In mid-May, about a week after U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia, someone posted a document on a Chinese government-regulated World Wide Web site that purportedly had been pasted on the wall of the dining hall in China's Foreign Ministry on May 13.
The document made incendiary allegations about corruption at China's embassy in Washington, including the misappropriation of tens of thousands of dollars worth of Chinese government funds for private use.
"There is just an unlimited number of padded accounts, made-up accounts, and dead accounts," the document said. "One hundred years of history teaches us: corruption leads to ineffectiveness and the backward get kicked around. The Chinese Embassy in the United States is a classic example."
Shocking. But true?
Matt Drudge, meet Mao Zedong.
Despite official Chinese efforts to control the Internet and limit its use as a method of disseminating news, rumors, lies and truths unfavorable to China's government, a growing army of Chinese Web surfers is scaling firewalls, posting radical criticisms of government policy and engaging in deep, unregulated discussions of China's fate. Significantly, much of the discussion is occurring on Internet sites that are based in China and are thus regulated by the government.
While Chinese chat rooms were already growing in number and expanding in content, the bombing of the embassy in Belgrade on May 7 was the spark that touched off this recent prairie fire. Following the attack, which killed three Chinese journalists, many Chinese Web sites reported record numbers of hits. Some conducted opinion surveys about the bombing. Others opened specific chat rooms to discuss NATO's action.
And when June 4 -- the 10th anniversary of the government crackdown on student-led democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square -- rolled around, several Chinese Internet servers shut the chat rooms down. But others, such as a popular Web site based in the southern city of Guangzhou, stayed up.
"The outspokenness of the people posting these messages [anonymously] is startling," said a Western diplomat who monitors the government-regulated sites. "No topic seems to be taboo."
"Beat the Americans. Blow up the U.S. Embassy!" was one of the sentiments voiced on a site last week before the visit of Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, who came to explain to Chinese officials the errors that led to the embassy bombing. "Pickering is a dog's leg," snapped the same respondent in a Chinese chat room.
His views were seemingly shared by many. Indeed, since the embassy bombing, some Internet sites that carried pro-U.S. postings just a few weeks ago have been deluged with nationalistic outbursts.
In an online poll by Sohu, one of China's biggest Internet portals, 94 percent of those responding said the believe that the American explanation of the embassy bombing was not plausible. About 63 percent said that a restoration of a China-Russia alliance would restrain NATO and be beneficial to world peace.
"Americans, don't be crazy," wrote one surfer in a recent missive. "The 21st century will be China's century. When that time comes you won't talk so big."
In many ways, the Internet -- with its relative anonymity and its impersonal nature -- fits easily into Chinese Communist culture. In the decades after China's revolution, Chinese upset with their lot or angry at the government took to pasting "big character posters" around universities, factories and parks to let their views be known. Now many are doing this in cyberspace, cloaking them selves in its relative protection. Official estimates place the number of Internet users in China at around 2 million. That could grow to 10 million by next year.
Already, Chinese officials have started responding to allegations about China's leaders that first appeared on sites on the Web. When Prime Minister Zhu Rongji went to the United States in April, for example, he offered the U.S. government a series of significant trade concessions that would have marked an unprecedented opening of China's markets to American investment and goods.
President Clinton did not immediately embrace Zhu's proposal. When Zhu returned to China, he was lambasted on the Internet as a "traitor" intent on turning his country into a "prostitute." In recent private remarks, China's top trade negotiator, Long Yongtu, acknowledged these accusations -- a sign of the Internet's growing influence here.
In a bizarre development, a woman who identified herself as a former soldier in the Chinese army touched off a firestorm when -- on May 8, the day after the bombing of the Chinese embassy -- she posted a call for China to build its first aircraft carrier.
"I am calling on Chinese around the world to unite and contribute to the construction of the world's largest and most advanced aircraft carrier to enhance our country's defense capability," said the surfer who identified herself as Sister Soldier.
Sister Soldier's message was greeted with an avalanche of support. The Henan Youth Daily printed a special fund-raising issue on May 12. More than $1.3 million has been collected so far, although there is little indication that China's government is ready to embrace the idea.
The government has taken steps to limit the Internet's effect in China, but it has balanced that desire with one that seeks to encourage its use in schools, universities and research institutions. For example, it blocks hundreds of sites -- such as washingtonpost.com and playboy.com -- which it considers potentially harmful to its interests. Yet, thus far it has not stopped people from using proxy servers, which allow them access to those blocked sites.
In recent weeks, police in Shanghai, a center of China's Web craze, have closed 300 cafes for offering Internet services without licenses. Out of some 2,000 Internet cafes believed to be operating in Shanghai, city officials say only 350 have licenses, China's state-run press reported.
Last year, Lin Hai, a Shanghai-based businessman, was sentenced to two years in jail for providing a dissident publication in the United States with 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses.
CAPTION: President Clinton sips coffee as students look at White House Web site in a Shanghai cybercafe where U.S. leader made an impromptu stop during visit to China last summer.
CAPTION: ABOVE: An Internet cafe staff member checks one of the shop's computers. Bowing to pressure from users, China launched a program to speed up development of the Internet, but without loosening controls over its content.
CAPTION: The Chinese government has officially blocked hundreds of Web sites, among them washingtonpost.com and playboy.com, both shown above, which it considers potentially harmful to its interests.