For all of the lavish expenditure and elaborate precautions, the Internet’s tendency to catch the government off guard is seemingly undiminished. The most recent explosion of more or less spontaneous public opinion that caught the authorities by surprise occurred in late summer when citizens throughout China began rejecting the government’s drive to immunize over 100 million infants against measles.

For years, China has endured serious food and medicine safety scandals, and despite the prevalence of measles, which can be deadly, word spread quickly via the Internet—with no readily apparent basis in fact—that the new vaccine was unsafe and that the government should not be trusted to vaccinate millions of children.

If no one knows the precise mechanisms behind an issue going viral on the Internet, the vaccination crisis was a powerful reminder of one of the most common factors: a deep vein of skepticism toward the authorities. In many instances this skepticism, or even cynicism, toward the government feeds a protest reflex that in a hyper-networked world can very quickly take on political overtones.

The best recent example of this is a series of push-backs by players of online games, which are hugely popular in China, especially one known as World of Warcraft. Last year, the state’s attempt to impose changes on the game, including the reduction of violent images and measures intended to combat obsessive Internet use, sparked an enormous and prolonged outcry by the game’s fans. They committed virtual suicide online in mass protest, and produced a multi-part online video denouncing censorship.

“The gaming community, politically, was the last thing that people were worried about,” says Xiao Qiang, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Journalism and director of China Digital Times, a widely followed website that analyzes online developments in China. “But the people who are playing games are some of the people who are most involved in online chatting, and so this starts a wave of discussion with lots of political edge to it, and ends with a video whose final shot is a freedom bell ringing, along with the warning: ‘Don’t think our voice is small.’ ”

Lots of analysts are keenly examining this same picture and coming to starkly divergent conclusions. “There is a role for the Internet to empower civil society,” says Singapore University’s Zheng. “Civil society is able to do many things. But I don’t think that the Internet can democratize China. That is asking too much. By the same token, the government will never again be able to maintain total control.”

“I would like to be more optimistic, but there is plenty of evidence we are headed not toward democratization, but toward prolonged authoritarianism,” says Rebecca MacKinnon.

By contrast, Qiang draws a far more positive conclusion. “We have entered into a dynamic situation, with the government forced to adapt and to explain itself all the time,” he said. “We are seeing the emergence of a new kind of online culture, and it is pushing for a more democratic society and stands in opposition to the state’s hegemony. It even has leaders, in people like Han Han and Ai Weiwei, and for now at least, the authorities don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.”

Democracy may be too big a short- or even medium-term expectation for China, even with its burgeoning Internet culture. But from my perspective as a longtime observer of this country, if China’s civil society is the key factor in the country’s evolution toward a future in which the Communist Party must accept greater limits to its power, the Internet is this evolution’s beating heart.

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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.