The number of internet users in China has surged past half a billion and online citizenship continues to grow fast, according to latest figures.
The China Internet Network Information Center report also shows the use of social media sites – Twitter equivalents called weibo – has greatly expanded among the country’s 513 million web users.
The number of microbloggers expressing themselves in the relative privacy of cyberspace has exploded – quadrupling from 63 million in 2010 to just over 250 million in 2011, or half the entire internet population, the figures show.
Such self-expression on such sites run by Sina Corp and Tencent Holdings, greatly worries the government, however.
Over recent weeks, security officials have stepped up already very strict internet censorship by ordering social media users in major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, to register with police using their real names.
However, the boom in the number of freethinking weibo users, discussing and passing often critical comment on ‘sensitive news’ items, has made it increasingly difficult for China’s army of online police to impose its strict order on the freewheeling, 140-character-or-less platforms.
2011 has been declared a watershed year for many Chinese, who were seen to have found their long-hushed voice with hundreds of thousands using weibo to gather, discuss and disseminate major news items and social issues.
Last July’s Wenzhou deadly train crash, the hit-and-run of a toddler who was left to die by 18 passers-by – plus mass protests against pollution in Dalian and corruption in Wukan, sparked heated debate and intense criticism of officials.
The figures also a show the number of those surfing the web by mobile phone rose 17.5 per cent to 356 million.
Internet use for business and education is encouraged by the government.
But the medium poses a huge dilemma to propaganda officials as they attempt to form and “guide public opinion”.
Several years ago, the Government erected the Great Fire Wall which blocks out all material it considers subversive or pornographic.
One of the main complaints among visitors to China – especially on business – is the very slow as well as heavily censored internet connection.
Many net-savvy Chinese and expats, however, breech the wall by using a VPN – virtual private network – to access banned web and social media sites such as Twitter, the most popular microblogging platform in the world.
All told, the CNNIC figures show internet use increasing by 12.5 per cent year-on-year from December 2010 to December 2011, with those in China now on line representing 38.3 per cent of the 1.3 billion population.
Internet use in the world’s most populous country has been booming since 2004, which recorded 94 million users.
Internet Growth in China
2004 94 million
2005 111 million
2006 137 million
2007 210 million
2008 298 million
2009 384 million
2010 457.3 million
2011 513.1 million