The Scope of the Chinese Internet

This story has been a bit buried by other things, but it bears mentioning even amidst the sterling satire of The Onion: there are now 338,000,000 Chinese internet users.

To start with, let’s get a handle on just how large a number that is. If every single person in the United States used the internet, we wouldn’t hit that mark. In fact, according to the US census bureau, China has more internet users than every other country has people (except India). But perhaps a visual aid is in order:

100,000,000 pennies.
100,000,000 pennies.

That’s what a hundred million pennies would look like, stacked as tightly as possible. 300 million pennies would weigh over 900 tons, or approximately the weight of six blue whales. For an alternative frame of reference, open this site 338 times and count the dots. That’s how many people are using the internet in China right now.

Of course, by the time you finish counting all of those dots, there will be more. A lot more. In the past six months alone, 40 million Chinese people have joined the ranks of China’s netizen community. Some Chinese are using their phones to access it (155 million). Some are playing games (30 million new online gamers in the past six months). Some are online shopping (14 million new users in the past six months). Plenty are downloading music and watching videos.

Perhaps most significant for this site is that there are 181 million Chinese bloggers. There are more bloggers in China than people in any country except India, the US, Indonesia and Brazil. Much has been said of late about web site closings, but one wonders how the internet censors could possibly keep tabs on 181 million bloggers at once. Of course, even if they could, that number, too, is growing.

There are probably ways to silence those people, but does shutting down every form of “free” speech in the name of stability really serve that cause effectively? People inside China and out are beginning to question that. The website blocking is unlikely to stop anytime soon, but as “the masses” become increasingly connected virtually, they’re also going to be increasingly annoyed when those connections suddenly and (seemingly) arbitrarily vanish. And, of course, among the 181 million there will surely be plenty of non-approved content that slips through the censors’ collective grip.

What do you think?

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0 thoughts on “The Scope of the Chinese Internet”

  1. It’s both a startlingly large and startlingly small statistic. 338 million out of 1.3 billion people is less than 30%, whereas 70% of the USA is online.

    [http://www.google.com/search?q=internet+users+united+states reports 220 million in the US last year]

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  2. I agree with Mouse, most of these statistics have to be scaled down by population. Considering 70% of the population won’t reach the “slipping out information” of the bloggers… And most of the remaining 30% won’t either (if every second — mostly teenage — person using the internet is blogging, what’s most probably the content/content quality?)

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  3. @ Jan and Mouse: True. However, let’s keep in mind not only the massive number for the rate of increase: 40 million in the past six months. Obviously, that rate is going to slow at some point, but I have a feeling that by the time the increase stops the numbers are going to reflect a much larger percentage of China’s population.

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  4. C.Custer,

    I tried to post the following link :

    http: //www .uocn.org/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=29398

    onto Wall Street Journal Digital Network :

    http: //www .feer.com/politics/2009/july58/Fear-Grips-Shaoguans-Uighurs

    failed, twice.

    You can try, or try any website of major western media. if you succeed, let me know.

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  5. Not exactly related but just wanted to let you know I can’t seem to access the WSJ’s China Journal site at http://blogs.wsj.com/chinajournal from here in Beijing.
    (can’t access using a proxy either).

    Anyone else having the same problem?

    I wonder if it’s just a technical problem or it’s actually a block…

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  6. It will be interesting to see if the Chinese internet users mesh into the pre-existing, English language internet, or if it the language barrier and cultural differences are enough that it will become its own vast meta-community…

    And there appears to be an elephant sneaking around room (read: giving out press releases about the need to stop dangerous ideas) that could have an impact on that. James Fallows commented a while back that internet controls don’t have to be perfect to have an effect, just inconvenient.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/chinese-firewall

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  7. I agree with some of these people here. The total number doesn’t really mean anything. It is like comparing the number of total online users in the US with a smaller country (like Canada or Germany).

    The telling statistic is the % of people online. Having said that, I am somewhat impressed with the % as much of China is way underdeveloped and the cost of internet is very high for their standard of living (it costs the same as the US). If we were to pay a comparable amount (let’s say 10x what we do now), I wonder how many people would forego their internet? Paying over $200 for internet seems pretty incredible.

    However, Chinese internet is pretty horrid. It maxes out at 2.0 megs down (which is about as attainable as a Hummer going 200 mph…yes downhill in a hurricane it is possible). In heavy populated areas during certain times of the day, even in Shanghai the internet can become unuseable (and I am talking about Chinese sites hosted in China). The best times to go online is between midnight and 6am. Their infrastructure is way over capacity and yet they collect as much money as their western counterparts….must be nice to be a government run monopoly (though after all the officials dip into the coffers, there probably isn’t much profit left).

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  8. @ wangkom: What are you talking about? I don’t know how things are in Shanghai, but in Harbin you can get internet that’s comparable to broadband in the US at a TINY TINY FRACTION of the price. I paid 120rmb/month for unlimited broadband access plus phone service, and the internet speed was totally fine…streamed TV and movies without so much as a hitch.

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  9. @ C. Custer

    I get what you are saying. In Shanghai it is 150 rmb (over $20 a month) just for internet. However, you have to consider how much money the Chinese make. Yeah, in Shanghai there are a lot of rich people. But a normal company employee makes about 3000 rmb (a little over $400 a month). If you go out to the rural areas, you’ll find people making much less than 1000 rmb. Many of the waiters in Shanghai will make about 1500 rmb a month (a little over $200).

    It doesn’t seem like much to you and me. However, for the Chinese it can be considerable for the average person.

    Plus, where are you from in the US? Most internet here is has been around $20 or so a month unless you get the tv, internet, phone combo.

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  10. Plus, one thing that most of those polls do not state is actual usage.

    Since many many many Chinese don’t have their own internet service or computers, while they may be “internet users” their usage is rather limited. I imagine there must be a lot of people that may go to a net cafe once a week to check email (so that person I assume is counted as an internet user). While their counterparts are spending hours and hours on the net each day (not to mention smart phones, iphones, etc). So basically, a lot of westerners are connected around the clock.

    Also, even if a Chinese home does have internet and a computer, you’ll find that it is one computer for an entire family. Many homes in the west have internet plus at least one computer for each member of the family (plus smart phone, etc).

    I think China still has a ways to go but the prospects for 1.3 billion possible users along with the increase of computer purchases as they become more affluent is frightening.

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  11. There is a great firewall dividing the Chinese Internet and the Western Internet. That firewall is 中文字. Too many Western 井底之蛙 will go into denial and clutch references to “Great Firewall” to ward off any notion that there exist another world on the internet that is blocked to them due to their own linguistic inadequacy.
    It never seems to occur to them that there are a lot more Chinese people who can read English than there are Westerners who read Chinese. If people like Rebecca MacKinnon and RSF spent as much time trying to fix your “firewall” as bitching about ours, maybe we’d get somewhere.

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  12. @ mtm: That’s true, but that’s what happens when there’s compulsory English education. Still, I would say that the number of Chinese people whose English is good enough that they routinely or even occasionally read English websites is pretty darn low.

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  13. CHINA joining the Information-age.

    china missed the Scientific-age… the Industrial…

    china did Not invent an alphabet or sail to North America or Australia.

    Internet, Cell phones, Fiber Optics will bring china to 21st. century…
    china joins the free world.
    china joins the Internet-world.

    Like

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