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Number of Web users in China hits 513 million

January 16, 2012 |  3:37 am
The number of Web users in China soared to 513 million last year, a tech-industry group said

The number of Web users in China soared past 500 million last year, a tech-industry group said Monday, capping a period of explosive growth that has elevated Chinese Internet companies and challenged social and political discourse in the communist-controlled state.

The government-run China Internet Network Information Center said Monday that the number of Web users in China grew 12% in December, to 513 million, compared with the same period in 2010.

Chinese Internet giants such as search engine Baidu Inc., news portal Sina Corp. and gaming and messaging service provider Tencent Holdings added millions of users, raising the profile of the increasingly lucrative sector.

But 2011 was also a year that saw the increasing social might of Chinese micro-blogs, which became engines of public opinion that often challenged the authority of state-sanctioned news.

The number of micro-blog users quadrupled last year to just under 250 million, the China Internet Network Information Center said in its recent report.

Known in China as weibo, micro-blogs act much like Twitter, allowing users to post short messages with links that can then be read by subscribers.

The speed and scope in which the services operate create difficulties for government censors, who have more success blocking access to foreign websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter using filters, better known as the Great Firewall of China.

Micro-blogs were instrumental last year in exposing government mishandling of a deadly high-speed rail collision in the eastern city of Wenzhou, protests concerning a chemical plant in the northern city of Dalian and corruption in the southern village of Wukan.

A recent decision by Beijing authorities to report the extent of the city's air pollution with greater accuracy is largely credited to an online campaign started from the micro-blog account of well-known property developer Pan Shiyi, 

"Today we can say without hesitation that an independent and richly participatory civil society is emerging on China's Internet," wrote Hu Yong, a journalist and commentator in a recent article translated by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

"The Internet cannot usher in dramatic change to political life in China, but it can promote the creation of social capital on the basis of citizen rights and duties, giving rise to and strengthening social forces independent of the Chinese state," Hu continued.

The rising popularity and influence of micro-blogs has worried the central government, a fear exacerbated by the role of social media in the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. Chinese authorities have intensified efforts to quash domestic opposition in the last year, jailing and detaining a number of activists.

Damien Ma, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, wrote in a post on Atlantic magazine's website earlier this month that China's leaders regard social media as "western-invented weapons of mass dissemination as potentially powerful as nuclear bombs."

Since the Wenzhou train crash in July, authorities have increased pressure on micro-blog providers (namely Sina and Tencent) to crack down on "rumors," a euphemism for government criticism. 

In October, the Communist Party's Central Committee vowed to strengthen control of the Internet, threatening to punish those responsible for spreading "harmful information."

Last month, cities announced new rules requiring micro-blog users to register their accounts with their real names, making it more risky for individuals to challenge authorities.

How much China's leaders are willing to rein in the Web remains to be seen -– a question investors will have to grapple with in a market otherwise filled with potential.

The Internet sector is the only major industry in China still dominated by private companies. But given the attention to reestablishing government order, 2012 may be defined by how much the state ultimately encroaches online.

One sign is regulators' approval last week for an online unit of the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, to offer shares in Shanghai. The newspaper plans to raise $83 million to challenge established Web portals such as Sina and Sohu.

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-- David Pierson

Photo: Chinese youths at an Internet cafe in Beijing. Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel / Associated Press

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