China had 79.5 million Web surfers at the end of 2003, according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) out of Beijing.
The number catapults the country ahead of fellow Asia-Pacific region country Japan, which has 56 million Internet users but below first-ranked U.S., which has 165.75 million Internet users, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) World Factbook.
According to the bi-annual Statistical Survey Report, China added 20.4 million new users in 2003, a 34.5 percent increase over the year prior. It's an amazing six-month leap; its previous report, the 12th Statistical Survey Report, showed 68 million Internet users. Officials determine an Internet user as someone who accesses the Internet one hour or more a week.
"China's Internet market has great potential," a statement read. "It has already become the country's fastest-growing, most influential sector."
While 79.5 million would be a significant number in most countries, it's a mere six percent of China's total population of 1.28 billion. In the U.S., Web surfers make up 57 percent of the total population of 290.34 million.
China has only three Internet service providers (ISPs) – ChinaLink Networks, Netaway and VPM Internet Services, Inc. – and the majority of Internet use comes from dial-up connections to the home, about 45 percent. Internet cafes scattered throughout the country also make up a large part of China's Internet use, nearly 25 percent of the country's Internet access comes from leased lines, while about 10 percent of users have a broadband connection, according to the report.
Figures out of the CNNIC have been contested in the past, however. In 2000, surveys seemed to indicate Internet growth was not as high as the organization was claiming.
CNNIC is hardly neutral; it is the communist country's Internet registry for .cn country-code top-level domains (ccTLD) and its Web site states it "takes its orders from the Ministry of Information Industry."
However, China is prominently ranked in most surveys coming out of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an international body that works to resolve differences between Internet standards bodies, private enterprise and governments.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are ranked seventh and ninth, respectively in the ITU's 2002 digital access index (DAI) report, an index that determines the availability of Internet access, quality and infrastructure for a country's population. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan beat out Internet heavyweights U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
The ITU report also noted half of China's Internet users are university educated.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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