“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 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.