China's Communist leaders are divided over how to manage the arrival of the Internet, which some officials embrace as an experiment in limited democracy and others say erodes their power.
Even as Beijing acts to regulate the Internet's free flow of information, it is allowing strands of the World Wide Web to reach the Chinese populace. It is also experimenting with official uses.
A computer exhibition in Beijing last week offered thousands of Chinese a glimpse at technology able to bridge the chasm between them and the outside world. At the same time, a court in Shanghai refused to overturn the two-year sentence given to a software engineer convicted of subversion for giving local e-mail addresses to Chinese dissidents running a Web site based in the US.
Most of the recent news reports on Chinese cyberspace depict Beijing as Big Brother: jailing "virtual dissidents," blocking Western news sites, and stepping up surveillance of Web surfers.
Yet pro-reform government forces are pushing Beijing to take its first tentative steps toward a primitive form of electronic democracy, say industry experts.
China's new Government Online project aims to make Beijing's guarded information more accessible, and ultimately, make its often-aloof leaders interactive, says Ken Farrall, publisher of China Matrix, a Web site on Internet use in China.
That would be a switch. "For centuries, Chinese rulers' only contact with the people was by way of issuing orders, collecting taxes, or meting out punishments," says a Chinese official who asked not be identified.
Indeed, Beijing's emperors traditionally lived a life of seclusion within the Forbidden City. And although the 1949 Communist revolution was ostensibly aimed at giving power to the masses, the party similarly walled itself off.
But "now some liberal-minded leaders want to transform the government from a group of controllers into actual public servants, and many of them are backing the Government Online program," says the government official.
"Of course, the government will not tolerate e-mails from dissidents who call for an end to the one-party state," he adds. "But positive suggestions on improving the government and other forms of feedback will be welcomed."
"When China Telecom proposed the Government Online project, it was aimed at making the government more efficient and productive," says Fu Chun, a senior official at China Telecom.
"We also argued that the project could improve the state's image by making it more transparent and better equipped to detect and fight corruption," he adds.
Yet Mr. Fu, who concedes that China Telecom hopes to see hefty profits through increased use of the Internet and government intranets, says the original idea has since snowballed. He says China Telecom is now "negotiating with the National People's Congress and with individual legislators to set up Web sites, e-mail addresses, and other electronic links with the people."
He estimates that more than half of China's 29 ministries will be online by the end of the year.
The drive to help the Chinese leadership become wired is unusual not only because it could represent a great leap toward official accountability, but also because its backers are a multinational mix.
Microsoft is just one of the US firms building bridges with Beijing by joining the partnership to bring Chinese officials online.
During a March 10 trip to China, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said he wanted to form a strategic partnership with China Telecom to boost the online project, and added his company would donate software and technical know-how to Beijing.
Microsoft executive Johnson Lu says some Chinese officials want to use the program to show the government is becoming more open.
Yet China's rulers may also realize that the country's strength will be increasingly tied to its ability to leverage the forces of the cyber-revolution.
Mr. Lu says that during a recent meeting with Microsoft executives, "[Chinese Premier] Zhu Rongji said that in the next century, information technology will be one of the main measures of a country's power."
Mr. Zhu, who heads the reform bloc of the party, is widely believed to be one of the strongest forces behind China's march into cyberspace. Yet Zhu faces forces who want to block or slow Beijing's entry onto the global cyberstage.
China's Ministry of State Security "is strongly opposed to allowing the people or the government ... use the Internet," says a computer-industry specialist.
Mr. Farrall says this year is likely to be pivotal in determining whether China's leadership decides to rush headlong into cyberspace and global integration or pull back to consolidate its tools of control.
Farrall predicts reformers will prevail as opposition weakens. "If the current government is to lead China into the 21st century and not be dragged into it, it must be ready to let go of its grip on discourse and expression, at least within the realm of cyberspace," he says.