In the past year, Chinese websites have cautiously adopted an identity as an alternative information source - one used by an estimated 200 million people. Privately owned websites are seen by many young urban Chinese as a world of virtual semi-independence.
Most sites focus on shopping, sports, and careers. But chat rooms, news groups, and spot polls have begun to gingerly open up sensitive issues including SARS, AIDS, police brutality, and legal reform.
Now some Web services designed to stretch the boundaries of news content and opinion in China have been shut down - partly due to the Web's own success. Central party authorities recently decided that Internet content was becoming too undisciplined. In late February, senior managers at China's major Web portals, Sina.com, Sohu.com, Netease (163.com), and several smaller groups, were told to stop using live Web broadcasts, translating foreign news, and doing online interviews with scholars, artists, and professionals. News chat rooms were also closed or redirected. Instead, managers were instructed to rely on official state Xinhua news.
While these restrictions went into effect ahead of China's National People's Congress (NPC) taking place now, sources say the shutdown is because of an explosion of online anger in January over a court case in north China involving a woman who ran over a peasant with her BMW.
The "BMW case" brought to boil a sublimated frustration in China over inequity between rich and poor, city and country, privileged and peasant. Wealthy BMW owner Su Xiuwen caught her side mirror in the netting of an onion sack on Liu Zhongxia's tractor. She berated Ms. Liu and probably slapped her, then ran her car into Liu, killing her and harming a dozen other peasant bystanders. Ms. Su received a suspended sentence after a payment to those harmed.
The case and ruling got no attention until a small Liaoning newspaper ran a story on Jan. 3. It was seen on Sina.com, and journalists from Guangzhou to Shanghai picked it up. Chat room traffic and postings then began topping 180,000 per day on some websites. The flood was so great, says a source at Sina.com, that it overtook the ability of Web monitors - employees whose job it is to censor postings - to contain it.
The outcry brought a reopening of the case and then a ban on any news or discussion about it. Calls to several newspapers in China this week brought an abrupt refusal to discuss the case, with one journalist saying: "We aren't allowed to write about it."
But the latest issue of the Chinese language Asia Week reports a follow-up investigation into the case by local police at the order of the central government yielded a "similar" result to the first.
"In a society where corruption and privilege are main grievances, and legal groups do not yet have power, the BMW case caused great Internet activity," says Qu Wenyong, sociologist at Heilongjiang University in northeast China. "Many people subconsciously formed a case their minds against the BMW owner."
"The borders of what are acceptable and not acceptable are stretched by the Internet in China," offers Patrick Horgan of APCO China, a consulting firm in Beijing. News deadlines, he says, often add "to a sense of urgency" and content can spill over into sensitive political areas.
Experts agree that the year-old government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has, if anything, been quite attentive to the feelings of ordinary people. The tone and content of the current People's Congress, for example, is populist, and takes up the very sentiments raised by "netizens" in the BMW case.
The 10-day NPC, which ends Sunday, gathers some 3,000 delegates from around the country. While often described as a "rubber stamp," the annual event can showcase new emphasis and directions. Premier Wen offered tax plans and plans to redirect resources to help address the rich-poor gap, particularly among China's 800 million peasants and migrant workers in the interior, where tensions exist over rising costs and lack of education. The congress is also expected to outline private property rights, attack elite-level corruption, and direct resources to social welfare projects. Wen calls it "putting people first."
China's official news service points out that some NPC delegates use the Internet to understand public opinion and to cull new ideas. It points to a new survey by a team at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showing that 71 percent of users say they "have more opportunities to express their views online."
Still, change is officially designed to take place gradually - something that often clashes with the immediacy of the Internet. For example, this week, a controversial letter written by military doctor Jiang Yanyong that asked China's leaders to reappraise the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989 was posted on the Internet and read widely in China. (Mr. Jiang treated the wounded during the tumultuous shootings. He also blew the whistle on the cover up of SARS in Beijing last spring.) His letter, which is not available on any official media in China or any semiofficial websites, is a plea for Beijing to call the 1989 demonstrations a "patriotic student movement."
The possibility of such information becoming easily available is behind the recent policy to close chat rooms that had fueled anger over the BMW case, sources say. One online forum on Sohu.com, known as "Starry Sky," was closed in recent weeks because it allowed unfettered discussions on various topics.
Internet media in China is privately owned. The principal and official sources of news - via TV, radio, and most high- circulation papers - are state owned and controlled by the party through the ministry of information.
In recent years, major Internet companies have been flirting more and more with information sources outside state control. Several companies formed journalists' departments, would sometimes use their own reporting, and began sending out news on cellphone text services and Web pages that was blended from local papers and foreign sources. Now such content is targeted.
Still, as Mr Horgan says: "At every point in the past, whenever there was a general effort to control Internet content, the leadership has always stopped short of doing something radical."