The coronavirus outbreak in mainland China highlighted the huge digital divide that exists between richer and poorer regions.
When schools shut and online learning was made compulsory, many students living in remote areas found they didn't have sufficient internet access.
There were 1.6 billion mobile phone subscribers in China in 2019, with many people having more than one subscription, and optical fibre and 4G covered 98 per cent of the population, according to official data.
These figures fail to show the large regional disparity between the country's rich and poor provinces, says Jack Chan Wing-kit, associate professor of the school of government at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou province.
"In poor areas, a family (often) has to share one mobile phone among all members," says Chan, who has done extensive research on China's social problems.
It is easier for service providers to offer blanket coverage in densely populated cities where most people live in high-rise buildings, Chan explains.
"In rural areas, people live in bungalows that are widely spread out. It is not economically efficient for phone service providers like China Mobile to install transmission stations there, which explain their spotty coverage," he says.
While the universal social security net in China covers people including the old and disabled, access to the internet is not considered a daily necessity at the policy level. That's unlike European countries such as Norway and Iceland, who see the internet as a basic human right and ensure their entire populations have proper access to it.
Though some wealthier coastal cities within the Pearl River Delta recently conducted local surveys to identify less-well-off households and handed out tablet computers, inland provinces in central and western China cannot afford these measures, Chan says.
The Chinese government does not encourage (the setting up of) charitiesErwin Huang, founder of WebOrganic and EdFuture
Philanthropic efforts could help address this problem, as shown by Hong Kong's experience in tackling the digital divide.
About 900,000 kindergarten, primary and secondary students in the city have been affected by school suspensions that are likely to last until at least April 20.
While families of disadvantaged students have received support from the government through Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and other welfare schemes, many children still lack digital resources as their parents don't see it as a priority, says Erwin Huang, founder of both WebOrganic, a charity promoting computer access to such youngsters, and education alliance EdFuture.
That has left it up to charities to make sure all students have enough resources at home for online learning, Huang says. For instance, this month EdFuture worked with local mobile service provider SmarTone to give out free phone data SIM cards lasting two months to 10,000 students.
"It's for those who live in subdivided flats and those who have to go to McDonald's for Wi-fi access," says Huang, who is also associate professor of engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club also recently launched a HK$42 million (US$5.4 million) scheme to provide free mobile internet data to 100,000 underprivileged primary- and secondary-school students to help with online learning while schools are closed.
Huang says while such charities help fill gaps in the provision of digital resources in Hong Kong, a similar philanthropic culture is lacking in China.
"The Chinese government does not encourage (the setting up of) charities," he says.
Huang initiated several digital resources projects in China after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, but says frequent media reports of scandals involving charities such as China's Red Cross have made it harder for NGOs to operate in the country, with the government preferring to provide social services through its own departments.
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