How, some bloggers asked, could official news agencies be so self-absorbed and callous as to focus on the torch when the citizens of Sichuan were suffering? Rulers who truly care about the people, they insisted, should have a clearer sense of priorities during national crises.
This whiplash could have led to large-scale street actions that made headlines, but it didn't. That's partly because China's leaders, who keep a close eye on the Web as a barometer of popular sentiment, called on the media to take a more somber tone in torch stories – and then even suspended the relay for a time.
This didn't completely defuse discontent at a precarious moment. There were still small gatherings in Sichuan villages and towns, often linked to anger at shoddily constructed school buildings that collapsed while nearby structures remained standing. And it didn't put an end to all expressions of outrage on the Web, as some bloggers picked up on the school collapses, claiming in posts that corrupt deals struck between developers and local officials were to blame for the large number of children left dead or injured in earthquake zones. Still, the about-face on the relay limited the extent of these sorts of dissent.
The government realizes that few Chinese now have any faith left in the formal ideologies espoused by Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and their successors. It also knows that the Communist Party is perceived as being riddled with out-of-touch officials who care only about lining their pockets.
One response to this long-term legitimacy crisis has been a new emphasis on social welfare and social harmony in propaganda, mixed in with a drumbeat of references to the Communist Party's role in returning China to a position of global importance.
When the tenor of blog posts shifted in May, the regime concluded quickly that business as usual regarding the torch was making its talk of striving to create a "harmonious society" (President Hu Jintao's mantra) ring even more hollow than usual – and the result could be dangerous. This was probably the right conclusion to draw.