“The Sun Zhigang case represents the start of a Chinese, Internet-based civil society,” says Yong Hu, a professor at Peking University who is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on the web. “The Chinese government became aware of this incident’s symbolic importance and has used its power to influence the course of the Internet. Since then, there has never been such an effective case of Chinese citizen solidarity, and some believe this is a result of the government working very hard to make sure that Internet movements don’t take on a more continuous presence.”

Zheng Yongnian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who specializes in the Chinese Internet, says that Beijing has demonstrated an impressive capacity for adaptation, having started out from a position where the Internet was largely seen as mainly a political liability and evolving to a position today where it is increasingly seen as an important tool of government. “In the West, people in the scholarly community associate the Internet with democracy,” he says. “But one should never underestimate the ability of this government to absorb this technology.”

For all of the government’s success in preventing challenges to the system, others say that the very ecology of the Internet has changed greatly since the Sun case in ways that will dramatically raise the stakes for the government. In parallel, many of these analysts say that Chinese society is itself evolving rapidly in ways that favor greater outspokenness on the part of its citizens, and much greater interaction and social organization. Combined with the fast-shifting technological landscape, these trends have made sensational incidents on the Internet both more frequent and increasingly difficult to predict. “The Sun case was in the web 1.0 era, in which the government only needed to control portals and bulletin boards,” says Yong. “Since then, we have entered the 2.0 era, with a proliferation of blogs, with social media, and with SMS [text messaging]. These are a lot harder to control and it is difficult to say who will be successful in the future. That’s the big question mark.”

By 2006, blogs had come into their own in China, spreading rapidly and becoming an important part of the business model of the country’s huge Internet portals, or web hosting firms, companies like Sina.com, Sohu, and Netease. Suddenly, a control-obsessed state was faced not only with a popular new means for the dissemination of news, but equally important, an unprecedented platform for the emergence of independent opinion leaders. Typically, these are bloggers who build large followings and become trusted because of their perceived expertise in a given area, or because of their knack for countering the prevailing, government-driven narrative.

China’s most prominent blogging opinion leader is Han Han, a twenty-eight-year-old high-school dropout from Shanghai with movie star looks and a habit of posing witty and trenchant challenges to authority. Ai Weiwei, another hugely popular blogger and one of China’s most prominent and politically engaged artists, recently compared Han Han with the country’s most totemic author of the twentieth century. “Han is more influential than Lu Xun,” he told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “because his writing can reach more people.”

Given the size of China’s online audience, which is roughly 400 million and still rising fast, Han Han could also be the world’s most popular blogger—his 425 million cumulative hits place him at the top of Sina.com’s rankings.

At his best, Han Han’s posts operate at a level of sly and wicked subversion, if not of the law then of China’s often oppressive conventions in social and political thought, and especially of the government line. One of the best recent examples of this has come in the mounting dispute that has pitted China against Japan over the question of the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, a tiny cluster in the East China Sea, following the arrest by the Japanese Coast Guard of a Chinese fishing-boat captain.

Beijing has played a complicated hand in the matter, ardently fanning the embers of nationalism in the state-controlled press, while carefully censoring Internet discussion of the issue with an eye toward preventing big demonstrations in the streets and other mass mobilization, which the state fears could get out of control.

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.