China looks set to overtake the United States as the world's biggest user of the Internet after its numbers online hit 162 million, according to a government report seen Thursday.
As of June 30, there were 122 million Chinese connected via broadband and another 40 million who regularly log on using dial-up or mobile phones, according to the report by the government-controlled China Internet Network Information Center.
The number of Internet users is expected to grow to 200 million by the end of this year, second only to the 211 million Americans who used the web as of last month, the report said.
That means China should have the world's largest online population by the end of 2008, if not earlier, Wang Enhai, an official with the centre, was quoted as saying by the China Business News.
China has become one of the world's fastest-growing Internet markets in recent years as its booming economy has generated greater access to computers and the Web.
The country had 137 million people with access to the Internet at the end of 2006, according to official figures.
The Internet boom has been pivotal in the country's ongoing social transformation, providing a new forum for Chinese to conduct business, seek romance, or discuss sensitive political or other issues considered officially taboo.
But this has irked the country's control-conscious Communist rulers, who have witnessed the rise of a potent "citizen journalism" phenomenon in which ordinary web-users have helped expose cases of official corruption and unrest.
In perhaps the biggest recent example, last month the Internet was largely responsible for exposing a scandal in which hundreds of people worked as slaves in two Chinese provinces that some local authorities had been complicit in.
A letter posted on the Internet by 400 parents of children working as slaves in brickyards was the trigger for the national press to finally report on the scandal that some rights groups say had been happening for years.
President Hu Jintao called in January for efforts to "purify" the Internet and the government has since launched a number of crackdowns on Web use that it considers objectionable.