Over the past four years, China’s rulers have continued their harsh repression of free speech, arresting writers and dissidents, putting them under house arrest, harassing them, or making them disappear. For me, as a result of articles I published online, I was questioned by police numerous times, put under house arrest and given dire warnings. In December 2009, after I tried to enter the courtroom for Liu Xiaobo’s trial to observe the proceedings, the state security police took me to a guest hostel where I was held under house arrest for a number of days. On October 8, 2010, Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was held under house arrest at my home. Beginning around December 10, 2010, when the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was held, I was again taken to a guest hostel and held under house arrest. On May 8, 2011, because of opinions I expressed on the Internet I was detained and interrogated for 24 hours.

But this is only one side of the story. Because of the increasing use of microblogs in China, diverse online opinions have become harder and harder to control and the influence of public opinion is also on the rise. A platform for public debate has been effectively established. The following examples are evidence of this development:

1. In February 2011, when the Jasmine Revolutions broke out in the Middle East, people on Chinese microblogs playfully called for “Jasmine Gatherings” in China. The Beijing government responded as if facing a mortal enemy. They sent large numbers of police with police dogs to shut down the busy shopping districts of all large cities and arrested a large number of netizens. This clearly demonstrates the Chinese regime’s panic and helplessness in the face of online public opinion.

2. The recent Wang Lijun affair in Chongqing, Sichuan Province, began with microbloggers revealing unusual activity outside the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Less than two days later, the official Xinhua News Agency reported: “Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on February 6 and stayed there overnight. Relevant organs are now investigating this incident.” The Beijing regime is having an increasingly difficult time covering up facts and controlling public opinion.

3. The recent National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) passed a revised draft of the Criminal Procedure Law stating “Those suspected of harming national security can be held under house arrest without notifying their family members.” This and other factors were attacked and strongly opposed by large numbers of netizens on microblogs, some of whom lobbied NPC representatives to vote against this revised draft law. It is clear that netizens have already increased their political influence on the NPC and CPPCC (the “rubber stamp” and “political flower pots,” respectively).

China’s present regime has no intention of improving human rights or expanding freedom of speech, but it is also unable to completely control online public opinion. They don’t understand the Internet, but they don’t dare to completely shut it off. Looking up at those governing China or down at Chinese society you will see two completely different Chinas. This is the bizarre situation of freedom of expression of a divided country.

Liu Di is a freelance writer and blgoger who writes under the pen name Stainless Steel Mouse. She is a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.