With the crisis with Japan deepening, Han Han mercilessly probed the contradictions in the government’s position while warning his followers of the dangers of manipulation by the state. “In my opinion, if everyone and everything is doing well, life is as one wishes, the wife, kids, home, car, work, leisure, health, all are okay, one can, under the guise of national sentiment, go and make a fuss about protecting the Diaoyu Islands. But if you have something of your own that you haven’t protected, first protect that and then we can talk. Don’t worry about something so far off.”

To those who decide to protest anyway, he continued: “Don’t be surprised when after the battle, you, mortally injured, see the leaders and the invaders [the Japanese] cheerfully discussing a big business deal.”

The impact of the rise of blogs is evident in the spate of big, Internet-driven stories that has regularly rocked China beginning in 2007. If it’s true that none of them forced the hand of the central government on a politically sensitive matter like migrant labor, each dominated the national conversation for a time and either resulted in important local changes or broke new ground in terms of the Internet’s ability to feed public skepticism toward the state.

In the first of these cases, in March 2007, a couple residing in the former wartime capital, Chongqing, refused to allow their home to be demolished to make way for a big mall construction project. They held out even as all of their neighbors accepted modest compensation from the city and the land surrounding them was excavated, leaving their home perched atop a thimble-like nub of reddish earth.

Although initially written about in the traditional Chinese media and in the international press, including a piece I filed from Chongqing for The New York Times, the case became a national sensation online, where the couple’s home became known as the “nail house,” because of the way it stuck out, and through the web discussions of the couple’s struggle against the city became an important element in a growing movement centered on what in China is still a recent phenomenon: property ownership.

Eventually, the nail-house couple won a far more generous compensation offer, but more significantly, their resistance inspired countless copycats.

Barely a month later, another huge story with important social implications spread via the Internet, when a TV reporter from Henan Province, acting on a tip, visited Shanxi Province and confirmed the use of kidnapped children as juvenile slave labor in the region’s primitive brick-kiln industry. This scoop reflects a longstanding pattern in Chinese reporting, an end-run around local censorship, where reporters from another province will break the most sensitive news in a given place, confident that local propaganda authorities have no control over them.

Local authorities initially denied the existence of such a practice, but word of the scoop by the reporter, Fu Zhenzhong, spread far and fast via the Internet, leading thousands of parents to demand the government’s help in recovering their missing children. And amid an outraged national Internet discussion, this clamor fueled a fierce competition among news organizations to investigate the industry. Eventually, over 550 minors were rescued from the kilns and many of the operations were forced to shut down.

The third major item thrust on the public agenda by the Internet that spring involved plans to construct a large chemical factory specializing in pesticide-related compounds in the city of Xiamen. Citizen awareness of the project spread via the Internet, and spurred a vehement opposition. Before long, the city was forced to reconsider its plans, and the project was eventually shifted to a rural location far from the city. Many see the online activism around the Xiamen pesticide project as a major milestone in the brief history of not-in-my-backyard politics in China. “Basically, no one understands well how messages like these spread and how a topic goes viral,” says Guobin Yang, a Barnard College professor and author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. “What is certain is that everyone is paying attention to this right now, starting with the government.”

Yang says that it is widely rumored among specialists in China that Beijing spends as much on online censorship, Internet monitoring of public opinion, and devising ways to control and defuse web-driven protest and dissent as it spends on the military. “No one knows how much money goes into Internet control,” he says, “but whatever the sum, it is certainly a lot.”

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.