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La politisation de l'inclusion numérique

The Digital Inclusion of Older Persons in China

The Role of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Agenda-Setting of a New “Social Issue”
L’inclusion numérique des personnes âgées en Chine. Le rôle de la pandémie de Covid-19 dans la mise à l’agenda d’un nouveau « problème social »
Justine Rochot, Chao-Hsuan Peng et Renyou Hou
p. 20-29


Peu de travaux s’intéressent à l’inclusion numérique des personnes âgées dans une perspective d’analyse des problèmes publics, et encore moins dans des approches internationales prenant en compte le contexte de la récente épidémie de Covid-19. Cet article analyse ainsi le rôle joué par la pandémie sur la mise à l’agenda de l’inclusion numérique des personnes âgées en Chine. Si ces dernières rencontrent des difficultés croissantes face à la numérisation inédite de la vie sociale chinoise ces dix dernières années, ces difficultés n’étaient jusqu’alors pas érigées en problème public. En comparaison, 2020 a marqué un tournant inédit, se soldant par la publication du premier Plan national visant à réduire la fracture digitale au niveau de l’âge. Partant d’une analyse des politiques publiques, de la presse et de la recherche académique, cet article retrace pas à pas le processus ayant conduit à cette mise à l’agenda. Il pointe du doigt le rôle joué par l’usage du numérique dans les politiques anti-épidémiques chinoises, l’influence du réalisateur Jia Zhangke comme entrepreneur de morale, mais aussi les interprétations parfois surprenantes de l’inclusion digitale formulées localement par les acteurs.

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1The worldwide development of digital technologies and governance over the past decades have resulted in a spur of theorization regarding its effects on the potential exclusion of less digital-savvy social groups. Thus, the “digital divide” has been seen as necessitating a repair mechanism, with “digital inclusion” aimed at ensuring the shared benefits of digital technologies throughout society. Understanding of “digital inclusion” has evolved over this period. While initial discussions focused “on the digital divides between countries […], and within countries between demographic groups and places” (Sharp 2022: 3) stressing inequalities in access, a shift has occurred to include other predictors such as skills (literacy, confidence) or accessibility (affordability, adaptation to special needs), and pay attention to the experiences of those keeping digital technology at bay (Selwyn 2006; Thompson 2016). Particular attention has been paid to the relationship between age, generation and digital use. While new cohorts of more skilled, better-off and younger older persons increasingly appropriate digital technologies, “age [still] remains the biggest predictor of whether or not someone is digitally included” (Center for Ageing Better, 2020: 3), along with factors such as being in bad health, and/or being poorer or less educated. As such, resources available to individuals—physical, cognitive, social, financial—strongly shape their digital engagement in old age.

2The COVID-19 pandemic has been largely regarded as reinforcing societies’ reliance on digital technologies and their digital divide (Lucas 2020), particularly affecting the oldest fringe of the population already at greater risk of suffering from the virus and delayed care. While the epidemic did push many older citizens to get online and diversify their digital practices (König and Seifert 2022), the moving online of many activities, information and services also led the less digitally-savvy to experience greater social isolation and risk missing out on many levels such as: work (search for work online, remote work); health (access to telehealth or COVID-19 information); social connection (messaging and videoconference with family or friends); community (access to online shopping, banking, public services), etc. (Center for Ageing Better, 2020; Seifert 2020).

3However, a limited amount of research has approached digital inclusion from a public policy perspective, as a process of public-issue definition, agenda-setting and implementation, whether at international, national or local levels of public action (Neveu 2017; Levine and Taylor 2018; Rosa 2013). Moreover, while the effects of COVID-19 on older citizens have been widely documented, little literature has confronted the diverse use of digital technologies in pandemic control policies across nations and its potential divergent impacts on older citizens and inclusive policies.

4This article aims at filling these gaps by analyzing the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the agenda-setting of digital inclusion policies towards older citizens in China. The Chinese case is interesting from several aspects. First, it offers a distinct case study due to the intense use of digital technologies and governance both before and during the pandemic in China; secondly, the emergence, in China, of unprecedented public policies aimed at bridging “the elderly digital divide” (laonian shuzi honggou 老年数字鸿沟) and furthering their “digital inclusion” (shuzi rongru/baorong 数字融入/包容) since the end of 2020, allows us to question the process leading to this sudden agenda-setting in a pandemic context. Taking a pragmatic approach to social problems and the processes of agenda-setting (Cefaï and Terzi 2012; Neveu 2017), this paper therefore offers a dynamic analysis of the experiences, contexts, and actors leading to this unprecedented attention towards the digital inclusion of older people in China, from the naming of perceived injurious experiences to their integration into public policies (Felstiner, Abel and Sarat 1980; Kingdon 1984). It is true that since the pandemic, a lot of Chinese research on the digital inclusion of older people has been published; however, the process and experiences leading to the agenda-setting of this new “social issue” remain largely understudied, and the Chinese understanding of digital inclusion has not been analyzed. Retracing this process is nonetheless important. It enriches our understanding of the digital divide and aging in different cultural and socio-economic settings by pointing out the role of the Chinese social and political contexts in the timing and shaping of its digital inclusion policies towards older people. It also contributes to our understanding of publics-making and agenda-setting processes in a country known for its political constraints (Wang 2008, Luo 2014, Dai et al. 2021), as well as of Chinese society in the context of its aggressive, often opaque COVID-19 policies.


5This paper stems from discoveries made by the authors during their participation in the RIDPA project (International Research Project on the Rights of Older Persons in the COVID-19 Pandemic Context), led by the French-speaking International Research Network on Age, Citizenship and Socio-Economic Integration (REIACTIS). The project aimed to compare the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on older people’s rights in 18 countries, between January 2020 and June 2021, based on the analysis of pandemic-related public policies, press articles from three main newspapers, as well as interviews with key gerontological actors. This research allowed us to identify and analyze 87 mostly central-level COVID-19 policies concerning older people, and 186 press articles mentioning older citizens’ rights during the pandemic in three major media: the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) 人民日报, the newspaper providing official information on the policies and viewpoints of the Communist Party; The Paper (Pengpai) 澎湃, a State-owned publication benefiting from a certain leverage of action; and Caixin 财新, a liberal investigative magazine. Two anonymous interviews were also conducted.

6This research led us to identify the important topic, in media articles, of the digital difficulties encountered by older citizens—officially defined in China as age 60 or over—in the early phase of the pandemic, as well as the sudden agenda-setting of public policies targeting their digital inclusion at the end of 2020. This encouraged us to try to better understand the processes behind this phenomenon. We therefore conducted additional research: first by mining social media such as Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and Zhihu (Chinese Quora) to identify the temporality of this topic in netizens’ discussions; secondly by analyzing Chinese research papers dealing with the digital divide through searches in the Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) database; and finally, by furthering our understanding of the treatment of the age-related digital divide both before and after 2020 through additional searches in different journals and governmental websites. These research strategies gave us a clearer picture of the process leading to the agenda-setting of older citizens’ digital inclusion in China, which this article retraces in three chronological steps.

Digitalization in Pre-COVID-19 Chinese Society: Quietly Leaving Older People Behind

7To understand this recent policy shift in China, one first needs to portray the increasingly acute presence of digital technologies and governance in Chinese daily life, its impact on older citizens, and the state of its public framing before 2020.

Chinese Society: 10 years of Increased Digitalization

8Since the 2010s, the exponential development of China’s digital economy has had a tremendous and often understated impact on the transformation of social life in the country (Sun 2022). Along with the increase of smartphone users (99 % of all 846 million internet users in 2019, CNNIC 2019), mobile apps have come to occupy a central position in daily life. WeChat, in particular, imposed itself as a multipurpose app with all kinds of social uses: social media, chatting with friends or videoconferencing for work, online learning, but also e-banking, e-commerce, or travel planning (Ru 2020). Cashless payments through QR codes and online transfers have also become extremely common—Chinese users of Alipay, the most widely used online payment platform, went from 520 million users in 2017 to 900 million in 2020 (Zhongtai Securities 2020: 27). Private and public services are no exception: many services (despite geographical disparities) have abandoned analog operations in favor of digital ones, from hospital booking systems (Ni et al. 2014) to administrative services (Huang and Yu 2019) on through taxi reservations and food delivery. These transformations, however, happened at a pace that left little room for those offline: paying cash has become an increasingly difficult task even in the smallest businesses and hailing a taxi in big cities is almost impossible without a taxi app as are simple acts such as paying bills, booking a hotel or a restaurant, or even making a hospital appointment.

Digitally “Left-Behind” Older Citizens: a Non Issue?

9These developments have impacted older citizens in a very concrete way. To be sure, older Chinese cohorts have been increasingly connected in the past decade: internet users aged 60 and over went from 980,000 in 2006 to 60 million in 2019 (CNNIC 2019), and WeChat users aged 55 to 70 rose from 7.6 million in 2016 to 50 million the following year. Nonetheless, older people still rank well below other age groups. In 2019, older netizens only represented 6.9 % of all Chinese internet users and 23 % of the elderly population (Ibid.). As a whole, about half of the 416 million “non-netizens” Chinese are aged 60 and over, making age a central predictor of being “un-connected” along with being from rural areas (62 %, CNNIC 2021). According to existing surveys, major reasons include “not understanding the internet” (51 %), “not knowing how to write characters with pinyin or lack of literacy” (22 %), “being too old/young” (15 %) or “not having the equipment” (13 %) (Ibid.).

10Connected or not, older persons have been facing many difficulties related to digitalization. Non-internet users declare experiencing regular inconvenience when paying in cash (25.8 %), booking tickets/appointments (24.9 %), dealing with administration (24.6 %) or getting information online (22.9 %) (Ibid.). The more connected (usually younger, urban) older citizens are not immune to such issues either. A 2018 survey among smartphone-users aged 50 and over in 8 big Chinese cities revealed that respondents only knew how to use certain apps (mostly WeChat) and certain functionalities—chat and send emojis to family and friends, comment on others’ posts, read the news (CASS 2018). Others, such as paying bills, buying or booking things online, were largely unmastered: half of the respondents ignored how to do cashless payments on their phone and 67 % declared having been scammed online—a fact testifying to the diffused feeling of insecurity among many old netizens.

11Before 2020, however, these factors did not transform into a public issue: few media outlets reported the phenomenon. A search of Baidu’s media section using the key word “digital gap + elderly” revealed only four articles for the whole pre-2020 time-span—a meager result compared to the 150 found solely for the January 2020-June 2021 period. Moreover, as we will report, academic research rarely tackled the issue, preferring to focus on the urban/rural digital divide. Only some viral social media videos, showing difficult situations experienced by smartphone-less or digitally insecure older persons in public spaces, managed to punctually render the issue more visible. One, for example, dated 2018 and viewed 11 million times on Weibo, showed an old man going to the Shanghai train station for the sixth consecutive day to buy a ticket to visit his daughter, but being unable to do so as the vending clerk repeatedly told him that all seats were sold out and that he should buy his tickets online. Not knowing how and unwilling to disturb his daughter, the man ends up kneeling at the clerk’s feet, begging him to help.

Zhang Guoxin’s failed Agenda-Setting

12An important shift in Chinese tentative framing of older citizens’ digital inclusion happened in March 2019. During the annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), delegate Zhang Guoxin 张国新, educator and member of Jiangxi Provincial Committee’s Democratic League, submitted a document titled “Suggestions on the Reduction of the Digital Gap and the Preservation of Senior Citizens’ Equal Rights” (guanyu suoxiao shuzi honggou, weihu laonian gongmin gongping quanli de jianyi 关于缩小数字鸿沟、维护老年公民公平权利的建议). Pointing out the social exclusion inflicted on older citizens by increased service digitalization (“How many of China’s 240 million elders master Alipay and WeChat Pay? How many know how to use taxi apps? Book tickets online?”), the text formulates suggestions, hereby summarized (He 2019):

(1) The State should be the main driving force ensuring the fair distribution of information resources; it should focus on adapting to users’ needs, and legally clarify standards on cashless-payment;
(2) Network infrastructures should be improved, and more funds allocated to public spaces to install free internet access;
(3) Government and social organizations should reinforce the elderly’s digital training, focusing on the elderly’s daily needs, by setting public interest conferences in street, community and village units, or even elder homes. “Young people should help the elderly more, and the elderly take the initiative to seek help and learn actively”.
(4) Offline channels [phone services, physical reception desks] should be preserved, commercial establishments forbidden to abolish cash purchases, and elderly-friendly digital platforms promoted by the government (such as by developing apps easy to navigate or websites using bigger fonts for example).
(5) Industries should pay attention to the needs of “vulnerable groups” and develop elderly-friendly applications. The elderly often having low income and education, only by “offering cheap devices, easy to operate and learn” can “the reduction of the digital gap not be an empty word”.

13While Zhang’s text constitutes a notable attempt to push the State to address older citizens’ digital inclusion, the answer published in September by the National Health Commission (2019) could be found as disappointingly lacking substance. Reaffirming the State Council’s attention towards the “construction of a livable environment for the elderly,” as well as the Party’s and Xi Jinping’s engagement in “meeting old people’s needs” and “solving social problems caused by population aging,” the text goes on to enumerate existing measures, despite Zhang having specifically pointed out their insufficiency. In other words, Zhang’s suggestions, though marking the tentative exposure of older citizens’ digital exclusion, do not seem to trigger the expected policy response, and are essentially ignored by the NCP and the official press—his name even being absent from the People’s Daily archives.

When Digital Exclusion Hinders Pandemic Control (January-August 2020)

Digital Technologies at the Core of Anti-Epidemic Measures

14The emergence of COVID-19 and the consequent implementation of aggressive pandemic control measures in late January 2020 mark an unprecedented shift in the Chinese use of digital technologies. First, during the first three months of 2020 and especially during Wuhan’s lockdown, WeChat constituted a “critical infrastructure” (Qian and Hanser 2020: 7): homeowners’ WeChat groups were used by neighborhood committees and property management staff to “forward […] policy documents, make announcements, respond to residents’ requests and inform them of updates on […] cases” (Ibid.: 20); and by residents to group-order food, access information, communicate with families and friends, but also refill prescriptions on WeChat mini-programs or have medication delivered.

15Health Codes (jiankang ma 健康码), a system allowing the reporting of people’s travel history or contact with at-risk individuals through a plugin embedded in a mobile application, rapidly constituted another crucial tool for pandemic control. Hangzhou’s Yuhang district was the first, in early February, to introduce a system of getting people to report their travel history through a mini-app embedded in Alipay or WeChat (Courtney 2020). Rating people according to their level of risk, the app could be scanned to allow or deny one’s entry into or exit from a specific area. At the end of February, the Central Leading Group for COVID-19 Prevention and Control encouraged its use in other areas and in mid-March 2020 about 500 cities were using Alibaba or Tencent’s Health Codes, and provinces started initiating processes of mutual recognition of each local system. As COVID-19 transmissions were officially reduced to near zero in late March, the use of Health Codes across the country also spread, becoming a routine aspect of COVID-19 control. Though national regulations recommended them to be limited to specific areas such as frontier zones or public transport and public service institutions, in practice, the use of Health Codes spread to many other places, such as residential communities, supermarkets, malls, taxis or small businesses.

Pandemic Digital Tools as Revealing Agents

16Despite older citizens rapidly becoming a “key category” described in COVID-19 policies as necessitating specific care and solicitude, the use of pandemic-related digital tools had important consequences for older citizens, allowing the topic of age-based digital inequalities to gain visibility. Between January and May, The Paper published no less than 25 articles reporting troubles encountered by older persons, notably their difficulty in using applications to order food or masks during the Wuhan lockdown (Zhang and Zheng 2020), to access public health information (Huang et al. 2020) or, later on, to use public transport without Health Codes (Cao 2020). These articles echo the multiplication, from March 2020, of viral videos shared on social media which often accumulated millions of views and showed older persons without smartphones (and thus without Health Codes) being prevented from circulating freely in public spaces. In Heilongjiang, for example, an old man was shown quarreling at a residential community checkpoint, as pandemic control staff refused to let him in, the old man having only a basic “old people’s mobile phone” and no Health Code. For the same reason, in Zhejiang, an older man was forced off the bus by a policeman, while infuriated passengers made six other older persons leave the bus in order to go on their route faster. And the list could go on.

17Despite these viral videos and their role in publicizing the issue of unequal access to digital tools and knowledge, digital inclusion was not framed at first as a public issue requiring political intervention. The Paper, despite spending much effort publicizing the experience of older people, remained relatively isolated compared to other much more silent official media; moreover, their articles remained essentially descriptive, never explicitly calling for political actions to solve the digital divide revealed by the pandemic’s digital governance.

Jia Zhangke, a Timely Moral Entrepreneur

18The epidemic actually profited the agenda-setting of older citizens’ digital inclusion more indirectly, as the context suddenly rendered the mention of the issue all the more inevitable and was appropriated by an influential public figure and policy maker. As the story is told (CCTV News 2020), Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯—a world-famous filmmaker and NPC deputy for Shanxi—was impressed by the intensification of his own digital life early in the pandemic, which led him to think about those excluded from it. Therefore, before the annual session of the NPC (moved to May because of COVID-19), he conducted some investigation in rural Shanxi, where he encountered many elders who did not possess or know how to use smartphones, often even not knowing how to type characters. He then pursued his survey in Beijing’s wealthy Chaoyang district, where his interlocutors, despite having smartphones, pointed out their shared uneasiness when it came to collecting their salary or pension online, booking an appointment or calling a taxi through an app without anyone’s help. This led Jia to conclude that “nearly half the elderly living alone are completely maladjusted to current smart-living expectations […]. Those reluctant to use digital means are worried, on the one hand, about their funds and the security of their personal information; on the other hand, as their children are not by their side, they have nobody to train or teach them and have difficulties adapting” (Ibid.).

19This experience encouraged Jia to submit a proposal to the NPC, titled “Supporting the Elderly in Enjoying Digital Life” (fuzhu laonianren xiangshou shuzihua shenghuo 扶助老年人享受数字化生活). Although its original version cannot seem to be found online, the proposal still gained non-negligeable coverage, being even presented at length in a CCTV News report in May. While Health Codes are never mentioned in his interviews (probably a smart move given the sensibility of the pandemic topic during the plenary session of the NPC), Jia nonetheless describes the pandemic as a revealing moment, making one realize that “behind the veil of prosperity […], life still has a lot of […] very real difficulties which need us to be able to face them […] and make society better” (Ibid.).

20Although essentially ignored by the People’s Daily, Jia’s intervention triggers a notable change in the ways in which some media report about the digital exclusion of older people. The seven articles published by The Paper between July and September, unlike previous coverage, concentrate less on anecdotes and start presenting the digital gap between the old and young as a social issue requiring larger consideration and long-term solutions. Journalists also manage to quote higher-ranking individuals such as Party deputy secretaries in universities or (vice-)presidents of official associations to support their arguments, illustrating a sudden change in the topic’s political legitimacy (Huang 2020; Zhou 2020a).

21Jia’s suggestions actually do not stretch far from Zhang Guoxin’s seminal proposal: maintain non-digital channels in service institutions and companies; develop windows to help less digitally-savvy older citizens; and invest massively in training old people and cultivate their interest in digital life. However, the fact that Jia, unlike his predecessor, managed to elevate himself as a moral entrepreneur (Becker 1963), successfully labeling older citizens’ digital inclusion as a public issue beyond the realm of viral videos and anecdotal articles, benefited from several factors: his national fame and connections in the media industry; his politically-innocuous portrayal as a man “seeking truth from facts”; and his timely advocacy in a time of Health Codes—rendering everyone unprecedentedly aware of the issue and making it all the more urgent by highlighting that ignoring it might lead to epidemic loopholes and public disturbances.

Figure 1: Jia Zhangke (right) interviewing older citizens in Beijing. Screenshot CCTV News 2020.

Figure 1: Jia Zhangke (right) interviewing older citizens in Beijing. Screenshot CCTV News 2020.

A New Social Issue Turned Public Policy (September 2020–June 2021)

The Making of a Central-Level Policy in the Pandemic Context

22Central organs remained altogether silent after Jia’s proposal, despite many incidents still going viral over the following months. In the summer, however, Jia receives an answer from the State Council, that explains that they had started to “set up a plan to analyze and solve the issue along with the Committee on Aging, the Health Commission and related departments” (Zhang 2021). On October 23, during a press conference, a member of the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ Eldercare Bureau announces that he is waiting for the Party Central Committee and State Council’s directives to offer solutions (Xinhuanet 2020). On November 15, the State Council finally publishes what becomes the first Chinese national plan aimed at digitally including older citizens: the “Implementation Plan for the Effective Resolution of the Difficulties Facing the Elderly in the Use of Smart Technology”. Multiple notices were then published the following months by ministries, state commissions (fig. 2) and local authorities adapting the Plan to their own level and field of action (transport, medicine, administration, aging affairs…).

Fig. 2: The State Council’s “Implementation Plan” and subsequent Central-level policies.

Fig. 2: The State Council’s “Implementation Plan” and subsequent Central-level policies.

Source: State Council Policies <​zhengce/​>.

23The Plan, which focuses both on urgent and long-term issues, is interesting from several perspectives. First, the epidemic stands at its forefront—mentioned both in the “guiding thoughts” and “key tasks” sections—which demonstrates the causality between the pandemic and the emergence of digitally inclusive policies. Epidemic control requirements are indeed described as having to adapt to older people: low-risks areas should limit Health Codes’ use (except for transport) and offer alternative options for the those without smartphones (accepting paper certificates, setting specific channels). Secondly, while the text does insist at length on the importance of services and administrations preserving non-digital options and developing elderly-friendly digital environments, it also points out the importance of older people’s training and education, whose responsibility befalls both on state organizations (village/neighborhood committees, senior associations and universities) and also on “relatives and friends” (qinyou 亲友): older citizens should be “guided to understand new things” and their interest in digital tools enhanced, so that they “can, know, dare and want to use” smart technology.

Policies Pushing the Topic into Central State-Media

24The wider media coverage of the age-based digital divide is closely related to its framing by State policies. Between January and May, the People’s Daily only wrote two reports on older people’s use of digital devices, neither framed negatively. The first one, bringing up the rare use of digital devices by older rural persons, praised a village’s use of megaphones to share public health information (People’s Daily 2020), while the second celebrated the opportunity brought to China’s digital economy by COVID-19, as the pandemic attracted many middle-aged and older users online “[opening] a bigger market for the sector” (Liu 2020). Even after Jia Zhangke’s proposal, and unlike The Paper, the People’s Daily did not commit to any articles on the topic—the only pieces published being a reader’s tribune and a republished Guangzhou Daily’s editorial, both calling on families and businesses to help older people use digital services or create offline alternatives (Zhou 2020b; Xia 2020).

25This framework changes drastically after the Central policy announcements. Ten days before the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ press conference, the People’s Daily published an editorial titled “Why the WeChat User’s guide is so touching”: recalling episodes of older citizens’ difficulties, the piece calls on different sectors, including family members and the digital industry, to take the needs of older citizens into consideration. It then declares that, at the public service level, older people should benefit from “multiple choices and alternative [offline] services” (Sheng 2020). Overall, the People’s Daily wrote no less than six articles between October 2020 and January 2021—an important number given the journal’s nature and editorial process—all insisting on the necessity for different sectors and public services to take into account older people’s special needs in the context of increased digitalization. The digital divide, as a social issue touching older people, thus formally entered China’s political and media spaces.

A Social Issue Appropriated by Academic Production

26COVID-19’s role in the agenda-setting of older people’s digital inclusion also seeps into Chinese academia, where important shifts can be identified. Quantitatively, comparing search results on CNKI reveals a clear change in the understanding of the digital divide (fig. 3). While 438 academic papers published in China before 2020 comprise the keywords “digital divide + urban/rural,” only 37 contain the keywords “digital divide + old people”. This implies that before 2020, Chinese academia essentially framed digital exclusion through the urban-rural divide, paying little attention to age. This tendency radically changes after COVID-19: in 2020, an equal number (44) of articles appear using both keywords; furthermore, in 2021, the tendency is reversed, as articles mentioning both “digital divide” and “old people” largely outnumber those focusing on the urban-rural digital divides (54 to 26). Moreover, 89 % of the articles published after 2020 mention either COVID-19 or the State Council’s Plan as contextual background, further showcasing the pandemic’s influence in this shift of interest and priority.

Fig. 3: Evolution of Chinese academic approaches of the digital divide (CNKI, 2005-2021).

Fig. 3: Evolution of Chinese academic approaches of the digital divide (CNKI, 2005-2021).

27Qualitatively, Chinese academia’s interpretations of the digital divide also evolved. While, before 2020, age is considered as one factor of the digital divide among others, in the post-COVID-19 period, it is without doubt considered the main—if not the only—factor (Cheng 2012; Wang 2021). Articles published before 2020 also tend to justify their interest and the importance of solving the digital divide by mobilizing notions of development (fazhan 发展) or social cohesion (shehui ronghe 社会融合) (Li 2006; He and Zhang 2017). Comparatively, after 2020, much more attention is paid to the concrete problems caused to older people by the digitalization of services (public transport, grocery-shopping), and the urgency of digital inclusion is stressed by pointing out its humanistic (renben zhuyi 人本主义) and moral (lunli 伦理) necessity (Liu and Ma 2021).

28Despite those differences, the solutions formulated in post-COVID-19 research prolong arguments already present before the pandemic. Much emphasis is put on individuals’ responsibility in their own digital inclusion: one of the main solutions offered is increasing older people’s interest in learning how to use digital devices. The family’s—and above all the children’s—essential role in helping their older kin is specifically put forward: an important share of research mentions the concept of “digital repay” (shuwei fanbu 数位反哺), which invites children to help their aging parents use digital services using terminology that echoes the traditional model of intergenerational reciprocity largely revalorized by the Chinese State since the early 2000s to compensate for its withdrawal from care provision (Zhang 2017). Some even support their analysis by mobilizing Margaret Mead’s concept of “prefigurative culture”: China having entered a “prefigurative phase” of civilization, new generations’ contributions are deemed crucial for older citizens to face new challenges in an ever-changing society (Yu and Liu 2021). In addition, propositions listed by these academic pieces rarely surpass the five domains defined by the State Council’s Plan, and as such, can be considered to be an attempt to legitimize—or at least to remain within the framework set by—central government’s policies.

Discussion and concluding remarks

29Having described the process leading to China’s agenda-setting of older citizens’ digital inclusion, we can now pinpoint several main findings. First, the pandemic played an important role in the Chinese framing of older citizens’ digital inclusion as a public issue. While the exclusion faced by older people in an increasingly digitally-reliant society was largely ignored before COVID, the topic made its way into public policy during the pandemic thanks to a timely mix of factors: (1) an increased reliance on digital technologies for pandemic control, making digital exclusion more visible in public and in the online space and making addressing the issue all the more urgent as ignoring it could have led to social instability or pandemic loopholes; (2) the framing of the issue by a popular, well-connected NPC delegate, whose position allowed him to elevate the topic to the NPC and the media, not by raising issues of rights (like his predecessor) or challenging Health Codes, but by depicting his identification of the issue as based on fact collection, and justifying it as a betterment of society. This process corroborates existing studies which point out the importance of public-led patterns of agenda-setting in China—government bodies paying increased attention to emotions expressed on social media, especially for issues with clear problems and feasible solutions (Dai et al. 2021: 173). Yet, it also confirms the on-going relevance of the “reach-out model” of agenda-setting in China, as policy advisers like Jia choose to “publicize [their proposals] in the hope that aroused public opinion will […] break down any barrier that may dissuade decision makers from accepting their ideas” (Wang 2008: 67).

30Secondly, the ways in which various actors describe older citizens’ digital inclusion allow us to identify specific ways in which digital inclusion is interpreted and enhanced in the Chinese context. The infrastructure/skills/accessibility tryptic is well represented in Chinese policies and academic literature: both the State and industrial actors’ contributions are put forward to facilitate access to infrastructures and to design services better meeting users’ needs, while still leaving space for offline channels such as printed Health Codes or cash payments. However, the notion of “skills” is approached in a specific manner here, as the emphasis is put on the shaping of individuals’ will to use digital technologies, beyond the issues of confidence or benefit awareness. Training therefore appears as a core issue, whose responsibility befalls on multiple levels of State agents, but also on older citizens themselves (who should learn to seek support and actively integrate smart society) and on their families. While international literature does acknowledge the enabling or disabling role of families, the accent put by Chinese policies, research and media on children’s role is indeed noteworthy—showing yet another example of the reactivation of the discourse of filial piety by the Chinese State and its application in sometimes unexpected contexts.

31The story, however, still needs to be told further. Two years after the State Council’s Plan, numerous stories of Health Code-less/digitally insecure elders facing difficulties still surface regularly. Although these stories are now recognized as being part of a larger social issue, their existence also questions the implementation of the State Council’s Plan in the context of China’s long-lasting zero-COVID policies—only lifted during the revision of this article. A recent story published by SixthTone (The Paper’s sister publication in English) in the wake of Shanghai’s lockdown (Gu and Fan 2022) reveals that despite the promotion of inclusive policies and offline options, Health Code types and requirements were still multiplying locally, and alternatives promoted by the city are often unfit for older users—as illustrated by the case of a mall which made older people with printed-out Health Codes walk around to the building’s side entrance, the only entrance equipped for such situations. The article also mentions the impact of this digital-centric environment on older citizen’s mental health (anxiety, depression, powerlessness), that recent policies have not managed to avoid as local cadres’ actions are constrained by the political priority put on COVID-19 control. As numerous studies point out the increased importance of “the theatrical deployment of language, symbols and gestures of good governance” in China (Ding 2022), further research must be conducted to assess whether older people’s digital inclusion might not be just another performative gesture.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Jia Zhangke (right) interviewing older citizens in Beijing. Screenshot CCTV News 2020.
Fichier image/png, 996k
Titre Fig. 2: The State Council’s “Implementation Plan” and subsequent Central-level policies.
Crédits Source: State Council Policies <​zhengce/​>.
Fichier image/jpeg, 374k
Titre Fig. 3: Evolution of Chinese academic approaches of the digital divide (CNKI, 2005-2021).
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
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Justine Rochot, Chao-Hsuan Peng et Renyou Hou, « The Digital Inclusion of Older Persons in China »Revue des sciences sociales, 70 | 2023, 20-29.

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Justine Rochot, Chao-Hsuan Peng et Renyou Hou, « The Digital Inclusion of Older Persons in China »Revue des sciences sociales [En ligne], 70 | 2023, mis en ligne le 12 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Justine Rochot

Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica—Taiwan

Chao-Hsuan Peng


Renyou Hou

LESC, Université Paris Nanterre—France

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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