I have been watching, connected to, traveling to, and sometimes living in China now for over twelve years, so I feel fairly confident in going on record with the following generalization: Trends and technologies from the outside world often catch on slowly in China, but once they do, they expand with lightning speed and begin bursting at the seams. Case in point, based on my observations, is the use of the Internet in China.

The first time I was aware of any Internet usage in China was in early 1996, when Xiamen University, where I was taking some advanced Chinese language courses during a holiday break from my teaching job in Korea, was considered pretty advanced to have one e-mail address for the faculty of each department to share.

A combination of availability and restrictions, however, seemed to prevent much access to the World Wide Web beyond that.

Fast-forward to 2000, when my wife’s family home here in Anhai, Fujian Province, was pretty much cutting edge by having a dial-up Internet access account. I took advantage of that to convince my employer at the time to let me take a “working vacation” and telecommute from China for a brief period.

I don’t work for the same company now, so I don’t mind telling you that it was a dismal failure. The connection was supposed to be 33.6K, but I think it functioned more like 3.6K, if you can imagine that. I once timed it to see how long it took my employer’s company home page to load.

At home near Seattle on DSL, it was an instant load.

On 56K dialup in the United States, it was somewhere between five and ten seconds.

From my outpost in China: 4 minutes and 24 seconds.

Internet Use in China on the RiseBut not long after that, the “lightning speed/bursting at the seams” phenomenon I mentioned took off.

Using my wife’s family as an example, a “3.6K” connection was followed just two years later by readily available ADSL for homes, and my Wife’s Younger Brother, by being familiar with the Net and having a degree in electrical engineering, found himself serving as the chief IT person in his place of employment (even though his job title isn’t IT-related, as I’ve mentioned earlier).

Then my Wife’s Younger Sister and her Husband opened their Internet cafe for a time. And several members of the extended family–siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews–are operating pretty successful small business operations through China’s answer to eBay, called TaoBao. (As a side note, you might like to check this Google News link for insight into a competitive tiff actually going on between eBay and TaoBao).

On one hand, most of the Internet in China news you read about in the mainstream press these days focuses on the negatives: censorship (the so-called “Great (Fire)Wall of China”), restrictions, and the like. But the other side of that story–the much bigger side, I don’t mind saying, thankyouverymuch–is how quickly broadband access poured into the more developed regions of China.

And the increasing rates for Internet usage are pretty dramatic as well.

For comparison, the United States has about 135 million Internet users, which accounts for around 67% of the country’s population. In mid-2000, there were estimated to be only about 24 million Internet users in China. The most recent estimates put that number at over 100 million. And that’s only about seven percent of China’s entire population. (Just wait until that percentage grows!)

There was a statistic floating around a couple years ago that by 2007, the most common language on the Internet would be Chinese. That claim, however, has since been refuted.

Based on what I’ve seen, I too think it won’t happen until later. Like, say, in 2008.

Note: Internet usage statistics for this post gleaned from here, here, and here.