Business Week had a recent story on China’s growing Internet – it will soon be No. 1 in Web users.

China’s Internet is booming. More than 22 million newbies piled on to the Web last year, bringing the total number of Chinese online to 80 million. That makes China second only to the U.S. in Internet subscribers — and the Middle Kingdom won’t remain No. 2 for long. By 2006, it is expected to overtake the U.S., with 153 million Chinese online, estimates investment bank Piper Jaffray & Co. The surge is being driven by several factors, including a strong economy that’s letting people buy PCs and the opportunity the Net provides to skirt China’s tight government censorship.

So far, the Internet has been dominated by a single country — the U.S. Now, China has the potential to become the second major power of the Digital Age. By 2006, it is expected to have more people on the Net, more broadband subscribers, and more mobile-phone customers than any nation on earth. “To have 300 million people in China use the Internet is a tiny issue,” says Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and CEO.

You won’t need to speak Mandarin to surf the Web. But important innovations will emerge from the country, especially in markets like Net services for mobile phones and online gaming. Foreign companies that want to be dominant Net players — think eBay and Amazon — will need to have a presence in this market. And high-tech multinationals will have to consider China not just when they’re selling products but when they’re designing them, too.

China’s digital infrastructure is being built up rapidly. This is one area where India lags – but hopefully not for too long. Both India and China have the potential to take the best innovations of the Internet and leverage them to build better businesses.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.