-tier cities, will be short-lived. Already one-fifth of young adults in Chengdu rate the internet as their most preferred leisure activity, while TV captures the hearts of one-quarter. It is just a matter of time before the internet also dominates TV in most of China's second-tier cities. And once it does, you will see change occurring like a revolution--in media, commerce and culture.
Friedrich Engels, a collaborator of Karl Marx, predicted in the 19th century, “The bricks and mortar of the cities today will define the social structure of the future.”
If he had lived in China today, he might have said, “The clicks of today will define the social structure of the future.”
Darryl Andrew is the Shanghai-based managing director of Synovate, an Aegis-owned market research company based in Hong Kong.