China's internet has gotten a bad rap in recent months, and activists would argue deservedly so. The country's firewall blocks certain sites, whitewashes inflammatory content, and had the world's largest search engine all but throw in the towel earlier this year.
Connectivity in the world's most populous nation can be as restrictive as its audience is large, but it's a ridiculous market for investors to ignore.
According to China Internet Network Information Center, the administrative agency that monitors the country's online affairs, there were 384 million internet users in the country. That is a larger audience than any other web-tethered audience and greater than the entire population of the United States.
The migration is really only in its infancy, considering China's population of more than 1.3 billion.
Investors also need to consider that there are plenty of Chinese internet stocks that are putting up great numbers these days, even in this climate of strictly regulated consumption where less than a third of the country is currently wired.
What becomes of these already-solid companies as greater chunks of China go online? What will happen in this booming economy as the cybersurfing Chinese have more leisure time to spend on the Internet and deeper pockets in doing so? What if -- if -- China's policy decides to lighten the screws on usage rather than tighten them?
You can't ignore China's internet!
Let's go over a few the better ways to cash in on the revolution that is still in its infancy.
Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU )
We may as well start with the obvious choice. Baidu is China's leading search engine, commanding a thick 64% of the market as of this year's first quarter. It is bound to grow even more now that Big G has retreated from mainland China. One Baidu executive told reporters that the dot-com star is hoping to nab 79% of the search and mobile search market by next year.
Given its pole position, the shares aren't exactly cheap. The stock trades at a lofty 57 times this year's earnings target, and a still-heavy 37 times next year's projected profitability. However, the significant drop in P/E multiples the further one goes out is a healthy indicator of heady growth.
Thankfully, there's plenty of octane in Baidu's tank. Revenue in its latest quarter climbed 60%, with earnings more than doubling along the way.
China Finance Online (Nasdaq: JRJC )
If one believes in the growth potential of China's internet and the investing opportunities that the evolution process will create, why not double down on the thesis.
CFO runs a pair of popular websites that provide stock market research to individual investors in China.
The company had a wobbly 2009 heading into the market's summertime peak, but CFO is growing nicely again. Its latest quarter was solid. Revenue climbed 30%, fueled by a 20% uptick in premium subscribers. Analysts were braced for a loss, and CFO delivered a profit of $0.08 per share.
The near-term may get bumpy as China reacts to the European debt crisis and its own moves to pop the country's speculative real estate bubble, but it's positioned well for the long haul.
In the meantime, CFO is sitting on a sparkling balance sheet with roughly $4.65 per American depository share in cash.
Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP )
The country's leading travel portal is a no-brainer for a buoyant economy. China's GDP grew 8.7% during last year's global recession, popping 11.9% higher during this year's freshman quarter.
Wealth creates the means to enjoy leisure travel. It also justifies the need for corporate treks.
Ctrip's revenue and earnings grew a juicy 46% and 57%, respectively, in its latest quarter. Investors turned off by the stock's valuation, since Ctrip fetches nearly 30 times next year's analyst estimates for net income, can find solace in smaller players Universal Travel Group (NYSE: UTA ) and eLong (Nasdaq: LONG ) .
Universal Travel's guidance calls for 45% to 55% growth this year, while eLong's balance sheet is brimming with cash equivalents.
NetEase.com (Nasdaq: NTES )
Online gaming is a hit with China's youth, even if it's a bit of a thorn in the side of regulators who have tried for years to clamp down on multiplayer games by curbing internet cafes and lengthy content approval processes.
It's still hard to dismiss NetEase, a pioneer that grew its revenue by 53% in its latest quarter as the result of its proprietary fantasy gamescapes its role in handling Activtion Blizzard's (Nasdaq: ATVI ) rollout of World of Warcraft in China.
Bargain hunters can snap up NetEase for just 12 times this year's bottom-line target and a mere 10 times next year's estimate.
So what are you waiting for? China's internet keeps growing despite your reluctance to consider this promising sector in a risky country with tremendous upside.
Do you own any of China's online stocks? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.