Internet use is booming - in very Chinese ways

The Baltimore Sun

China will probably surpass the U.S. as the nation with the most Internet users later this spring, according to statistics recently released by the Chinese government.

The number of Internet users in China rose 53 percent to 210 million at the end of 2007, up from 137 million at the end of 2006, according to the quasi-governmental China Internet Network Information Center. That compares with roughly 215 million Internet users in the U.S.

The Chinese government's crackdown on political bloggers and censorship of certain Web sites, sometimes dubbed the "Great Firewall of China," will undoubtedly receive greater attention - and condemnation - as the world focuses on Beijing for the Summer Olympics.

Some Internet analysts expect Web traffic in and out of China will slow this week with greetings and information being exchanged for Chinese New Year, which begins Thursday - like the effect in the U.S. of trying to place a cell phone call or text message near midnight on New Year's Eve.

Shawn White of California-based Keynote Systems, which measures Web performance worldwide, said that last year Web speeds dropped 75 percent around Chinese New Year in the country, compared with weeks earlier. No impact should be felt within the U.S., he said.

The statistical horse race on the Internet's rise in China might give a misleading impression. The numbers from China (population: 1.3 billion) include young children, more so than are typically included in counts in the U.S. (population: 303 million). And the use of the Internet is also much different: Many Chinese, with limited access to personal computers, access the Internet on their cell phones.

Egil Juliussen, president of Computer Industry Almanac Inc. & eTForecasts near Chicago, said by e-mail that China has already surpassed the U.S. in Internet use by cell phone, 47 million subscribers to 39 million, even though cellular technology for Internet access is slower there than here.

Many in China, especially young people, gather at Internet cafes, mostly for recreation.

"Let me tell you something about these Internet cafes and their users," writes business consultant Paul Denlinger in the blog China Vortex. "The people who go there are young, single, low-income males. They do not bring their dates there. The places are smoky, dingy and poorly lit. They sell some basic food and beverages in the front, and also charge people a fee to sleep overnight on the dirty, bug-infested, stained futons which pass for couches. If you want a truly terrible experience, visit their bathrooms. ...

"The characters are sad characters; if they were living in England 150 years ago, Charles Dickens would be writing about them. From the Chinese perspective, although games and the Internet are highly addictive, Internet cafes serve a useful purpose. Otherwise these people would be on the street, unemployed. The Internet cafe today in China is what gin and beer was to England's working class in the mid-19th century when Karl Marx was writing Das Kapital about the evils of class exploitation." Denlinger, reached by e-mail, focuses on Internet startups.

Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, has spent the past 18 months in China and concurs with the "flophouse" description for many Internet cafes, but says the Internet is having its own sizable effect in China.

On a trip to Urumqi, a Chinese version of Portland or Seattle with 2 million people in Xinjiang province, Fallows marveled at an Internet cafe the size of a football field, full of multitasking young people and with the feel of a Vegas casino, what the Chinese call renao - hot and noisy.

"Even the government says, by and large, what's going on mostly in China on the Internet is recreation and entertainment and the government is concerned about that," Fallows said. "There's a lot of attention being paid to the vast amount of time that kids are playing games and watching videos and downloading music. The healthy development of the youth population is a concern for them."

Actually, those concerns are probably shared by many American parents, but there are also major differences between the Internet's impact in the U.S. and in China.

"It's fighting a culture where people shop differently than they do in the United States," Fallows said. "They want to feel the goods, they want to haggle with the shopkeeper, they want to be able to go back when something's wrong and know who's responsible. The idea of buying things online is much more foreign. People are gathering in groups to buy in bulk for a good deal online, and people don't do that in the United States."

E-commerce has been propelled in the U.S. in part because Americans overcame early reluctance to make credit-card transactions online. Credit cards as not as common in China. When ordering from a popular travel site, Ctrip.com, many users plug in a time for a bicycle messenger to pick up their cash and drop off their plane tickets.

"It's going to develop in its own way in China," Fallows said. "It's going to become 'Chinese.' "

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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