Jon Huntsman is fluent in all things China.
The former Utah governor has held a lifelong interest in the Far East. He speaks fluent Mandarin, and as the U.S. ambassador to China, he lived in Beijing for the last two years until he resigned to run for the Republican nomination for president.
Huntsman drew on his experience at a campaign stop in New Hampshire when he spoke about the promise and the potential challenges caused by the growing number of Internet users in the country.
"This is a huge, hugely important transition that China's still in the middle of," Huntsman told workers at Cirtronics Corp. in Milford, N.H during a tour on Aug. 2, 2011.
"It's ... happening, this transition, at a time when you've got the rise of 500 million Internet users in China," he said. "I mean, can you get your mind around that? Five hundred million Internet users and 80 million bloggers who are driving discussions in China. ... So you've got a lot of people voicing frustration and discontent."
If any presidential candidate knows about how often Chinese people use the Internet, it should be Huntsman. But, we wondered if he was right -- particularly whether there are that many bloggers in a country that is not exactly known for free speech.
Asked about the source of the numbers, the Huntsman campaign pointed us to media reports from Reuters and the Epoch Times, which, in turn, led us to a study released last month by the Chinese Internet Network Information Center.
The Information Center, a non-profit organization administered by the Chinese government, hasn’t yet released an English translation of the study, the "28th Statistical Survey Report on Internet Development in China." But media reports indicate that the report shows the number of Internet users in China to be fast approaching 500 million.
The study reports that 485 million people now use the Internet in China, making it the largest Internet nation in the world, according to InternetWorldStats.com, a website that tracks Web use across the globe. And that number, which is up 27 million from last year, will likely pass the 500 million mark by the end of 2011.
But the current figure, 485 million, still leaves more than 65 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people without Internet access, according to the InternetWorldStats.com. By contrast, only 22 percent of households in the United States don't have access.
As far as bloggers go, it looks like Huntsman low-balled his number. While he placed the number of bloggers in China at 80 million, the Network Information Center’s report cites numbers as high as 195 million microbloggers across the country.
Microblogs are defined as shorter blog posts, not unlike Twitter updates. The Chinese government has blocked both Twitter and Facebook. But it permits use of Sina Weibo, a social media site in the same vein, among other microblogging sites.
Huntsman’s figures about the number of bloggers are based on a previous Information Center study, according to the campaign. The report, released in January, said there were 63 million microbloggers. But that number has more than tripled in the months since, reaching 195 million in last month’s report.
The center’s numbers may be slightly exaggerated, as the definition of Internet user is broad, but they are generally regarded as the most accurate figures around, according to David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website in Hong Kong.
"Of course, China is often accused of padding its numbers, but the CNNIC numbers are quite reliable," Bandurski wrote in an e-mail.
What’s less certain is the number of Internet users voicing "frustration and discontent," as Huntsman said.
Political and activist bloggers often generate attention in China as they fall victim to government censorship. In March, noted Chinese writer Ran Yunfei drew headlines when he was arrested for calling for government protests on his blog. In total, more than 20 activists, including bloggers, have been detained or have gone missing in recent months, according to Amnesty International.
Still, in China, as in the United States, most bloggers focus far more on social topics than politics, according to Heather Inwood, a professor of Chinese media at the Ohio State University. The vast majority of blogs and microblog posts are directed more toward media and games than politics or the government, Inwood said.
"It's important not to over-emphasize the interest in politics on the Chinese Internet," she said last week. "By far and away, what most people are doing online is relaxing, seeking entertainment, communicating with friends, playing video games. … Blogs really reflect that."
Huntsman said there are 500 million Internet users in China and 80 million bloggers, "so you’ve got a lot of people voicing frustration and discontent."
He's right about the 500 million and his estimate on bloggers is low, but his underlying point is valid. But it's worth noting that experts say the vast majority of bloggers are writing about social rather than political topics. On balance, we rate his claim Mostly True.
Jon Huntsman is fluent in all things China.