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’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.

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.

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.