There is nothing "virtual" about the problems China's communist rulers confront with the internet. Although critical to China's goals of modernization and globalization, the internet threatens the political status quo. So no surprise at the government's often schizophrenic response to it: while broadly encouraging the internet's development, some party factions seek to suppress it by arresting IT entrepreneurs and web dissidents. Nonetheless, China's more than 35 million internet users - a number that doubles every nine months - have access to a wide variety of previously censored information, including sites that are officially banned.
Staggering changes have already occurred. When, a little over a year ago, 42 elementary school children and teachers in impoverished Jiangxi (south central China) were killed in an explosion, China's domestic newspapers and internet sites reported the explosion as the result of an appalling child-labor scheme: nine-year-old children had been forced to install detonators in firecrackers so that teachers could sell fireworks to supplement their salaries.
Two days later, Premier Zhu Rongji denied the reports. He claimed that the explosion was the result of a "deranged man." Typical of China, state-owned media that carried the original story instantly retracted their reports to parrot the party line. Atypical of China, however, the true story refused to die.
In internet forums and chat rooms, Chinese citizens continued to express their outrage about what they saw as a government cover up. Evidence that party leaders were lying, including interviews with witnesses, was posted on the net. Some websites deleted the information, others refused. Links to obscure websites with uncensored news about the catastrophe could even be found on the government newspaper's official website, People's Daily.