China has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest user of the internet, thanks to a rise of more than 61 per cent of people in the country using the web in the past year. More than 221 million Chinese were online at the end of February compared with 137 million at the start of 2007, tying for first place with the United States. But experts say that the number is sure to have risen steeply in the past few weeks, placing China in the undisputed number one position.
Despite the substantial increase, internet penetration in China remains low given the size of the population. Only 16 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion are online compared with a world average of 19 per cent.
Experts say that the number will swell rapidly in the next few years as hundreds of millions of Chinese still toiling as low-paid farmers or labourers experience a rise in their incomes that will enable them to go online. BDA China, a Beijing technology company, estimates that China’s web population will grow by about 18 per cent a year, putting the total at 490 million by 2012 — more than the population of the United States.
For the Chinese, the internet is becoming their preferred means of communication, their top source of information and their favourite for entertainment. Sites that offer video-sharing have become among the most popular in China over the past year, commanding as many as 100 million visitors a day — equal to the entire audience for the biggest state television channels.
The carefully policed Great Firewall of China, which blocks searches for content considered subversive or pornographic, has also turned its spotlight on these sites. Last month the Government said that it would shut down 25 video sites and punish 32 others for violating new rules against carrying content deemed pornographic, violent or a threat to security.
The most commonly blocked searches are for words such as Taiwan independence, Tibet, the Dalai Lama or the Falun Gong, the banned quasi-religious sect. These are topics of less interest to most Chinese than detailed news of the torch relay, results of the latest Manchester United match or gossip about Brad Pitt.
Another reason for the mushrooming popularity of the internet has been a regulatory quirk. Fixed-line phone companies are losing potential new customers to mobile phone services but are barred from entering that market themselves. So they are trying to bring in new revenues by promoting low-cost broadband internet access. This has brought high-speed service to millions more Chinese.
It has been a powerful tool for communication in the past few days when internet users — backed by mobile phone text messaging — tried to mobilise a nationwide boycott of Carrefour, the French supermarket accused of supporting the Dalai Lama.