The Internet has loosened the control Chinese authorities hold over information in the country, but censorship there will remain strong despite Google's threat to leave China.
Chinese authorities say the Internet could be used to threaten social stability, a vague but paramount concern voiced by officials, and they have launched a range of campaigns in the past year to eradicate online content seen as "harmful." Twitter-style Web sites and others in China have helped Internet users post their thoughts -- and grievances -- directly and publicly online. But recent cases show that it remains off-limits and sometimes dangerous for Chinese citizens to criticize the government through blogs, message forums or even e-mail.
"In the last year ... the liberal elements, the forces for change on the Internet have become more vocal and better at using tools like Twitter than they ever were," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org, a blog about Chinese media and urban life. "But this has been met with sort of the biggest sustained clampdown on the Internet that we've seen for years."
Google this month threw a spotlight on Chinese government censorship by saying it plans to stop filtering search results on its Chinese search engine, even if that means shutting down its China offices. One reason Google cited for the move was cyberattacks launched on the company from China, partly aimed at gaining access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google did not blame China for the attacks and the country's government has denied involvement.
But dissidents including human rights lawyer Teng Biao have since said their Gmail accounts were recently hacked and set to copy all messages to another e-mail address. Chinese dissidents are often monitored or harassed by state security agents.
Another recent show of China's heavy-handed treatment of dissidents came when a Beijing court last month gave an 11-year prison sentence to Liu Xiaobo, a well-known human rights activist. Liu was charged with inciting subversion of state power for helping organize "Charter 08," an online petition calling for major political reforms.
Others who signed the petition starting in late 2008 were questioned by authorities in the following months. Liu was previously well-known for his participation in the 1989 democracy protests that were suppressed by the military in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
China has also arrested dozens of people and shut down thousands of Web sites in the past year in a string of crackdowns on online porn. Web sites that provide services like blogs are required by authorities to remove pornographic and certain political content when it is posted by users. Internet access in the western, largely Muslim region of Xinjiang has been almost totally cut off since ethnic riots there six months ago claimed nearly 200 lives.
Internet access has spread quickly in China and growing numbers of people use it to read news and chat with friends or in public forums. China reported having 384 million Internet users at the end of last month, the most in any country.
Authorities use a set of technical measures known as the "Great Firewall" to block access to certain content, such as the Web sites of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Those Web sites can still be accessed with a circumvention tool like a proxy server, but few Internet users are savvy enough to use such tools and the government appeared to step up efforts to block them last year.
But inevitably, authorities have failed to fully stifle the spread of politically sensitive information online. Room has grown for people to air complaints about the government on the Web, partly because complaints can help the country's central leadership keep watch over local governments, said Goldkorn. Internet users who didn't care about censorship before are also beginning to notice it, he said.
The Internet can also help sway public opinion and create pressure on the government, said Li Baiguang, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer. It did so in one court case two months ago in the central province of Shaanxi, where a man was sentenced to a year in prison for online defamation of an official, Li said. Han Xingchang, the head of a construction company, had told his staff to post messages in online forums criticizing the official, who was both a member of the provincial legislature and the chairman of a development company, after a dispute over payment for a contract, according to a copy of the ruling seen by IDG News Service.
Han likely would have received a longer sentence without public support for him online that was fueled by media reports, according to Li. One journalist opened a Web site dedicated to the case that also drove support, an employee at Han's company said.
But the case remains one of many examples in China of apparent abuse of power by local officials. The court ruling left vague why public investigators had taken on the case against Han at the request of the official, after refusing it on technical grounds when he first asked.
"From this case we can see that criticizing the government online is still dangerous," Li said. "The government is not used to it."