The number of Chinese internet users hit 162 million at the end of June, growing at the fastest rate since 2004, the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) said yesterday.

The latest numbers show China’s internet “entered a new stage of rapid growth,” CNNIC said in a report.

The number of Chinese internet users increased 31.7% since June 2006, said CNNIC, which oversees the .cn top-level domain and tracks internet usage in China. Thanks in part to a change in CNNIC’s definition of an internet user, that was the fastest growth seen in China since mid-2004, when the number of internet users grew 34.5% to reach 79.5m.

Numbers released by CNNIC in the middle of 2005 and 2006 showed annual growth of 18.2% and 18.1%, respectively.

In its latest report, CNNIC changed the definition of an internet user from someone who spends at least one hour online each week to someone who accessed the internet at least once during the previous six months. The previous definition had been in use for 10 years.

Most Chinese internet users – 122.4m people – get online using wired broadband, CNNIC said. Wireless internet access is also widely used, with 55.6m people using this method, including 44.3m people who access the internet from mobile phones, CNNIC said, noting that some users access the internet with more than one type of connection.

The latest numbers bring China’s internet penetration rate to 12.3%, slightly below the global penetration rate of 17.6%, CNNIC said.