The impact of the internet in China may be greater than previously thought, according to two new studies.

Compiled by the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the surveys involved interviews with 4,100 people in twelve cities across the country.

As expected, the major urban centres of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou have the highest web penetration, with 33% of residents accessing the internet.

The surprise finding, however, is that the smallest cities (with populations of around 100,000) have the second-highest penetration. Some 27% of citizens in these areas use the web, ahead of the 24% average for the four biggest industrial provincial capitals.

This undermines the argument that the internet is the preserve of educated and wealthy citizens in the larger urban centres; instead, Chinese from a variety of geographical and economic backgrounds are going online. Driving the rise of web use in more remote areas, say the reports, is a mixture of government policy and competition among providers, among other factors.

In all, the surveys found a total Chinese web population of 68 million. Around 56% are male; 58% are aged between 17 and 24; 63% log on from home; and the average weekly surfing time is 5.35 hours.

However, the growth of ecommerce will be limited by the fact that 40% of web users are either students or unemployed, and therefore have no monthly income. Just one in five surfers has bought online.

A more important effect of growing internet use across the population may be the spread of information. Researchers found that the web is making people better-informed, and they are demanding more of the government as a result.

This has obvious implications for a regime traditionally unwilling to tolerate dissent. Although 86% support government control of the web, just 13% believe political content should be policed. Declared one of the studies: "Most people strongly believe that the internet will affect Chinese politics."

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff