Beijing: China's internet population rose to 477 million in the first three months of this year with 20 million new subscribers joining the world's largest online market.

The number of internet users in China reached 477 million as of the end of March, while websites registered with the authorities climbed to 3.82 million, said Wang Jianwen, deputy head of the Telecommunications Administration Bureau.

China's internet population was estimated to be around 457 million at the end of 2010, which was up by 73.3 million from the previous year.

While Chinese government takes pride that its online population continued to be the largest in the world, there is a growing concern it is also resulting in emergence of social media like qq.com, which is similar to Twitter. Both Twitter and Facebook are banned in China.

According to a recent survey, the country has over 100 million microblogers, who had emerged as a new media, challenging the hold of the official media.

"We feel that internet culture and environment is getting more complicated and there has emerged a group of people called 'internet mercenaries'," Zhao Qizheng, spokesman for the annual session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference said in March this year.

He was apparently referring to the dissident groups making use of the net to call for anti government protests.

Wang said while the rapidly-developing internet has been shaping social relations, the economy, and culture, there is a surge in online fraud, pornography and illegal publicity, disrupting online communications and the market economy.

Also officials said that companies are recruiting 'Internet mercenaries' to engage in improper competition against rivals, such as fabricating or distorting facts that can lead to blackmail and seeking to reap profits by sensationalising issues via the internet.

At the meeting, representatives from 140 major Chinese websites signed a self-discipline pact, vowing that they would never organise or take part in any form of illegal publicity on the Internet.

China launched a two-month campaign in the middle of April to crack down on illegal publicity activities on the internet.

(Agencies)