A recent report that claims strong growth in Chinese Internet users' access to Facebook and Twitter is being rebuked in China, where analysts say that, although people are becoming more web savvy, only a small fraction of the mainland's Internet community has the tools to penetrate the government's online censorship.
The London-based Internet research firm GlobalWebIndex said that around eight percent of Chinese Internet users or "netizens" are on Twitter and 15 percent are on Facebook, despite both social media sites being blocked within the country.
But Michael Anti, a well known Chinese blogger, magazine columnist and advocate for online freedom, says that the report greatly overestimates Western social media penetration in China.
“The fact is [that] only one percent of the Chinese users can reach the free Internet,” he said,“If you depend on that [GlobalWebIndex's] number you have a wrong hope, and we can't live depending on the wrong hope,” Anti adds.
China's Internet access has risen dramatically in the past decade. According to official statistics more than half a billion people are online in China, but the government retains control over servers within its borders, and bans content it deems controversial.
Online social networking services with servers located outside China, like Twitter and Facebook, can only be accessed using circumvention tools. A virtual private network, or VPN, for example, is a technology that protects Internet communication. Companies outside China provide VPN services that allow users to browse the Internet privately through a server located abroad, thereby avoiding the blocks China imposes on its domestic Internet.
Anti says that though many netizens use these services to access sensitive information that the Chinese censors block, an increasing number of people bypass China's Internet filters for commercial reasons.
“Even China Daily [a state-backed news agency] has advertisements on Twitter,” he said, “VPNs [are] not only for you to reach particular sensitive news but also it makes the communication online safer,” he adds.
The global market research company International Data Corporation recently predicted double digit growth in the Chinese demand for Internet security products, with Firewall and VPN services accounting for almost 40 percent of that growth.
Most Internet security firms do not give details on the number of people buying their VPN services, or how consumers in China are using their products. But a 2010 study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University found that in countries where the Internet is heavily filtered, less than 3 percent of the netizens use circumvention tools.
Jon Russel, Asia editor of The Next Web, an online magazine on Internet and technology, acknowledges a trend towards more widespread use of Internet security tools, including VPNs, but says that the average Chinese netizen still has no real need to use foreign based social networking sites.
“In the absence of these services like Twitter or Facebook the homegrown networks have become very strong and very, very popular,” he said.
Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like site, has 300 million registered users, and has become one of China's most powerful platforms to share comments, videos and pictures online.
Censorship within China's domestic sites, like Weibo, is extremely common, and often implemented by the companies themselves in effort to avoid angering authorities.
Russel says that this type of self-censorship is more harmful for Chinese netizens. Keywords currently blocked on Weibo include the names of high-ranking leaders, like Xi Jinping, expected to rise to the top seats of power during the next Party Congress next month.
“Whenever there are very hot topics normally around politics you’ll find that searches on certain topics or certain names can’t be found,” he said, “That’s more of an example where the censorship policy is having a greater effect on Chinese Internet users.”