Internet Users 'Lack Real Influence'

In China, wider Internet access does not necessarily mean an increase in influence.
2011-07-20
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Chinese netizens play games at an Internet cafe in northeast Shuangyashan city, February 11, 2011.
Chinese netizens play games at an Internet cafe in northeast Shuangyashan city, February 11, 2011.
Imaginechina

China has more people online than any other country, but commentators say that doesn't necessarily translate into political punch.

The number of Chinese Internet users rose to 485 million at the end of June, according to the state-run Internet watchdog.

Figures from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) also showed that microblogging is the fastest-growing form of Internet use in China.

Netizens using microblogging platforms like Twitter grew by more than 200 percent to 195 million from January to June, making up around 40 percent of China's online population.

But an increase in access did not necessarily add up to an increase in influence, experts said.

"Most Chinese netizens are aged 30 and under, and they are the group with the least influence on the whole of society," said Sweden-based Chinese Internet expert Li Ye.

"They just rely on the Internet for its communication, interaction, and entertainment functions."

"These people are basically just kids, and they don't know how to express a mature opinion," Li said.

'Some hope of democracy'

Li said he believes that the Chinese Internet is witnessing anything but democratic change.

"It hasn't come," he said. But he added: "The ubiquity of the Internet and its development have given us some hope of democracy."

Meanwhile, Internet expert Zhang Zhengjun said the steep growth in Internet users is likely to tail off somewhat.

"Most Chinese netizens are young and middle-aged people, as well as students, and they are pretty much all online now," Zhang said.

"Any growth in the future will have to come from people in late middle to early old age and from very young children."

Zhang said figures from the Chinese Internet Laboratory have projected that China's online population will grow from around 400 million now to around 800 million in 2015.

But Zhang said he is skeptical that a sheer increase in quantity will lead to an increase in quality.

"If you have 200 million microbloggers who all write about something they don't like, then perhaps this 200 million won't even exist tomorrow," he said.

"You can only really say that China is making improvements in the universality of access to the Internet."

More pronounced

CNNIC said the overall growth rate of Internet users started to slow last year, but became more pronounced recently.

It said the deceleration in the growth rate of total users mainly reflected the weak online skills of China's huge population of rural and older people, most of whom don't know how to use a computer.

Meanwhile, mobile Internet is also on the rise in China, with around one-third of microbloggers accessing such sites on their cell phones, CNNIC added.

Sina, Tencent, and Baidu currently account for more than 90 percent of the microblogging market, according to a recent study by RedTech Advisers.

In contrast to the microblogging platforms, the user base of Facebook-style social-networking sites shrank to 230 million in the first half of 2011 from 235.1 million at the end of last year.

However, CNNIC said the government's plan to allow telecom carriers, TV broadcasters, and Internet companies to enter each other's respective fields and provide services could stimulate Internet use.

Compared with developed countries, where more than 70 percent of people have Internet access, only 36.2 percent of China's 1.3 billion population can currently get online.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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