In the space of a few weeks, Deng Yujiao became perhaps the most vivid illustration of this trend, and arguably its greatest beneficiary. Where Sun Zhigang had already died before the public ever became aware of him, the young hotel waitress was absolved. To be indicted for a crime in China almost always leads to conviction, and historically there have been few surer routes to execution than to be accused of murdering a Communist Party official. With the loud backing of her online supporters, though, Deng had proverbially beaten city hall.

And yet examined more carefully, the era between these two prominent cases—or what might be seen as act one in an unfolding online power struggle between citizen and state—has been far from one of unmitigated gains for the public. This can be seen both in the nature of the two cases themselves, and in a host of steps the Chinese government has taken to try to stay ahead of the game and to cede as little ground as possible to online activism.

While the Sun Zhigang case appears to have forced the state’s hand in introducing a major legal reform involving migrant labor, by comparison, in retrospect, the Deng Yujiao case looks more like an emotionally satisfying one-off with little in the way of weighty political resonance. “When it comes to the rights of people who are advocating systemic change, or who are engaging in extremely unpopular speech, or who are expressing certain religious views, or speaking about the independence of this or that place, these people have no more rights than they did ten years ago,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “Deng Yujiao shows the small stuff may have changed, but the big stuff, absolutely not.”

Although often ham-handed and sometimes subject to tactical about-faces, government tactics include forcing smart-phone users to submit to real-name registration, making anonymous speech difficult, and the insertion of monitoring devices and software into computers and into network gear. And while it is clear that Beijing does not wish to see a proliferation even of simple, narrow cases like these, Chinese authorities have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for learning lessons from major online incidents, and for responding with tactical flexibility. This includes measures, collectively known as the “soft-management approach,” that range from offering hush money to get people to take their complaints offline to paying web users to toe a pro-government line in order to steer debate.

From time to time, propaganda authorities even issue progressive-sounding rhetoric about the utility of the Internet (and other media) as vehicles for “supervising” governing authorities, and keeping them on the straight and narrow. Rhetoric like this can sound remarkably similar to talk in the United States about the role of a Fourth Estate, but what the propaganda authorities have in mind is a Fourth Estate with uniquely Chinese characteristics. In Beijing’s iteration, freer Internet speech and online activism can be useful tools in checking excessive corruption and official abuses of power, under the right circumstances. As such, they may even paradoxically reinforce the legitimacy of the authoritarian state.

Early last year, for example, the death in detention of a peasant in southwestern Yunnan Province sparked an Internet furor that threatened to take on similar proportions to the Sun Zhigang case. In a tactic that is becoming increasingly common, provincial officials launched an online appeal for netizens to help investigate the case. Officials eventually invited several netizens, including some of the most vociferous online critics of the police, to tour the detention center and speak with the warden. This would-be display of openness was played up heavily in the press and the bloggers eventually released a report saying they knew too little to place blame squarely on the police, quickly taking the wind out of the Internet campaign around the incident.

At the same time, Beijing frequently exercises the right to step in aggressively whenever an Internet campaign becomes too popular or too outspoken, or touches on matters deemed too sensitive. Lines are drawn firmly around certain topics: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen have long been on the list. Similarly, petitioning or criticism of local governments is sometimes tolerated, while criticism of the central government, its politics and personalities, remains strictly and energetically policed.

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. His latest book, China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, will be released this May. He is currently writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.