BEIJING — There was a time when the story of the 21-year-old waitress who fatally stabbed a Communist Party official as he tried to force himself on her would have never left the rural byways of Hubei Province where it took place.
Instead, her arrest last month on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter erupted into an online furor that turned her into a national hero and reverberated all the way to China’s capital, where censors ordered incendiary comments banned. Local Hubei officials even restricted television coverage and tried to block travel to the small town where the assault occurred.
On Tuesday, a Hubei court granted the woman, Deng Yujiao, an unexpectedly swift victory, ruling that she had acted in self-defense and freeing her without criminal penalties.
The case of Ms. Deng is only the most recent and prominent of several cases in which the Internet has cracked open a channel for citizens to voice mass displeasure with official conduct, demonstrating its potential as a catalyst for social change.
The government’s reactions have raised questions about how much power officials have to control what they call “online mass incidents.” China’s estimated 300 million Internet users, experts say, are awakening to the idea that, even in authoritarian China, they sometimes can fight City Hall.
“It’s about raising the public awareness of democratic ideas — accountability, transparency, citizens’ rights to participate, that the government should serve the people,” said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who tracks China’s Internet activity. “Netizens who are now sharing those more democratic values are using these cases, each time making inch-by-inch progress.”
China still exerts sweeping and sophisticated control over the Internet, employing thousands of people to monitor Internet traffic for forbidden material and using software to spot key words that hint at subversion. But the system is not infallible, and Internet users frequently find ways to skirt the censors.
Since late last year, online tempests have blown up over a video of an official in Guangdong Province who assaulted a young girl and bragged that he was above punishment, and a Nanjing city official who was spotted wearing a $14,500 Vacheron Constantin watch and smoking $22-a-pack cigarettes, evidence of a lifestyle well beyond his means.
Early this year, an online outcry exposed prison officials’ cover-up of the beating death of an inmate. At the moment, outrage is focused on officials in Yunnan Province who battled a rabies outbreak by dispatching “killing teams” that, according to news reports, beat 50,000 dogs to death.
Not all the crusades are entirely civic-minded. In more than a few cases, virtual mobs have harassed offending officials, posting personal information and other details. The nickname for such mobs, “human-flesh search engines,” hints at their pitiless nature.
But the Internet campaigns have repeatedly produced results. Six officials were punished or fired in the prison beating. The Nanjing official with the flashy watch was sacked. The Yunnan dog killings have provoked harsh criticism, even in state-run newspapers.
Most such cases, says Mr. Xiao, the Berkeley professor, spawn tens or hundreds of thousands of mentions on Internet blogs and other forums.
But Ms. Deng’s case eclipsed them all, racking up four million posts and counting, he said. Her story resonates with millions of Chinese who not only are fed up with low-level corruption but also prize chastity in young women, causes that transcend politics.
“Deng Yujiao is a metaphor for someone who fights back against officials, and of course the officials are those who spend the taxpayers’ money, who are so abusive to ordinary citizens and so corrupt,” he said. “It’s almost a stereotype of the online image of officials. That’s why this case becomes so big.”
As she described it to a lawyer, Ms. Deng was a waitress in a karaoke parlor in rural Badong County, a Hubei Province backwater along the Yangtze River. Like more than a few such venues, this one offered “special services,” or prostitution, in a backroom spa, the only room with hot water.
On the night of May 10, Ms. Deng said, she was in the room washing clothes, when a local official, Huang Weide, came in and demanded that she take a bath with him. She refused, and after a struggle fled to a bathroom.
But Mr. Huang and two companions — including a second official, Deng Guida, who was not related to Ms. Deng — tracked her to the bathroom, then pushed her onto a couch. As they attacked, Ms. Deng said, she took a fruit knife from her purse and stabbed wildly. Mr. Deng fell, mortally wounded.
Ms. Deng was arrested, investigated for involuntary manslaughter and, after the police reportedly found pills in her purse, variously described as sleeping pills and antidepressants, sent her to a mental ward.
But when a blogger, Wu Gan, publicized her case, a cascade of posts crowned her a national hero for resisting official abuse of power and demanded a fair trial.
Under public pressure, Hubei officials freed her on bail. Mr. Wu helped recruit a prominent Beijing law firm to represent Ms. Deng.
On May 22, Beijing censors ordered Web sites to stop reporting on the case. Four days later, television and the Internet were cut off in Yesanguan, the town where the attack occurred. The official explanation for the shutdown was as a “precaution” against lightning strikes.
Spurred by the Internet frenzy, Chinese journalists had converged on Badong County. But after censorship was imposed, local officials began screening outsiders, and some journalists seeking to report there were beaten. Mr. Wu’s blog was shut down by censors.
Even Yangtze River boat service to Badong was suspended, ostensibly because the docks needed repair, after protesters vowed to hold a demonstration there.
The two surviving local officials who were involved in the assault have been fired, but no charges were brought against them.
The ruling on Tuesday, widely reported in state media, was a vindication for Ms. Deng and her Internet supporters. But the story may not end there.
Last month, a group of young people abruptly appeared in the middle of downtown Beijing, carrying on their shoulders a woman wearing a mask and wrapped in white cloth. They laid her on the ground and arranged signs around her, then took pictures.
The signs read, “Anyone could be Deng Yujiao.”
The photos immediately appeared on the Internet.