Listening to online voices is becoming more important for Chinese officials, as was shown in Premier Wen Jiabao's web chat with netizens on Saturday.
Observers believe it reflects the top leadership's will to promote "Internet democracy".
"Chinese officials and scholars felt obliged to notice online views because it keeps them informed of the social situation," said Yu Guoming, vice president of the Media college of Beijing-based Renmin University of China.
"On-line opinions have become an indispensable part of public voices," he said.
"Reading piles of documents, listening to work reports and going among the public" might not be an effective way for officials to gauge society in the information age, Yu said.
According to the China Internet Network Information Center, an increasing number of Chinese choose cyberspace to express opinions.
As of January, there were more than 300 million Chinese, or 23.8 percent of the population, who had access to the Internet. That's up 40 percent year on year.
The figure increases monthly by about 8 million to 9 million. It means the Chinese Internet population has become the world's largest.
Last year saw the peak in social and political activity on the Internet with unprecedented media coverage and public attention.
In June, President Hu visited Qiangguo Forum, a virtual forum under the People's Daily. He chatted with the public for four minutes and said he got to learn of people's concerns through netizens.
Premier Wen also said he used the Internet to listen to public opinions and suggestions. Netizens posted tens of thousands of questions and advice for Wen on several Chinese news portals.
"I've perceived confidence and strength from people's suggestions online," Wen said at a press conference held after the National People's Congress session in 2006.
Netizens also flex their muscles, or fingers, to advise local government work. In April, 26 active netizens from southern Guangdong Province were invited to talk face-to-face with Wang Yang, the provincial Party chief. They were allowed to freely express their views on the province's development.
"The Internet has increased public participation in political and social affairs and promoted socialist democracy," said Wang, who is known for his creative and bold reform ideas.
Meanwhile, Internet vigilantes, known as "human flesh search engines", tracked government officials, including the deputy head of Shenzhen's marine affairs bureau, who allegedly tried to molest a teenage girl, and the director of Nanjing's property bureau, who misused public funds to buy luxury goods.
Netizens were even invited by the local government to investigate a controversial death of an inmate who allegedly died during a game of "hide-and-seek" in a detention house in southwestern Yunnan Province.
Moreover, three people in central Henan Province, who represent a local netizen association, made headlines last month by becoming lawmakers and political advisors .
Analysts said it was an unprecedented sign of "netizens stepping out of virtual space into the real world's political arena."
With this year's top legislature and advisory body's annual sessions around the corner, some lawmakers and advisors used blogs or online forums to collect opinions or gain public support for their bills or proposals.
Similarly, the Internet has become a major channel for the government to solicit public opinions for draft laws, regulations and national policies.
Netizens were invited last month to offer suggestions on guidelines for a national educational program. Last October, the State Council also solicited online opinions for the country's medical reform program.
Yu said the Internet "offered the most convenient vent for voices of common people, without any editing."
"Conventional media usually convey only one kind of view but the Internet allows dissenting views as long as they are in line with laws," he said.
He said the Internet had become a mainstream medium in China. Mass communications theories said "20 percent" is the threshold indicating whether a medium was mainstream.
Yu said the Internet was so popular in China that people with different ages used it, so it was able to reflect social issues.
The country's top leadership is aware of the transformation.
In January 2007, Hu, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), urged officials at a lecture attended by members of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, to improve their Internet literacy and use it to "improve the art of leadership".
"I love BaoBao"
Netizens, who dubbed themselves fans of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, created a website called "Shijinbabaofans" in Chinese last September.
The site collected accounts of Hu and Wen's activities, remarks and photos and allowed the public to post suggestions about government work.
Fans' formed Internet words using Hu and Wen's name such as "Brother Tao" and "I love Baobao". The latter was brought to the spotlight when overseas Chinese students carried a large banner with the four Chinese characters during Wen's recent European visit.
Anonymous fans also built a home page for Wen on the popular social networking website Facebook. Foreigners and overseas Chinese students, among others, posted praise and criticism for the work of the Chinese government.
Some local Chinese politicians also have their own websites which provide a space for the public to lodge complaints.
President Hu said in June that he would "seriously read and study" on-line postings sent to him by netizens.
Observers believe the "grassroots democracy," reflected by the interaction on the Internet between the public and the leadership, shows that netizens have become a constructive force in public affairs.
But they also warn that relevant laws are needed to better regulate and improve online activity.
(Xinhua News Agency February 28, 2009)