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Chinese Web users slow to buy, quick to have fun

The typical Chinese Internet user is under 30 years old and single, and prefers to use the Web for instant messaging and entertainment, a study released Thursday showed.

The majority of surfers in the world's second largest Internet population are also mistrustful of buying goods on the Internet, a result of the difficulty it is in China to return goods, a researcher said.

The biannual survey of Web users was conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, a government think tank. The study was funded by the Markle Foundation in the United States, which released the study at a briefing on China sponsored by the Brookings Institution.

The door-to-door survey in five Chinese cities -- Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Changsha -- found that 8 percent of Chinese, or 103 million, used the Internet, and nearly half use broadband. In the United States, 54 percent of online adults access the Internet over broadband at home, according to Harris Interactive.

With such a small portion of the Chinese population online, the country is still in the early adopter stage, with typical users in their 20s, single, employed, living in urban areas and having higher than average levels of income and education.

Despite being better educated, however, the majority of information Internet users sought on the Web pertained to entertainment, not traditional news. Fully 83.5 percent of the respondents said they looked for information on the Web.

"The Internet was suppose to be the information highway, but so many people use it for entertainment," Guo Liang, a researcher for the Chinese Academy, said.

The study also found that the longer people used the Web, the more likely they would increase their use of traditional news, Guo said. (In China, the person's last name is listed first.)

In addition to seeking information, the majority of respondents also used email and instant messaging, with the latter being the preferred means of communication. The average Chinese Internet user spent 2.7 hours each day online.

For retailers, the study found that they would have to wait a little longer before the Chinese were ready to open their wallets. More than three quarters of the interviewees said they had never made a purchase online.

Nevertheless, Guo was confident that would change over the next two or three years.

The reason is improvements in the conditions for doing e-commerce. Over the last couple of years delivery systems have improved and more companies are posting better information on products. In addition, many more Chinese have debit cards to buy online, and are asking that goods be delivered cash on delivery, which means people can refuse to pay for something they don't want or is damaged.

"There will be a big change in e-business in China, once (Chinese consumers) realize buying online is so convenient and cheap," Guo said. "Everyone wants to save money and time."

That's good news for U.S. Internet companies. All the major portals, Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp's MSN; along with retail giants EBay Inc. and Inc., have made a big push in China, opening up facilities and partnering with local companies.

Despite the Chinese government's big push on the Internet, only 9.5 percent of survey respondents used government sites, and only 3.5 percent did so frequently. Nearly 92 percent believed that political content should not be controlled on the Internet, a common practice by the Chinese government.

The majority of Chinese Internet users, however, were in favour of controlling pornography, violence and spam on the Web. Only 48 percent of Internet users believe Web content was reliable.

The survey found that 80 percent of people 24 years old or younger use the Internet, and 60 percent to 80 percent of people 25 years old to 29 years old. Fully 77 percent were single people.

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