648 million people are surfing the web in China

Mainland Chinese internet users grew to 648 million at the end of 2014, state media reported on Saturday.

The world’s largest national online population gained 16 million new users from June to the end of last year, the China Internet Network Information Center announced on Saturday.

Internet retail sales totalled 331 billion yuan (47 billion euros) in the first 10 months of 2014, up 55.6 per cent from 2013, centre deputy director Jin Jian was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.

China’s online economy accounts for 7 per cent of its total GDP, he reportedly told the Beijing Daily.

The announcement of the blossoming domestic market followed a speech by Alibaba founder Jack Ma on Friday in which he said he wanted his New York listed e-commerce company to overtake retail giant Walmart in sales in the next 10 years.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, China’s richest man reportedly shared his goal of serving 2 billion consumers and helping 10 million small businesses outside China sell their products through the internet.

The entrepreneur’s gung-ho optimism came as Beijing this week intensified its ongoing crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) that enable mainland surfers to bypass the country’s increasingly rigorous censorship controls.

Popular with foreign expats, VPNs encrypt and reroute internet traffic past the nation’s “Great Firewall” to access more than 2,700 blocked websites including Amazon, Gmail, Google, Picasa, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, Bing, WordPress, Instagram, Pirate Bay and Dropbox.

Popular VPN provider Astrill warned users on Saturday that “due to increased censorship this year,” iPhone and iPad VPN services had been temporarily halted in mainland China.

“Our fight with Chinese censors is not over,” read a company statement to users, citing Apple’s slow processing of apps as part of the cause for the delay. Provider Golden Frog also reported similar issues on its blog on Friday.

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648 million people are surfing the web in China