A young Chinese woman surfs the Internet. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

China has surpassed the United States as the country with the largest number of Internet users in the world, although use of the Internet differs in the two countries. While the majority of U.S. users shop online, for instance, only about a fraction of Chinese do. Nevertheless, e-shopping in China surged dramatically in early 2009.

Internet use in China began with the sending of an e-mail from Beijing to Germany on 20 September 1987. Chinese and German scientists had jointly created an e-mail node. The subject line of the first e-mail was “Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world.”

The Internet in China was used mainly by academics until early 1996 when Internet service provider (ISP) ChinaNet began to provide public Internet access. After that, Internet development and usage expanded quickly.

Subject for Study

Founded in June 1997, and administratively operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which also takes responsibility of China’s top-level domain name registry under “.CN” country code, started to release Internet survey reports as early as October 1997. The reports are recognized as official data approved by the Chinese government. They cover Internet usage, such as location and time spent on the Internet, and users’ online activities, as well as demographic information.

A research project at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, the China Internet Project (CNIP), has released Internet survey reports every two years since 2001. It covers the broad effects of the Internet and has become a key source for analyzing technical aspects of the Internet, comparative demographics, and research on Internet use. Its research focuses on urban China. Data on Internet usage in rural China is still sparse and anecdotal, though it is thought that a large number of mobile telephone users access the Internet via their phones. Other studies on Internet use in China can be found from CCID Consulting, International Data Group, and iResearch, among others.

Internet Development

Until 1999 there were only four gateways connecting China to the world. ChinaNet, run by a state-owned telecommunication company, is the largest ISP in China providing public Internet access. China Science and Technology Network (CSTNET), managed by the Chinese Academy of Science, is a network for the scientific and technology communities. China Education and Research Network (CERNET) is mainly for academic use by students and researchers. And China Golden Bridge Network (CHINAGBN), which no longer operates independently, links government departments. Since 1999, a host of major portal websites has come online, including Sina.com, Sohu.com, and Netease.com. Other commercial websites, such as Baidu.com, a Chinese search engine, Taobao.com, a Chinese eBay-style C2C website, and Dangdang.com, a Chinese online bookstore, are becoming popular in China. Unlike in most other industries, only a few foreign Internet companies have been able to gain the kind of market share they hoped for when entering China. Homegrown Chinese companies dominate the field.

In 2005 fewer than 70 percent of Internet users were accessing information through search engines, about 60 percent were using e-mail, and only 20 percent were shopping. Since then, however there has been a well-recognized shift. More users are logging onto search engines and buying things online; e-mail and online marketing are becoming familiar; and bulletin board systems, social networking sites, blogs, and other web sources for use in both education and entertainment are becoming more important.

In 1997 the number of Internet users was 620,000; the number of computer hosts, 300,000; and the number of websites, 1,500. Since 2000, the volume of Chinese content on the Internet has exploded. By December 2007 the number of Chinese websites had reached an estimated 1.5 million; many overseas Chinese, especially college students and professors, contribute to the content of these sites. Chinese became the second Internet language after English. There are about 431 million English-language internet users worldwide; the number of all Internet users worldwide is about 1.5 billion.

China became the largest Internet country in the world in 2008 when it surpassed the United States with 253 million users online. By January 2009 there were 298 million Internet users in China, about a 23 percent penetration (the average percentage of the population that regularly accesses the Internet), according to CNNIC. By comparison the United States had 223 million active Internet users in June 2008, about a 73 percent penetration. In developed countries the average penetration is 70 percent; overall penetration in the world is 21.1 percent. Most Internet users in China live in urban areas, where the Internet penetration rate is about 56 percent.

Users and Uses

Internet users in China are mainly concentrated in urban areas. They tend to be young, male, fairly well educated, and working in professional jobs. One study showed that 30.3 percent of Internet users are eighteen to twenty-four years old and that 18.7 percent are twenty-five to thirty years old, a total of 49 percent of users. This is a common profile for technology adopters in general. But, compared to the United States, where 73 percent of women and 73 percent of men use the Internet, development in China is still in an early stage.

In urban areas the Internet plays a major role in many people’s lives. Users read news; gather information about health care; download music and movies; play games; communicate with classmates, colleagues, or friends; and express opinions on current events, news, public affairs, and government policy.

Reading news online is popular among urban users. The Internet has become a convenient and inexpensive way to learn of domestic and international events. Chinese users are particularly eager to comment or enter into discussions online after reading the news. Yet traditional media—TV, newspapers, and radio—are still more trusted than online news is. In the 2007 CNIP report, 70 percent of respondents in China (compared to 52 percent in the United States, according to the survey conducted by USC Digital Center) said that a small portion or none of the information online is reliable.

Urban Internet users spend more time on entertainment, such as downloading music and movies or playing games, than on any other online activities. The 2007 CNIP survey found that in urban China, 37 percent of Internet users go online at least once a week to download or watch videos, the highest percentage of any country surveyed.

E-mail is used mainly among classmates or colleagues but is less popular than QQ, an instant message computer program, which is mostly used among friends. And text messaging has become very popular. Most people use pinyin, the English alphabet to write Chinese pronunciations, when texting. But the fastest way is to use the wubizixing input method, which uses Chinese characters. Some people use a text editor known as MULE (an abbreviation of multilingual enhancement) that can process many languages, including traditional and simplified Chinese.

Compared to the United Sates, where 71 percent of Internet users shop online, China has a low rate of e-shoppers. According to CNNIC, about 20 percent to 25 percent of Chinese Internet users buy things online, although the number of e-shoppers has rapidly increased, and is expected to rise even higher. While many online shoppers pay for goods with bank cards (mostly debit cards), others use systems similar to PayPal, such as Zhifubao. On the most popular online shopping website, Taobao.com, part of the business site Alibaba.com, Zhifubao is widely used. Some online bookstores and other retailers that sell small consumer items continue to use the traditional cash on delivery (COD) payment method. Orders are placed online but nothing is paid until the goods are delivered into the customer’s hands, whether at their home or workplace.

Government Control

Internet use is regulated and monitored by the government. Watchers scan website content for hot political issues, such as Falun Gong and the situation in Tibet, and content deemed socially unhealthy, such as pornography and violence. Web masters also monitor online discussions in chat rooms, a method of self-censoring. Generally speaking, Chinese Internet users accept government intervention much more readily than users in Western countries would do. In CNIP surveys conducted in 2003, 2005, and 2007, more than 80 percent of respondents in China said that the Internet should be controlled (mainly on pornography and violence) and that the government should be the controlling agent.

When Google.cn was established and agreed to abide by government rules, there was an international outcry over censorship. But searches on Google.cn on controversial topics brought up many sites that were critical of the government. Internet users in China can also turn to Google.com rather than Google.cn. If they search Chinese keywords, they can choose the server in Singapore, instead of the one in China. The blockage of Western sites is well documented and familiar to visitors to China, but it is also highly variable. While some information is blocked, much is still available to Internet users. In addition, there are thousands of proxy servers in the world that can be used to get around the Great China Firewall, as the government’s blocking system is known. Estimates are that about 30 percent of Internet users in urban areas have used proxy servers, according to CNIP surveys in the past years.

During the 2003 SARS epidemic, groups inside China, as well as outside, used the Internet, along with mobile phones and satellite broadcasts, to ensure that information about the disease was widely distributed. This flow of information seemed to have caught the central government by surprise. As governments will do, it tried to restrict news about the outbreaks in the early days of the crisis—perhaps, in part, with resistance to the English-language dominance of the World Wide Web—while officials and experts tried to work out a course of action,

Chinese Domain Names

Chinese characters in URLs will soon be part of the international standard for the Internet. When a Chinese domain name (.?? domain name) is formally put into use, this domain name is upgraded into the Chinese Domain Name global root domain name registration database. The system requires that “.??” be a top-level domain name representing China on the global Internet. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a nonprofit international organization that coordinates Internet naming, has approved “.??” as the global root domain name system to be directly accessed by global Internet users. A hint, perhaps, that in the near future China will play a major role in the worldwide Internet.

Further Reading

China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Retrieved February 14, 2009, from http://cnnic.cn/en/index/index.htm

China Internet Project (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). Retrieved February 14, 2009, from http://www.wipchina.org/en/

CCID Consulting website. (2009). Retrieved February 4, 2009 from http://en.ccidconsulting.com/

IDC website (under International Data Group). (2009). Retrieved February 4, 2009, from http://www.idg.com.cn/english/index.htm

iResearch Consulting Group website. (2009). Retrieved February 4, 2009 from http://english.iresearch.com.cn/

Source: Christensen, Karen, & Guo, Liang. (2009). Internet Use. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1179–1182. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

An internet forum in which Chinese students discuss taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Together, students taking these two tests are called GT’ers.

Internet Use (Hùliánw?ng sh?yòng ?????)|Hùliánw?ng sh?yòng ????? (Internet Use)

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