Chinese is the second-biggest language on the internet but it may as well be a minor regional dialect so far as most Westerners are concerned. What are people saying in Chinese and what are they asking their government to do? We don't - and can't - know. For all we know, there have been millions of calls for democracy already put down in pixels.
The government's censors are using advanced tracking tools to monitor keywords and volunteers also monitor what's said in chat rooms, in blog comment threads, and on social media. The influence of the government is expanding, but there's no doubt that people on the street talk about democracy in a Chinese context. Every day.
Now that General Liu Yazhou has come out and said in print what many others are saying privately, we can gauge the strength of democracy's impetus in China. It is strong yet despite the obfuscatory techniques employed by the central government.
Is a Soviet-style implosion on the cards for the Middle Kingdom? Possibly. But other scenarios come to mind. Given its fractious history of regional conflict, it's not hard to imagine a series of localised splits sundering the fabric of the single state so keenly desired by the Communist Party.
Another alternative is global war. We're already seeing signs of a muscular military scuffle developing in the West Pacific as China moves to enhance its influence in its maritime regions. The South China Sea? It's up for grabs, according to the Party. And new-found wealth has enabled the government to spend big on pricey items such as aircraft carriers and jets.
General Liu's vocal position can be nothing other than welcome to China-watchers. Whether it comes to anything in the near- to mid-term is quite another matter, however. Needless to say that journalists like John Garnaut - Fairfax's China correspondent - will be keeping a weather eye on local publications for further signs of liberalisation in the ranks.
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