According to statistics from the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), the number of internet users in China has topped 4 million, compared with 2.1 million at the end of last year. CNNIC director Mao Wei predicts that yearly. growth will be more than 100 per cent in coming years.
Still, surfing is expensive for all but the most affluent Chinese. Relief may be on the horizon an official at the China Telecom Administration Bureau confided that cutting internet access fees to an affordable level is being considered. Fees were already cut in March, contributing to a significant increase in internet users in the first half of this year. However many still complain about high prices and a government official has said there might be room for more cuts.
According to the China Daily Business Weekly of July 18, some 19.3 per cent of China's internet users are students. The next highest categories are technical personnel (9.9 per cent) and employees of foreign-funded companies (8.9 per cent). Some 67 per cent of internet users are between 21 and 30 years old.
Several web portals, sites with links to other websites grouped by category, are vying with each other to become the number one in China. China.com, which is not in the top 10, was listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in July and its shares more than doubled in price on the first trading day.
China's most popular portal, netease.com, teamed up with Hong Kong's netvigator.com and Taiwan's kimo.com to form the Greater China Portal Alliance. Each site provides easy click-through access to the other two portals to give surfers news from all three Chinese-language areas. The alliance expects 12 million surfers a day. Netease plans to follow China.com's example and seek a stock market listing within one year, according to its chief executive William Ding.
Netscape Communications, a subsidiary of America Online, is looking for more China partners to expand its business. The US company entered the China market in 1997 through a partnership with China Inter-net Corp, the parent of China.com. Netscape's Chinese portal site allows users to navigate the internet and access content and services. It has started talks to open up new content services in the local language.
The Chinese government has launched its government-online project. Ministries, commissions and other government departments are scrambling to open their own websites. So far more than 40 have taken the plunge. A commentary in China Daily in June emphasised that government departments should take full advantage of the intemet to better serve the people. Last month the government claimed 60 per cent of its departments plan to have web sites by the end of this year. The number of web sites set up by various government bodies at all levels had risen to 1,564 from just 145 in 1998, claimed Liberation Daily.
To check who is and who is not yet online, you can surf to www.gov.cn. Currently, it's a Chinese-language only site. Most of the portals also do not yet offer an English index. If you are using Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 and stumble onto a Chinese language web-site, the system will ask if you want to install Chinese-language extensions. If you do, you can at least see the Chinese characters and have a better idea what the site looks like.
Despite the internee's growing popularity, many people in China have a negative impression of wangchong or `net insects'. They are portrayed as people with pale faces, dishevelled hair and bleary eyes ?a result of sleeping by day and surfing the net at night, when connection fees are lower. "Digital life in the US is quite different from the concepts we may have here about it," observes Wang Zhidong, president of sina.com. "People who have a digital lifestyle lose less time and can easily reach high levels of efficiency."
Wang concludes his first weekly column in the Sunday edition of China Daily with the confident prediction: "Sina is to become the digital living platform for all the Chinese people around the world."
China is catching up. If you don't know where to start, try to visit www.chinasite.com.