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By Anthony James, Staff Writer

An interesting number popped up in October in the news: 6 billion. That’s the approximate number of cell phones in use right now in world according to the International Telecommunications Union. In China, the reported number of mobile phone subscribers is around one billion; which is of no surprise for a nation in which a majority of the middle class (about 85%) own a handset. But what is noteworthy for mobile companies and retailers all over the world looking to sell phones in Asia is the entrance of a new cell phone buyer: China’s migrant workers.

With millions of workers flooding the industrial epicenters from rural areas, Chinese migrants have played a dual role in the past by both providing cheap labor to support the middle class and remaining out of the limelight. With the advent of mobile accessibility, the Chinese might be experiencing a tech revolution. Where access to the internet and social media was previously unavailable, one might see a construction or factory worker carrying a cell phone and a smartphone.

There are many factors that contribute to the sudden rise of smartphone sales in China’s middle and lower class comparative to countries such as the United States that do not
render each market equal. One reason may be the lack in comparable alternatives to internet access. Just like many developing countries, home internet connections are not as common among blue-collar workers, so cell phones sometimes become the only option available. Another reason is the significantly lower cost of smartphones that are currently being produced by Chinese companies compared to American models in the United States. Domestic brands such as Lenovo or rising Xiaomi offer mid-range options that are becoming affordable and have a far superior quality to low-range knock-off brands which once dominated the Chinese market.

With many locally made cell phones becoming more readily available in China, the PRC could become a dominant influencer in the smartphone industry. According to the IDC research group, China is forecast to overtake the United States in smartphone shipments in China, becoming the world’s leading smartphone market in 2012. Of the top five brands that were sold in China this year, three were of local companies: Lenovo, Coolpad and Huawei. According to the IHS iSuppli Research, all three brands individually outsold the Apple iPhone in the first half of 2012.

The explosion of high-tech mobile sales in China is game-changing both nationally and worldwide. Start-up and mobile-centered entrepreneurs are now in high demand,
allowing new opportunities for industry growth not only in China’s retail market but also for companies across the globe who want to reach the millions of new cell phone users. For China’s migrant workers, many media experts note that the dramatic increase of mobile use will cause many changes in the socio-economic environment. Being able to post on sites such as Sina Weibo, workers have been able to organize and make their grievances known to the media and government, initiating positive changes in their communities.

While popularly used by many as a casual device, over the past decade many have witnessed mobile phones as a powerful economic and socio-political tool in countries
all over the world. While I, as an average American, might catch up on news or play Angry Birds on my smartphone, in many developing communities it has been a part of major changes. Whether it was social networking during the Arab Spring or assisting entrepreneurs throughout Africa, when a late entry group enters into technology it sometimes can be interesting to take note of the opportunities it provides. As a country that might be seeing digital technology available across a highly diverse income range, China is stepping closer to a new information era that is capable of altering the global environment.

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CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Our goal is to develop a mutual understanding of each other’s cultures and business environments and to foster U.S.-China cultural and business harmony.