Nearly half (250 million) use weibos, microblogs similar to Twitter that can circumvent the country’s powerful censors, official data showed on Monday.
The weibos have become hugely popular platforms for people to vent their anger over perceived injustices or corruption and organize and spread news of protests, posing a challenge to government attempts to control information.
The rise in the number of people using the weibos was particularly dramatic, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) figures show, jumping to 250 million from just 63 million at the end of 2010.
China regularly blocks web content it deems politically sensitive in a vast censorship system dubbed the “Great Firewall of China” and is hugely concerned about the power of the Internet to influence public opinion.
“Chinese authorities are more and more concerned about the Internet because it’s such a decentralised medium and so difficult to control,” said David Bandurski, a Hong Kong-based researcher at the China Media Project.
“Since 2005, the whole focus of control of information has shifted from traditional media to the Internet.”
Rural Internet use rose by 8.9% last year to 136 million people, but huge disparities still exist between rich and poor regions, the data shows.
While more than 70% of Beijing’s population used the Internet last year, only 24.2% of people went online in the southwestern province of Guizhou—the poorest in China.
The number of people surfing the web on mobile phones reached 356 million in 2011, up by nearly 53 million, the industry group said.