China could soon overtake the US to have the world's largest number of internet users, according to a state-controlled think-tank.
China has seen a huge rise in internet users
"We believe it will take two years at most for China to overtake the US," an official at the China Internet Network Information Center told state media.
China had 137m internet users by the end of 2006, an increase of 23% from the year before, the centre reported.
This figure means that more than 10% of the population is now online.
About 210 million of America's 300 million people now use the internet, according to US government figures.
China will only surpass this number if it keeps up a 24% annual growth rate in the next two years.
The China Daily admitted that the two-year estimate for overtaking the US was "bullish", citing a recent research report by JP Morgan which forecast that China's internet population would reach 190 million by 2010.
But Wang Enhai, a spokesman for the internet centre, told the newspaper: "The growth is now gaining much momentum. We are expecting even faster growth in 2007 and 2008."
'Array of opportunities'
The Chinese government encourages people to go online for education or business purposes.
The rapid rise in internet use has boosted the country's online commerce, advertising and games industries.
With 10% of the population - and more than 30% of people in Beijing - now online, the internet will create a "vast array of opportunities" for business, according to the China Daily.
But China has also been criticised for censoring items on the internet which it deems subversive or offensive.
Several people have been jailed in recent years for producing such information.
But the Chinese government insists its regulation of the internet is in line with the rest of the world.