CHINA: Number of Net users in China soars to 87 million

Second only to the US, their numbers cut across social strata and pose new challenges for the government

The Straits Times
Wednesday, July 21, 2004

By Chua Chin Hon

BEIJING - Ten years after China logged on to the World Wide Web, the number of its Internet users has skyrocketed to 87 million as more people than ever use it to communicate, play games and shop, a new survey shows.

Not only are more people opting for faster connections - 31 million broadband users by the end of last month, up 217 per cent from last year - their online habits and the kind of information they seek are changing as well, according to the latest study by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC).

E-mailing remains the dominant activity, but an increasing number go online to chat, play games, shop or to do banking.

Most people still go online to look for news reports and computer-related information, but rising numbers are now looking for entertainment, sports and lifestyle news, or traffic and weather information.

'These are the changes we observed from the previous surveys,' said Mr Wang Enhai, deputy director of CNNIC's information service department.

'In China, you won't see huge changes in one year or half a year unless there is some government policy to promote certain usage. But in about two to three years, we may see more obvious changes in usage habits.'

Internet search services are shaping up to be the next online battlefield in China, after games and instant messaging caught on in a big way here in recent years.

According to CNNIC's survey, search engine services ranked second, just behind e-mailing, as the most frequently used online function. Nearly nine in 10 people found out about new websites through a search engine, while 71.9 per cent of them used it to look for information.

Search giants Google and Yahoo are squaring up for battle.

Google has bought a stake in its Chinese counterpart Baidu.com, and is providing its search services to one of China's biggest Internet portals, Netease. Recently, Yahoo also launched a Chinese language service for its search portal.

Worldwide, China is second only to the United States in the number of Internet users, and expects this figure to reach 200 million by next year.

The explosive growth of the Internet is largely an urban phenomenon, though not limited to metropolises or rich urbanites.

CNNIC's survey shows 55.3 per cent of Internet users earn less than 1,000 yuan (S$206).

Although the figure includes many students, it indicates that the thirst for information and communication cuts across social strata, said Mr Wang.

But a wired China poses problems for officials set on controlling access to information.

The websites of some foreign news organisations, like the BBC, are still blocked, and Internet police have recently clamped down hard on essayists who post stinging critiques of the government.

Invoking rhetoric reminiscent of the war against Japanese troops, the Chinese authorities this week vowed to wage a 'people's war' against online smut.

But Mr Wang believes China can deal with the potential pitfalls of the Internet trends. 'Our studies provide a better basis for policy-making. The figures point out where improvements need to be made, and where action needs to be taken,' he said.

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NET USERS: Mostly young men

China had 87 million Internet users by the end of last month, an increase of 19 million from the same period last year.

About 31 million users surf the Internet using a broadband connection, up 217 per cent from last year.

Six in 10 users are male, while 54.1 per cent are aged below 24. Most people go online at home (67 per cent), and 65.8 per cent spend less than 100 yuan (S$20) a month for usage.

E-mailing remains the dominant function, and news reports continue to be the most sought after information. But more people are chatting and playing games online, and searching for sports or entertainment news.