The number of Chinese Internet users has surpassed 500 million, with nearly half of them using microblogs, or Weibo, official figures showed Monday.
About 55.8 million Chinese people became new Internet users last year, bringing the country’s Web population to 513 million, representing an Internet penetration rate of 38.3 percent, according to a report released by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).
The number of Internet users increased by 4 percent, less than the average annual growth rate of 6 percent between 2006 and 2010. About 90.9 percent of people with high school diplomas or above surf the Internet, and 96.1 percent of those with a college education or above use the Web, the report showed.
Although 60 percent of the population still remain unconnected to the Internet, the market’s expansion has reached a bottleneck, as almost everyone with enough funds and an adequate education level has already gone online, the report concluded, adding that the access rate among people with an education background of primary school level remains very slow.
The Internet usage rate among people aged between 10 and 29 has been growing rapidly and almost peaked. People aged between 30 and 39 will be the main force behind access growth, while those aged above 50 will not have any effect, the report said.
"In the past, most Internet users were in the rapidly developing coastal areas. Now, many people in the central and western regions also have access to the Web," Wei Wuhui, an Internet and new media expert with Shanghai Jiaotong University, told the Global Times.
"To a great extent, the values and opinions held by Web users represent the mainstream ideas of the Chinese people," Wei said.
Meanwhile, the number of microbloggers surged by 296 percent year-on-year to 250 million as of December, suggesting that about half of Internet users use microblogs.
Compared with the explosion in the number of microbloggers, the proportion of people using e-mail dropped from 54.6 percent to 47.9 percent. About 28.2 percent of Web users spend time on online forums, down from 32.4 percent in 2010. Some 367 million people, or 71.5 percent of the Internet population, use online news services, a mere 3.9 percent increase from 2010, according to the report.
In an even bolder estimate, Qian Xiaoqian, deputy head of the State Council Information Office, said in November that the number of Chinese microbloggers has reached 300 million.
"The Internet has become the most influential form of mass media. What to promote and what to object to, what to allow and what to forbid on the Web are matters of importance to authorities in terms of maintaining stability," Qian said.
"The central government holds a positive attitude to new media such as the Internet and microblogs," Sun Zhiwei, an official from the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, told China News Service Monday.
"This year, authorities will strengthen the collection, analysis and handling of online information that exposes corruption and bring the positive effect of Web users into play to punish and prevent corruption," Sun said.
Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at the Renmin University of China, said that people have showed more interest in the country’s political affairs and tend to use the new media to express their opinions.
"The Internet’s unique ability to distribute information provides Web users with a platform for sharing opinions instantly and without limit, which traditional media cannot do."
"The government needs to come up with an effective plan to deal with the rise of the Internet. Some officials remain on guard against the development of public opinions on the Web," Yu told the Global Times.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, the number of Weibo accounts verified as being run by government officials or departments on Sina, one of China’s major microblog services, has surged to nearly 20,000 by December.
Among them, more than 10,000 are updated by government agencies and about 9,000 by individual officials.
Monday’s report by CNNIC also revealed that rural Internet use rose by 8.9 percent last year to 136 million people, but huge disparities still exist between rich and poor regions.
For example, more than 70 percent of Beijing residents used the Internet last year, while only 24.2 percent of people went online in Guizhou Province.
The number of people surfing the Web on mobile phones reached 356 million in 2011, up by nearly 53 million, of whom 58.1 percent are male, the report said.
Yang Jingjie, Huang Jingjing and agencies contributed to this story