The Chinese government said Friday its Internet population has soared to 210 million people, putting it on track to surpass the U.S. online community this year to become the world's largest.
The official China Internet Network Information Center, also known as CNNIC, said the online population grew 53 percent, from 137 million reported at the same time last year. According to the government's Xinhua News Agency, China is only 5 million behind the United States online, a figure consistent with some American estimates.
China still lags the United States in many respects, however.
Xinhua placed China's online penetration rate at 16 percent — the point Americans were at in the mid-1990s. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 75 percent of American adults are now online; penetration is even higher when teens are included. (China's stats cover Chinese 6 and older.)
"We're two countries at very different points along the adoption curve," said John Horrigan, Pew's associate director. "China is approximately 15 years behind."
Several other differences between the two markets mean Internet penetration has different meaning in China and the United States.
First, cybercafes serve as the main entry to the Internet for many Chinese unable to afford a computer at home. One-third of Chinese Internet users surf through cybercafes, according to Xinhua, while Pew found that 93 percent of U.S. Internet users have access at home.
Also, China is notorious for censorship. Although the government promotes Internet use for education and business, it tries to block the public from seeing material it deems pornographic or critical of communist rule, including new rules promulgated this month covering online videos.
And China's government imprisons people who mail, post online, or access politically sensitive content from within China. Reporters Without Borders says 50 Chinese "cyberdissidents" are currently in prison.
Nonetheless, China's online growth is significant.
"Users do a lot to shape the Internet and not only by directly posting content but (by) their behavior," Horrigan said. "It tells other people what the demand is. As you get more Chinese, that increases demand for Internet content in Mandarin and other Chinese languages."
Horrigan also said many Chinese users are accessing the Internet through mobile devices, offering China "a distinct opportunity to shape the Internet" with usage everywhere.