Chinese Netcafe
A young netizen. Image from Reuters/Jianan Yu Reuters/Jianan Yu

Last month, a section of sidewalk in downtown Beijing, by all outward appearances sturdy and stable, crumbled below a woman who was absent-mindedly walking by. Within seconds, she was burned by scalding hot water pipes below and couldn't be saved before emergency personnel arrived on the scene.

Although tragic, in most large countries this story would disappear under the radar, covered in-depth perhaps by local TV stations but not by national media -- a one-day attention grabber at most.

But in China, it became an unofficial cause celebre, drawing rapt interest on Internet forums and micro-blogging services. In response to the accident, a flood of messages appeared on popular Chinese Web-portal NetEase's forums. Many offered condolences, but a significant number strayed into broader social commentary.

Typing on a cell phone in Guangdong province, more than 1,300 miles away from Beijing, one person left a macabre online note addressed to the dead woman: Hopefully in your next life you will be born in another country.

From Jinan in Shangdong province, about 260 miles away from the capital, another commenter said that in China, food isn't safe, housing isn't safe, even walking down the street isn't safe.

And a person from relatively well-heeled Jiangsu, which now has the highest per capita GDP of any province in the country, left a particularly melancholic note: In a dark empire, simply walking down the street might result in you falling [into a hole] and losing your life.

As the rumbling back and forth of these active Chinese netizens show, a relatively minor incident can quickly go from being an anodyne anecdote about poor workmanship on Beijing streets to an excuse for expressing undercurrents of anger and disappointment in day-to-day life.

More than anything, this episode reveals how China's fast-growing Internet community is finding new ways to get around speech restrictions and expanding the boundaries of political and social commentary in the virtual world, even as its members remain hesitant to discuss such sensitive issues out in the open.

New Virtual Frontiers

On the whole, the discontent that many Chinese people feel about their challenging lives has been absent from official discourse. Despite (or perhaps due to) more than a decade of breakneck growth and soaring per capita incomes, the air is filthy and the tap water largely undrinkable in major Chinese cities. Food safety and contaminated products is a persistent concern, while housing prices remain out of reach for the average newlywed couple. And millions of newly minted drivers can't go very far in their cars, as gridlock is a common sight in China's densely populated urban areas.

But if Chinese citizens are grumbling about these conditions, you won't be able to read about it very often in the state media. And, at least in the recent past, you would not find it freely discussed on the Web either. The Chinese government has established complex language algorithms that remove anything on the Internet considered overtly disparaging of the country's authorities.

Even so, Chinese netizens are becoming harder than ever to handle and manage. For one thing, the sheer number of statements criticizing the government in direct or subtle ways is overwhelming, forcing Communist leaders to limit their censorship aspirations to the more egregious examples of verbal disobedience. This may evolve into a spiraling problem as China has more Internet users than any other nation: 500 million people in a country of 1.3 billion were connected by the end of 2011. More than 60 percent of these Internet users have a micro-blog.

Making the government's attempts to regulate the Web even more difficult, China's Internet community is creatively circumventing blocked keywords and restrictions by using language tricks and substituting seemingly innocent characters with different meanings but similar sounds for lewd or forbidden phrases.

An example involves the héxiè (??) or river crab, two characters often used on the Internet as a substitute for héxié (??) or harmony, providing a creative and effective way to get around censorship on criticizing government policies on social order.

Instead of writing society is becoming less harmonious or you've been a victim of censors protecting social harmony -- comments that would almost certainly be caught by government algorithms and deleted -- netizens would instead say your comment has been river crabbed or there are less and less river crabs these days. Concerned that automated and human censors may be catching up with this deceit, some Chinese netizens now use the term shu?ch?n (??) or aquatic goods in place of river crab.

Another approach employed by netizens is to squat on overseas websites. For example, posting on President Barack Obama's Google + page, Chinese people ask seemingly obscure but ultimately pointed questions about issues and problems back home.

Do you like the taste of shoe leather? says one Chinese commenter, referring to the recent pharmaceutical scandal in which rotten leather scraps were used to create cheap medicinal coatings.

Chinese Internet users are also using social networks to organize like-minded individuals to take on the morally suspect -- unfaithful wives and husbands, corrupt politicians, cheating businessmen -- and harass them.

The phenomenon is called human flesh search, ultimately carried out for the purpose of identifying people that the online community (or a large section of it) view as engaging in unethical behavior and exposing them to public scrutiny.

For example, in late 2010, a young man killed a university student and seriously injured another while driving drunk in the city of Baoding. When he was caught by police, he shouted: Arrest me if you dare, my father is Li Gang!

Outraged by the driver's lack of remorse and his claim of immunity from punishment, netizens revealed that Li Gang was a local deputy police director. The flurry of anger about the incident grew online until mainstream newspapers couldn't avoid the story. The driver was eventually given a jail sentence of six years and had to pay over $80,000 in fines, money that went to the families of the two victims. But his story is still a favorite on the Web. My father is Li Gang! has become a popular catch-phrase among netizens.

Another instance from mid-March 2012 involved the Two Meetings of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's national representative bodies. The former is the world's largest parliament and China's only legislature, the latter is a large advisory body for the government. The Communist Party dominates both assemblies, with the remainder composed of politically allied groups. Images of delegates in luxurious fur coats and designer briefcases were posted on the Internet and quickly drew widespread ire and condemnation.

You're there to represent us in meetings, not to show off your wealth, said postings on Sina Weibo, a micro-blog similar to Twitter that reaches about one-third of all Chinese Internet users.

Action and Reaction

The Chinese government is watching the netizen explosion with growing concern, wary that the Internet chatter could weaken the nation's social harmony. The majority of Internet discourse in China is not political in nature, though much of it is critical of society at large. However, a portion of it is moving to link social problems to Communist party rule, and in other cases a significant number of people are spreading unsanctioned rumors.

To eliminate what the Chinese government views as the worst of these Internet postings, authorities have repeatedly shuttered websites and erased unruly comments on Internet forums. For example, news and postings about sensitive issues, such as the ongoing scandal involving Bo Xilai -- the Communist party chief of Chongqing who was fired from his post and whose wife is implicated in the murder of a British national -- are screened diligently and cleaned up. Most of the chatter about high-level party political struggles in the Bo Xilai scandal is quickly removed.

Moreover, the government constantly adjusts the Great Firewall that blocks many Western media sites, restricting new search terms and even silencing the Internet if need be.

Early this year, authorities asked social media users to register their micro-blogs with their real identities. Users who refused expected to be locked out of participation on their sites. But although the March 16 deadline to sign up has passed, accounts of unverified users are still active and unimpeded. Whether that indicates the government changed its mind about registration or may yet take action against resistant micro-bloggers is unclear.

In the meantime, Chinese netizens deserve credit for creating an alternate reality for expressing their many disparate complaints, concerns and ideas and for using digital innovation to their advantage. Because of them, it is doubtful that the Chinese government will be able to completely turn back the clock to a highly restricted Web again.