More Chinese are using the Internet than ever before, with more than 500 million users in China accessing the Web, according to a report by the state-run China Internet Network Information Center.
The report said the number of people using the Web rose 12 percent in December to 513 million people. The report also provides information on China's uptake of microblogging sites called "weibo" sites that are akin to Twitter-nearly half of Chinese Web users logged into the sites in 2011, up from 63 million in 2010.
People logging in through mobile devices and those accessing the Web in rural areas also increased compared with 2010, climbing 17.5 percent to 356 million and 8.9 percent to 136 million, respectively. Internet users across the country make up nearly 40 percent of China's population of 1.3 billion, according to the report.
As China's market for Internet usage grows, U.S. firms are gearing up to access an enormous potential base of users. The leading Chinese language Internet search provider, Baidu, and Microsoft are teaming up to provide users of Baidu with results from Bing, Microsoft's search engine. Baidu is looking to expand its user base after fending off market-share increases from Google, while Microsoft is trying to keep momentum going for Bing, which has seen its user base for the search service grow at home.
The rise of consumer technology and Web access in China is raising a host of issues, both political and economic, as the country's leaders grapple with the social implications of access to unrestricted speech and Chinese consumers scramble to obtain the latest in mobile technology, as evidenced by last week's disturbances in Apple stores in China.
Apple stores in Beijing and Shanghai have delayed the release of the iPhone 4S after a scene outside a Beijing store turned ugly early Jan. 13, with angry crowds fighting and throwing eggs at one of the buildings. Crowds of hundreds, according to the Associated Press, waited outside overnight in 20-degree temperatures, only to be told in the morning-after the flagship store in Beijing didn't open at 7 a.m. as expected, and the crowd became rowdy-that the store would not open and no one would get the coveted device.
To ensure the safety of customers and employees, the iPhone "will not be available in our retail stores in Beijing and Shanghai for the time being," Carolyn Wu, an Apple spokesperson in Beijing, said in a widely reported statement.
Chinese consumers have proved to have an insatiable appetite for mobile devices, though the Apple brand holds particular cache, and the country-along with the United States-has become a top earner for Apple, bringing in more than 10 percent of sales in 2011. During Apple's 2011 fourth fiscal quarter, it opened a new store in Hong Kong, one of the 25 that officials have said they plan to open over the next few years.