China on verge of having most Internet users

BEIJING – More than 200 million people in China now use the Internet, a 53 per cent per leap from 2006, which puts it on pace to have the largest number of users in the world this year.

China’s Internet population stood at 210 million at the end of last year, compared to 137 million the year before, the China Internet Network Information Centre said in its semi-annual report on Internet use here.

That figure puts China just 5 million users away from becoming the world’s largest wired nation — and with only about 16 percent of the population online. At its current growth rate, China will become the world’s top Internet market sometime in the next few months.

The greatest growth came from users under 18 and over 30, CNNIC said. One of the most surprising statistics from the new report indicates that about 40 percent of users added over the last year, over 29 million, came from rural areas. Even in the January 2007 report, the vast majority of Chinese Netizens were based in major urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Also surprising among the new results is that China’s most popular Internet application is online music, used by 86.6 percent of those surveyed, followed by instant messaging with 81 percent. E-mail placed only fifth, with 56.5 percent using it.

CNNIC’s survey provides the most reliable information about Internet use in China, although its methodology is translucent at best. It does not reveal its sample size, nor does it reveal what consists of an Internet user except that the person used the Internet at least once in the month prior to when the survey was taken.

While the new statistics may seem impressive, it highlights how Internet usage in the country still lags behind mobile phone use, and how even greater usage could be spurred by more access through wireless devices. “China’s admittedly impressive user statistics hide an important fact: only a fraction of those users have regular access to a PC,” said David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based technology consultancy.

Despite limited PC access for some users, Chinese Internet users have embraced the Internet as a means of expression.

“In addition to an increase in overall numbers, you also see a rise in the number of Netizens creating content on BBS and blogs, making Chinese Netizens some of the most active participants in the Web 2.0 phenomena in the world,” said Sam Flemming, founder and CEO of CIC, an Internet word-of-mouth monitoring firm based in Shanghai.