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SAN FRANCISCO | China has passed an important technological milestone: It became the world’s biggest consumer of PCs in the second quarter, according to new market research by IDC.

Computer makers shipped about 18.5 million PCs in China in the second quarter, compared with 17.7 million in the U.S.

The U.S. is still expected to be the world’s largest market for the full year, but it likely will lose that distinction next year. IDC forecasts that 85.2 million PCs will be shipped in China compared with 76.6 million in the U.S. in 2012.

China’s PC market is growing at a time when U.S. and European PC markets are contracting, the result of economic anxieties and competition from smartphones and tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad.

China already has the world’s largest Internet population, having surpassed the U.S. in 2008.

Market research numbers such as IDC’s are imprecise measurements. IDC’s figures refer to shipments to distributors and end users, so they include PCs that ultimately may not have been sold. However, they are often the best public gauge about the strength of the spread of technology.