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Chinese Web Expands

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[ Technology]

China now has 137 million Internet users and while that sounds like a lot (only second to the US in number), Pew Internet & American Life Project reminds us that’s just a tenth of the country’s population.

Internet access has a ways to go in China, and what that will mean for the country itself and its neighbors remains to be seen. Major US corporations like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are betting that it means financial opportunity, while the more sociologically-minded predict anything from information revolution to increasingly strained relations between governments.

As of now, the vast majority of Internet users in China are male, under 30, and urban dwellers, and two thirds are students or business workers. While there’s room to grow in urban areas, among the older citizenry and with women, the real test of the Internet’s impact on Chinese society will be when it reaches into rural areas.

Just three percent of rural China has Internet access, with peasants and farmers accounting for only 0.4 percent of Internet users. Though many of them cite not being able to afford Internet access, others cite lack of time. But a significant number cite lack of computer skills or lack of interest altogether.

Around ten percent in both rural and urban areas cited lack of need or interest – which, as a reminder, still amounts some 100 million people. And those with lack of interest may stay uninterested.

The author of Pew’s study, researcher Deborah Fallows, quotes a farmer in Shandong province: “To us farmers, a computer is no different from an aircraft carrier, because neither has a bearing on our life.”

Many are expecting the mobile industry to change all that. Rural mobile phone subscribers numbered 53 million last year, upping the total number of China Mobile subscribers to 300 million.

Though prices for computers are dropping, it most likely will be phones that connects China to the World Wide Web.

Impact

As China is increasingly wired, economic, social, political and linguistic change is expected. Business will thrive, it will be harder for the Chinese government to police the flow of information the way it does now, relations between the industrialized democratic nations will be strained, and the Chinese language may become more unified.

What does that mean for the language of the Web? Fallows is unsure:

Some experts suggested that English would remain dominant; others said that language dominance might shift to another language, like Chinese; others thought that a few languages would share a big online presence.

Chinese Web Expands
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