China will have 983.7 million internet users this year, thanks to an unexpected 8.6% boost in 2020, the fastest expansion its online population has seen since 2012. We previously forecast that it would take several more years for China’s internet users to hit the magical 1-billion mark, but we now project this unprecedented milestone will come by the end of next year.
It’s no secret that China has a huge population, and its internet population has been the largest in the world since the early 2000s. However, its internet user growth had declined in the lead-up to 2020, given how large the base had become. Before the pandemic, we thought user growth would only reach 4.5% last year. Instead, China added more new internet users (75.0 million) in 2020 than any year since 2009.
Growth will decelerate to 3.6% this year, but that will still be enough for 70.4% of the population to qualify as internet users, a threshold China has never reached before. For comparison, in India only 45.0% of the population will be online this year. In the most advanced countries, penetration is usually in the mid-80% range. China is getting close to that status.
There are several explanations for the internet user boost in 2020, but the main drivers were the pandemic, improvement in rural internet access, and increases in usage among older age cohorts. In brief:
The next stage of growth will need to come from these older cohorts, as China’s population ages 12 to 44 is already online at rates comparable to those of the most connected countries in the world.
China’s legislators have recently been emphasizing a new kind of internet accessibility gap, this time focused on age instead of wealth and education. Their concern is that China is digitizing so rapidly that retirees who are not tech savvy will struggle to conduct basic transactions or meaningfully participate in society. To that end, new legal mandates are rolling out to prevent grocery stores, restaurants, and retail businesses from going entirely cashless, and regulators are pressuring digital device-makers and app developers to create senior-friendly design options that will facilitate accessibility for the less digitally fluent.
If these initiatives prove effective, China will have a chance to more quickly achieve the levels of connectivity that its more developed peers in Asia-Pacific enjoy. For now, we estimate that 75.1% of China’s population will be online by the end of 2025, still a bit behind that of the average developed country.