BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s online community is ballooning and could soon overtake the United States in size, a survey showed, with the Internet boom changing the way young Chinese express political dissent.
There were 210 million Chinese Internet users at the end of last year, less than one-fifth of its population, the recent poll by China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) showed.
The Web’s infinite and mostly free entertainment resources are still the main reason why young Chinese go online, as Chinese media are state-controlled and many people are relatively poor.
But experts say that the Internet is also increasingly important as a platform for free speech.
Duncan Clark, analyst and Chairman of BDA, a telecommunications, media and technology advisor based in Beijing, believes online enthusiasm is dramatically affecting self-expression in China.
“They’re basically citizens of this Internet,” he said of China’s online community.
“They almost have a virtual life as members of the Internet, that they don’t actually enjoy, frankly, in the real world. Obviously, there is not a multiparty democracy here, there is not a free press, in that sense. But on the Internet, people can virtually achieve...they can make an impact,” he said.
The vast majority of Chinese users are young people — 70 percent are under 30, according to the survey.
And the 2007 number grew 50 percent from the previous year, the survey showed.
Political content on the Internet is still censored by China’s Communist Party, and online dissidents are often dealt with harshly, although pirated games, films and music are easily available.
With an additional 200,000 new Chinese users going online every day, the government may also find the Internet is too large, and users too active, to be effectively controlled.
During the recent weather crisis that affected much of China, during which millions were left without electricity or stranded at train stations over the Chinese New Year period, the Internet was buzzing with criticism of the government’s failure to properly deal with the situation.
Clark said debate among China’s netizens is already reforming society as a whole.
“One can really say that the pace of technology advancement has been much greater than the willingness of the government to reform politically. Technology is driving reforms in Chinese society right now, much more than political reform,” he said.
As the popularity of the Internet grows, some problems emerge, too.
Chinese Internet users have already beaten their U.S. counterparts in terms of web enthusiasm, spending an average of 18.6 hours a week online, compared to 15.1 hours in the United States, the CNNIC survey showed.
About one-tenth of Chinese netizens between the ages of 13 and 30 suffer from “Internet addiction,” the China Youth Association for Network Development (CYAND) said.
Wang Wei, who works at a Beijing architecture firm and a regularly uses the Internet, sees the change.
“The Internet is having a big effect on young people,” he told Reuters. “Usually the effect on more mature people is less, but some young people go on all night, with sessions from 10 in the evening until six in the morning. They don’t eat or drink, but just sit in front of the computer playing games.”
Reporting by Tyra Dempster; Writing by Sophie Hardach