China now has about 220 million Internet users, overtaking the number of web surfers in the United States for the first time ever, a research firm said Friday.
The Chinese figure dates from late February, when the US online population was estimated at about 217 million, according to BDA China, a Beijing-based technology consulting and research firm.
"It's driven by continued economic growth and improved broadband infrastructure," said Liu Bin, an analyst with BDA China.
By the end of 2008, China is expected to have 280 million Internet users, he said.
The United States has occupied the number one position ever since the birth of the Internet as a network of computers under the auspices of the US Department of Defence in 1969, the state-run China Daily newspaper said.
The China Internet Network Information Centre, a government-backed institution, said earlier that China had 210 million Internet users as of the end of 2007, a rise of 53.3 percent from a year earlier.
The fast-growing online population has made the Internet a new forum for average Chinese to express opinions in a free-wheeling way rarely seen on the strictly government-controlled traditional media.
The appeal of the web has stirred up Beijing's fears about potential social unrest, and President Hu Jintao called last year for efforts to "purify" the Internet.