Early in 2003, like millions of other migrants of his generation, Sun Zhigang, a young graphic designer, left central China, where he had attended university, and headed for the country’s booming industrial Southeast. His quest: work, and with luck, fortune.

When he entered an Internet café one evening, shortly after his arrival in Guangzhou, he was stopped by police who demanded to see his ID, which he had left behind in his nearby apartment. It was a costly mistake. The police had just launched a large-scale dragnet of illegal migrants, and as was common at the time for people without papers, he was promptly hauled off to detention.

Three days later, Sun Zhigang’s family was informed of his death, which the police claimed had been caused by a heart attack. But the Southern Metropolis Daily, a local tabloid that was just establishing itself as a powerful crusading force in the country’s news landscape, would not let the story end there. A few weeks later, it ran a two-page spread that put a far more sinister spin on the incident. Citing a confidential autopsy report, its bold headline read: UNIVERSITY GRADUATE, 27, SUDDENLY DIES THREE DAYS AFTER DETENTION ON GUANGZHOU STREET.

Word of Sun’s death spread rapidly, so rapidly that what ensued was without precedent in China. Within two hours of the newspaper hitting the street, thousands of people from around the country had posted angry commentary on Sina.com, China’s largest news portal. What would quickly become known nationwide as the “Sun Zhigang case” had begun to go viral.

After its initial scoop, the Southern Metropolis Daily was banned from reporting further on the incident, but old-fashioned censorship measures like this would prove too little, too late. Online discussion of the case was already mushrooming, and so was the scope of debate, which began with calls for justice in one particular tragedy but quickly led to far broader demands for legal reforms to put an end to the arbitrary detentions and other abuses routinely suffered by hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers.

In June, with the Sun Zhigang case still the talk of the Internet, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced an end to regulations that police had used for two decades to summarily detain paperless migrants in hundreds of detention centers, which were maintained around the country solely for this purpose.

Beijing has never acknowledged the public fury and Internet mobilization around the Sun Zhigang case as the driver of this major reform, but for most of China’s Internet-savvy public, the connection was unmistakable.

Looking back, China’s Internet era could well be said to have begun with this case. Not literally, of course, since China had been online already for several years. But the outcry over Sun Zhigang’s death is widely seen in China nonetheless as the opening act in the age of the “netizen.” In a country whose populace has been treated as subjects far more than as citizens throughout its history, the emergence of the Internet as a platform for dramatically freer speech, for edgy popular mobilization, for protest and dissent, has arguably given the Communist Party its most serious challenge in controlling the country’s politics since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, it has also given rise to naïve optimism in the West about the transformative power of information technology. Early on, this optimism caused some, including as prominent a figure as Bill Clinton, to predict that the power of the Internet would irrevocably lead to the democratization of China.

Even while they reject views like these as unrealistic, many analysts of Chinese affairs nonetheless see the story of the medium’s rise there as one of the most important drivers of change in what all by now recognize as one of the world’s fastest-changing societies. They caution, however, that like China itself today, this story is immensely complex, and is unlikely to conform to the scenarios either of the country’s control-obsessed rulers or of those who yearn for a swift democratic transformation of China’s politics.

To understand both the power and the limitations of the Internet under a resolutely authoritarian system of government, it helps to fast-forward from 2003 and the Sun Zhigang case to 2009, to a case that would become just as celebrated as that of the dead migrant worker: the story of Deng Yujiao, a twenty-one-year-old hotel waitress from Hubei Province.

The hotel where Deng worked doubled as one of this increasingly freewheeling country’s countless one-stop spas that offer everything from traditional karaoke, hot baths, and haircuts, to massage and a full menu of sexual services.

When a local Communist Party official who was entertaining friends at the spa took a liking to Deng and demanded sex with her, she refused and was assaulted. Rather than give in to the man’s demands, Deng fought back with a pedicure knife and stabbed her assailant, killing the official and injuring one of his friends. She then called the police herself and calmly awaited their arrival.

Word of the incident traveled fast, initially following much the same pattern as the Sun Zhigang killing, with newspapers picking up the story and local propaganda officials banning further coverage, only to see the news spread like wildfire on the Internet.

Many analysts say the matter might have gradually tapered off and disappeared were it not for what has come to be seen as a signal act in the emergence of an important new force in online activism: the investigative blogger.

Raising money online to conduct his own investigation, a blogger who goes by the name “Tu Fu” made his way into the mental institution where Deng Yujiao had been confined. His photographs of Deng strapped to a bed are widely credited with redoubling public outrage over her treatment.

Huge numbers of what are now universally known here as wang min, or netizens, proclaimed their support for the young woman, demanded that murder charges against her be dropped, and in some cases urged a crackdown on the sex industry or greater protection for its many workers.

Almost overnight, Deng Yujiao became a national figure, and a hero to many. A slogan popular among many women proclaimed: “Anyone could become a Deng Yujiao.”

As with the Sun Zhigang case, with the ever-sensitive anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre fast approaching, Beijing tried to quash news and discussion of the official’s killing and its aftermath. “Hubei’s case concerning Deng Yujiao has been under judicial investigation in accordance with the law, and news organizations should halt following up the case temporarily and call back journalists working in Hubei immediately,” read an order issued by the central government’s propaganda authorities a little over two weeks after the incident.

Soon afterward, though, the murder charges against the waitress were downgraded, and Deng, though convicted of the lesser charge of excessive force, was freed. Once again, there would be no government acknowledgment of the role of public opinion, but for millions of Chinese people the impact of the outcry on the web was again unmistakable. “Netizens and other grass-roots forces in cases like Deng Yujiao’s are particularly effective in reaching the masses when the government suffers a credibility crisis,” said Tu Fu, whose real name is Wu Gan, in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “The government is supposed to do what the public expects them to do, and we only hope they do better. The problem is that there never used to be a proper channel or platform for communication, and now the Internet can serve that purpose.”

A great deal changed in China between Sun Zhigang and Deng Yujiao. Most notably, the number of regular Internet users had risen to over 300 million from less than 70 million. The use of advanced mobile phones, often capable of surfing the web at high speeds, had also grown in parallel leaps and bounds, becoming nearly universal in the country’s increasingly affluent big cities.

Along with these developments, a new generation of savvy, highly networked Chinese came of age. Very often, they were no longer content to use these new technologies for the simple voicing of opinions. More and more, China’s netizens were coming together to press demands for justice and meaningful change.

The resourceful ways that Chinese netizens have responded to the social injustices that surround them and to the limitations of their country’s carefully censored press, and indeed the sheer pace of change in this world, highlight one of the fundamental complexities of characterizing the situation of expression in China. For instance, it is becoming ever clearer that China’s online community is providing a more robust example of the full potential and sheer relevance of what we call the “citizen journalist” than exists in many rich, liberal societies. This, despite the fact of determined, even stern political control of the press that is often emphasized in the West.

In the space of a few weeks, Deng Yujiao became perhaps the most vivid illustration of this trend, and arguably its greatest beneficiary. Where Sun Zhigang had already died before the public ever became aware of him, the young hotel waitress was absolved. To be indicted for a crime in China almost always leads to conviction, and historically there have been few surer routes to execution than to be accused of murdering a Communist Party official. With the loud backing of her online supporters, though, Deng had proverbially beaten city hall.

And yet examined more carefully, the era between these two prominent cases—or what might be seen as act one in an unfolding online power struggle between citizen and state—has been far from one of unmitigated gains for the public. This can be seen both in the nature of the two cases themselves, and in a host of steps the Chinese government has taken to try to stay ahead of the game and to cede as little ground as possible to online activism.

While the Sun Zhigang case appears to have forced the state’s hand in introducing a major legal reform involving migrant labor, by comparison, in retrospect, the Deng Yujiao case looks more like an emotionally satisfying one-off with little in the way of weighty political resonance. “When it comes to the rights of people who are advocating systemic change, or who are engaging in extremely unpopular speech, or who are expressing certain religious views, or speaking about the independence of this or that place, these people have no more rights than they did ten years ago,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “Deng Yujiao shows the small stuff may have changed, but the big stuff, absolutely not.”

Although often ham-handed and sometimes subject to tactical about-faces, government tactics include forcing smart-phone users to submit to real-name registration, making anonymous speech difficult, and the insertion of monitoring devices and software into computers and into network gear. And while it is clear that Beijing does not wish to see a proliferation even of simple, narrow cases like these, Chinese authorities have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for learning lessons from major online incidents, and for responding with tactical flexibility. This includes measures, collectively known as the “soft-management approach,” that range from offering hush money to get people to take their complaints offline to paying web users to toe a pro-government line in order to steer debate.

From time to time, propaganda authorities even issue progressive-sounding rhetoric about the utility of the Internet (and other media) as vehicles for “supervising” governing authorities, and keeping them on the straight and narrow. Rhetoric like this can sound remarkably similar to talk in the United States about the role of a Fourth Estate, but what the propaganda authorities have in mind is a Fourth Estate with uniquely Chinese characteristics. In Beijing’s iteration, freer Internet speech and online activism can be useful tools in checking excessive corruption and official abuses of power, under the right circumstances. As such, they may even paradoxically reinforce the legitimacy of the authoritarian state.

Early last year, for example, the death in detention of a peasant in southwestern Yunnan Province sparked an Internet furor that threatened to take on similar proportions to the Sun Zhigang case. In a tactic that is becoming increasingly common, provincial officials launched an online appeal for netizens to help investigate the case. Officials eventually invited several netizens, including some of the most vociferous online critics of the police, to tour the detention center and speak with the warden. This would-be display of openness was played up heavily in the press and the bloggers eventually released a report saying they knew too little to place blame squarely on the police, quickly taking the wind out of the Internet campaign around the incident.

At the same time, Beijing frequently exercises the right to step in aggressively whenever an Internet campaign becomes too popular or too outspoken, or touches on matters deemed too sensitive. Lines are drawn firmly around certain topics: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen have long been on the list. Similarly, petitioning or criticism of local governments is sometimes tolerated, while criticism of the central government, its politics and personalities, remains strictly and energetically policed.

“The Sun Zhigang case represents the start of a Chinese, Internet-based civil society,” says Yong Hu, a professor at Peking University who is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on the web. “The Chinese government became aware of this incident’s symbolic importance and has used its power to influence the course of the Internet. Since then, there has never been such an effective case of Chinese citizen solidarity, and some believe this is a result of the government working very hard to make sure that Internet movements don’t take on a more continuous presence.”

Zheng Yongnian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who specializes in the Chinese Internet, says that Beijing has demonstrated an impressive capacity for adaptation, having started out from a position where the Internet was largely seen as mainly a political liability and evolving to a position today where it is increasingly seen as an important tool of government. “In the West, people in the scholarly community associate the Internet with democracy,” he says. “But one should never underestimate the ability of this government to absorb this technology.”

For all of the government’s success in preventing challenges to the system, others say that the very ecology of the Internet has changed greatly since the Sun case in ways that will dramatically raise the stakes for the government. In parallel, many of these analysts say that Chinese society is itself evolving rapidly in ways that favor greater outspokenness on the part of its citizens, and much greater interaction and social organization. Combined with the fast-shifting technological landscape, these trends have made sensational incidents on the Internet both more frequent and increasingly difficult to predict. “The Sun case was in the web 1.0 era, in which the government only needed to control portals and bulletin boards,” says Yong. “Since then, we have entered the 2.0 era, with a proliferation of blogs, with social media, and with SMS [text messaging]. These are a lot harder to control and it is difficult to say who will be successful in the future. That’s the big question mark.”

By 2006, blogs had come into their own in China, spreading rapidly and becoming an important part of the business model of the country’s huge Internet portals, or web hosting firms, companies like Sina.com, Sohu, and Netease. Suddenly, a control-obsessed state was faced not only with a popular new means for the dissemination of news, but equally important, an unprecedented platform for the emergence of independent opinion leaders. Typically, these are bloggers who build large followings and become trusted because of their perceived expertise in a given area, or because of their knack for countering the prevailing, government-driven narrative.

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 Sina.com’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.

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.

“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.