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China’s online population rises to 477 million

China’s spiralling online numbers have turned the internet into a forum for citizens to express their opinions, albeit covertly.

The number of internet users in China, already the world’s largest online market, hit 477 million at the end of March, a senior government official was quoted by state media as saying on Monday.

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The growing strength and influence of the web population has prompted concern in Beijing about the internet’s potential as a tool for generating social unrest, and authorities have stepped up surveillance in recent years.

The government blocks web content that it deems politically sensitive in a vast system dubbed the “Great Firewall of China” – the banned media content even stretching to include time travel.

The official from the Telecommunications Administration Bureau, which falls under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, announced the figure at a meeting in Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The number of people using the Internet in China hit 457 million at the end of 2010, meaning that more than one-third of its 1.3 billion-strong population were online, the report said.

These figures should be taken with a pinch of salt however, as while the country has undoubtedly risen to become one of the world’s largest internet markets, opinion differs on its exact size, varying with the methodology used to arrive at the figure, especially from a government attempting to maintain such tight control over the country’s web access and international opinion.

This new figure suggests that China added 20 million users in a three month period which is questionable. The previous figure, estimated by the government-linked China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), put the web populace at 457 million at the end of 2010.

Previous reports by the CNNIC show that each year China’s internet population has surged in numbers. The country added 73 million Web users in 2010, for example, and the year before that, the number of Web users grew by 86 million, they reported.

The CNNIC, however, defines web users as Chinese residents over the age of 6, who have gone online at least once in the past 6 months, so it’s not hard to see that these figures could have been inflated and a very loose metric for qualifying internet users applied. More conservative estimates place the user figure at between 300 million and 416 million users.

China’s spiralling online numbers have turned the Internet into a forum for citizens to express their opinions in a way rarely seen in a country where the traditional media is under strict government control.

After reports last week of the Chinese government employing online spin doctors to covertly spread their propaganda, one does have to wonder how much of this online opinion is true to the sentiment of the Chinese populace.

The internet has quickly become a vital forum for debate in the world’s most populous country — and a major sounding board – but this fact has registered with the country’s Communist leaders, who pay careful attention to the conversations that unfold online despite heavy government restrictions on what can and cannot be discussed in cyberspace.

“Web commentators” who, either anonymously or using pseudonyms, spread politically correct arguments — many of them for money – form part of this great online community, policing and influencing users with rational sounding arguments, whether they know it or not.

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