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July 12, 2007

China's Internet growth bringing sea change

Posted by Kristi Heim at 11:28 AM

We all know the rapid growth of the Internet in China is bringing changes to China itself. But it will also have consequences for the rest of the world. A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project points to some of those shifts.

About 137 million people are online in China now -- second only to the number of Internet users in the U.S. but still just 10 percent of China's population. In the U.S., about 65 percent of the population is online.

China's Internet population is growing faster than that of the U.S. and is projected to exceed the number of U.S. Internet users in just a few years.

That means more Web sites in Chinese, the one written language that is shared by speakers of many different dialects of the Chinese diaspora. This could have a unifying effect on China's citizenry, the Pew report predicts. Already, the Web is becoming a vehicle for expressing dissent and exposing problems that would not otherwise come to light.

But those voices are often squelched if they threaten Party control. Different approaches to the Internet could create more tensions with Western countries and non-Chinese companies like Microsoft over human rights and censorship, the report said.

When Bill Gates was asked in an interview with Fortune how he squares Microsoft's position in China with its leaders' suppression of free speech on the Internet and disregard for human rights, even China's most admired Westerner had no answer for that one.

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Tricia Duryee
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Kristi Heim
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