China's Web population a figure hard to pin down

China now has 477 million Web users, according to a new report

Depending on how you count, China can have as many as 450 million Web users, or just 300 million.

While the country has risen to become one of the world's leading Internet markets, opinion differs on its exact size, varying with the methodology used to arrive at the figure.

On Monday, yet another figure was announced, putting China's Internet users at 477 million at the end of March. Wang Jianwen, a deputy head at China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, reported the figure, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The new figure suggests that China added 20 million users in a three-month period. The previous figure, estimated by the government-linked China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), put the Web populace at 457 million at the end of 2010.

Past reports by the CNNIC show that each year, China's Internet population has surged in numbers. In 2010, the country added 73 million Web users. The year before that, the number of Web users grew by 86 million.

The CNNIC, however, defines Web users as Chinese residents over the age of 6, who have gone online at least once in the past 6 months.

Michael Clendenin, managing director at research firm RedTech Advisor, said such figures are inflated. "They are using a pretty loose metric for qualifying Internet users," he said.

Internet marketing research firm comScore provides more conservative numbers. Counting users over 14, who have gone online either through a home or work computer in the past month, comScore said this month that China had only 304.2 million Web users.

But in another estimate this month, comScore said China's Internet population is at 415.6 million. This figure includes people who access the Web through Internet cafes or public computers, it said.

In spite of the differing estimates, the business community still sees China emerging as the world's largest Internet market, Clendenin added. Investment bankers will turn around the lower estimates, and say how much more China's Internet market still has to grow, he said.

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