There are now an estimated 137 million internet users in China, second in number only to the United States, where estimates of the current internet population range from 165 million to 210 million. The growth rate of China’s internet user population has been outpacing that of the U.S., and China is projected to overtake the U.S. in the total number of users within a few years.
The influx of tens of millions of new online participants each year can be expected to have far-reaching consequences for the Chinese population, for China itself and for the larger world. At the very least, the internet will offer ever greater numbers of Chinese a much more sophisticated information and communications world than the one they currently inhabit. And because the Chinese share a single written language, despite the multiplicity of spoken tongues, it could have a unifying effect on the country’s widely dispersed citizenry. An expanding internet population might also increase domestic tensions that could spill over into China’s relations with the U.S. and other countries while the difference between Chinese and Western approaches to the internet could create additional sore points over human rights and problems with restrictions on non-Chinese companies.