Worsening global digital divide as the US and China continue zero-sum competitions

Worsening global digital
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“Editor’s Note: In the digital era we live in, seven “super platforms” in the U.S. and China constitute two-thirds of total market value worldwide. Yet we hardly see any significant joint efforts between the U.S. and China to help combat digital divides in the least developed countries. This article originally appeared in ThinkChina”.

The COVID-19 crisis has interrupted daily life and business routines across the world, caused a massive loss of millions of lives, and exacerbated economic disparities within and between countries. COVID-19 has also revealed fundamental challenges in the international order. As Kissinger has asserted, “the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.” One can reasonably expect that cynicism regarding regional and global integration, as well as radical populism, racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, will likely continue to rise around the world.

At this critical juncture, it has become even more essential to examine the urgent challenges that the world confronts and to engage in global cooperation instead of devolving into constant contention and confrontation. One of the most urgent tasks for the international community is to overcome growing digital divides.

Digital divides in least developed countries (LDCs) have been particularly salient, as digitally disconnected populations have been left further behind during the pandemic. The U.S. and China, two superpowers in the digital era, should work in tandem with the international community to jointly combat digital divides and COVID-19.

THE EXPANSION OF DIGITAL DIVIDES IN LDCS

Despite the global growth of digital technologies, a 2021 United Nations report noted that nearly half of the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, lack internet access. Deficiency of digital connectivity is especially prevalent within LDCs, where more than 80% of the population are still offline. In comparison, the unconnected population in developed countries and developing countries stands at 13% and 53%, respectively.

LDCs account for about 14% of the world’s population, and they comprise more than half of the world’s extremely poor. Digital divides both reflect and reinforce socioeconomic disparities. The pandemic has aggravated existing inequalities, often resulting in a widening gap of digital skills.

As a result of COVID-19-induced economic difficulties, the population of extreme poor in LDCs expanded by 32 million, and the number of people in poverty in LDCs grew to 36% in 2020, 3% more than in prior years. More specifically, LDCs lag further behind in the following three areas.

Digital economy

In 2018, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, over 70% of the population in developed countries purchased goods and services online while only 2% in LDCs did the same. The digital divide deprives workers and consumers in LDCs of the opportunity to benefit from e-commerce on both the supply and demand ends.

Public health and vaccine distribution

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