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.

“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.

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was the Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. At present, he is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation and is researching a book on China and Africa. French's most recent book is "Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life," with Qiu Xiaolong.