Wang Yin, a 24-year-old graduate student at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, constantly uses Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social networking site. “On Weibo, I’m mostly interested in current events, what my friends are saying, and some information related to health and psychology,” Mr. Wang said. “Every day I log in over five times, using either my computer or mobile phone. And I stay on for two or three hours.”
Mr. Wang and Weibo’s 140 million other registered users are one big reason American Internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube want to get into China. It has the world’s biggest Internet population, about 457 million users, and they are mostly young people who spend long periods engaged in social networking, online games and electronic commerce. But for now, they cannot enter China. Although there are no regulations that prevent American companies from operating here, the three popular American Web sites have been blocked in China for several years. Analysts say this is probably because the Chinese government wants to prevent the services from distributing uncensored information.
Meanwhile, the Chinese social networking companies are booming. Two weeks ago, shares of the Chinese social networking site Renren soared after a dazzling initial public offering on Wall Street that, for a time, gave the start-up a market value of close to $7 billion. But Renren, despite being called China’s Facebook, is not even the leader of this country’s hottest Internet craze. That company is Sina.com, the 13-year-old online portal that has reinvented itself with Sina Weibo. Shares of Sina listed on the Nasdaq exchange have jumped about 250 percent during the last year, and some analysts estimate that the company’s microblog unit could alone be worth $5 billion. It’s all about traffic. In the two years since microblog services became widely available in China, they have attracted more than 220 million registered users.