Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Government Recommends 'Idiot-Proof' Cellphones for Peasants

Beijing's elegant suggestion to spread mobile technology in the countryside. 

Some Chinese government researchers don't appear to think much of the country's 651 million people living in the countryside. In its 2013 annual report on the development of the Internet in rural China, the state-run China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which monitors and analyzes the Chinese web, advised Chinese telecom companies to roll out "idiot-proof" smartphones for rural customers.

The report, released Nov. 27, cites the statistic that rural Chinese are underrepresented online: At the end of 2012, Internet penetration in the countryside was 23.7 percent, compared to 59.1 percent in cities. But the number of rural residents who used mobile phones to go online in 2012 increased by 20.9 percent, and rural Internet users surf the web via smartphone at a slightly higher rate than urban netizens (75.3 percent versus 72.3 percent over the past six months). To better serve rural residents, researchers suggested telecom companies attempt to shaguahua their products -- that is, make them for "stupid melons," Chinese slang for 'idiots.' Because "most residents of rural villages are not very knowledgeable or cultured," the report argued, they will be less inclined to use cell phones to go online "if the equipment systems are too complicated."

The Internet gap is one Chinese that authorities, who see the web as a driver of future economic growth, are keen to shrink. On Sept. 18, Shang Bing, a vice minister of China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates the Internet, said that the country plans to invest $323 billion in broadband Internet infrastructure by 2020, emphasizing authorities' intent to get "villages and counties" online. But given China's existing infrastructure deficiencies and the relatively lower cost of mobile Internet use, most Chinese web users will be logging on via smartphone for the time being.                 

This appears to be the first time that CNNIC has said Chinese rural netizens "require" simpler mobile interfaces. The name-calling may be more than a slip-up: It also insulates authorities from blame. If China's rural netizen ranks grow slower than hoped, the report implies, it will because of those yokels in the countryside or the companies that failed to adapt -- and not because of the Chinese government's inability to provide services.

Derogatory language aside, CNNIC was trying to address serious income and education gaps between China's rural and urban areas. The study noted that as of the end of 2012, urbanites still made 3.1 times more money than their rural counterparts, who lack the same educational opportunities as city dwellers. But that doesn't mean they need 'idiot-proof' cellphones. As anyone who has witnessed a three-year-old playing with an iPhone can attest, formal education is by no means a prerequisite for mobile technology mastery.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Ethan Couch

Drunk driving, death, wealth, and privilege isn't just an American issue.

On June 15, a drunk 16-year-old Texan named Ethan Couch crashed his Ford F-150 into four people, killing them. It looked like a case ripe for harsh penalties; instead, Couch avoided jail time, getting only 10 years' probation. At his trial, a psychologist called by the defense testified that Couch's spoiled upbringing meant he could not be responsible for his actions, a condition the witness called "affluenza." News of the sentencing on Tuesday, Dec. 10, has caught fire in the United States, and the term "affluenza" has become a touchstone for U.S. citizens outraged by what they view as wealth's triumph over justice. But the problem of privilege is not unique: In fact, the Couch incident is eerily reminiscent of an earlier accident that shocked China. 

In Oct. 2010, in a large city in China's northeastern Hebei province, a 22-year-old named Li Qiming drove drunk and crashed into two pedestrians, killing one. Instead of stopping to help them, Li continued on his way to drop his girlfriend off at university. When students and security guards stopped him on his way back, Li said, "Go ahead and sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang," a senior police official in the district where the crash occurred. 

Like "affluenza," the phrase "My dad is Li Gang" went viral, triggering enormous backlash. Although Chinese authorities tried to censor coverage of the incident, which highlighted China's socioeconomic inequality and official corruption, word nonetheless got out. "My dad is Li Gang" became one of the most popular Chinese web catchphrases of 2010, laced with dark humor.

Couch will likely spend his probation at an expensive rehab facility in California (although his family still faces $20 million in civil suits). But in China, where Communist authorities sometimes direct court rulings to quell public anger, Li was ultimately arrested and, in Jan. 2011, sentenced to six years in jail. That only occurred after months of citizen outrage, and it could have been harsher. But courts justified their leniency by citing Li's cooperation and his family's payment of around $84,000 to victims' families. Li Gang also apologized on television. 

One user on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, noticed that Couch seemed to be faring better than Li, despite killing four to Li's one. "Li Qiming, you crazy boy," he wrote, "you must have been born in the wrong place." 

Fair Use/CCTV