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.”

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.

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.