One of the more striking end-of-year statistics pumped out recently by the Chinese government was an update on the number of internet users in the country, which had reached 210m. It is a staggering figure, up by more than 50% on the previous year and more than three times the number for India, the emerging Asian giant with which China is most often compared. Within a few months, according to Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, China will have more internet users than America, the current leader. And because the proportion of the population using the internet is so low, at just 16%, rapid growth is likely to continue for some time.
So what is the internet used for in China? Its most obvious use is to distribute free pirated films, television shows and music. Even though China’s censors do an excellent job of restricting access to content that might cause political problems, they are strangely unable to stem the flow of pirated foreign media. On December 30th an appeals court in Beijing ruled in favour of Baidu, China’s leading search engine, which had been accused by the world’s big record companies of copyright violation by providing links to pirated music files. Even so, piracy is starting to worry the government, not least because the availability of free foreign content is holding back the development of the domestic media industry. But for the time being, the free-for-all continues.
Chinese youth are arguably the world’s greatest web obsessives.