Chinese Web users visit an Internet cafe in Beijing. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

China's famously invasive and restrictive Internet regime is taking on a new mission: trying to understand Chinese popular opinion instead of merely seeking to control it. In addition to censoring or discouraging talk on sensitive topics, the Chinese government is also seeking to understand what people are thinking and saying, something it's done by hiring polling firms -- a remarkable step -- and asking state media organizations and universities to track Chinese Web chatter.

Colleague and new Beijing bureau chief Simon Denyer looked into these new programs, even visiting one such center devoted to monitoring and analyzing Chinese social media conversation, the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center. Chinese officials, he explains, appear to increasingly understand the power of public opinion; mass outrage on social media can spark real-world protests and even force, say, local authorities to reconsider where they build a chemical plant.

The program seems like an implicit admission from Chinese leaders that they no longer have the power to control public opinion in their country and must learn how to react to it as well. And that raises an interesting question: Is this program just a savvier version of the old ways, a more sophisticated means of allowing the Chinese Communist Party to guide public opinion in the world's most populous country? Or it is a significant advance for public accountability in China, giving Chinese citizens more of a voice in how their country is run even if the party remains the ultimate authority? Could it even be both?

Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who also works as a consultant, asked on his blog if China's new program represents a kind of "proto-democratization," a growth of democratic-like processes if not democracy itself. He points to other political scientists who've argued that, as he paraphrases, "in contrast to procedural definitions of democracy that start (and sometimes end) with elections," the concept of democracy can also be about principles of public consultation and public accountability -- both of which seem promoted, to some small degree, by China's new Web monitoring programs. Still, as Ulfelder notes, even if this public opinion monitoring program allows Chinese officials to make their system more accountable and consultative, nothing about it actually forces them to do so, or gives the public any more leverage.

This program looks, to me, a bit like the Chinese government's response to popular protests, which became especially common after the 2002 labor rights demonstrations, and then seemed to evolve again with a December 2011 protest movement in the village of Wukan, which briefly expelled all government officials before winning some of its demands. As I wrote at the time, both waves of protests eventually led the Chinese government to become more flexible and responsive to such demonstrations, which at first looked like a hint of greater public participation in government -- and maybe it was.

But officials also shrewdly exploited these movements in ways that actually helped them to cement autocratic rule. They did this by signaling that they might occasionally grant concessions to public protests, but only if the movements pledged their fealty to one-party rule and kept their demands local. It worked: protests are much more common now than they used to be, but they're assiduously "within-system," careful to ask only for things that the party might feel comfortable granting. In this way, protests often tend to serve as an internal release valve that actually helps sustain the autocratic system rather than undermining it. You might call that a quasi-democratic process, but it's not the same thing as a step toward actual democracy.

Others have weighed in on Denyer's report as well. Quartz's Adam Pasick points out that Chinese leaders appear to be finding ways to adapt some of the tools and lessons of Western-style democracy, such public polling and governing through data, and translate them into the one-party system while leaving out the parts they don't want. Call it big data with Chinese characteristics.

Bill Bishop, who authors the essential daily China newsletter Sinocism, writes that this program comes as much of the Chinese Web discussion is shifting from Weibo -- the Twitter-like site that's increasingly well-known in the West -- to the instant messenger service Weixin. An article by two staffers with the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center (the offices of which Denyer visited for his article) emphasized, according to Bishop, "the importance of government departments learning to use Weixin, not just Weibo." Bishop writes that Weixin is becoming more important and "in some ways resembles an amplified, digital version of the rumor pathways that have been part of Chinese society for centuries."