Today, all that has changed. And as the state has relaxed its control over the minutiae of daily life, citizens have also felt freer to express themselves to each other. Among friends and neighbors, Chinese say what they think about everything, from their political leaders to rising prices to their country's medal chances at the Beijing Olympics.
So where's the problem?
The boulevard of freedoms that Chinese people enjoy may have widened, but it is still lined with precipices. You may be able to criticize the ruling Communist Party over dinner with friends, but airing such views in public – for example on the Internet – can earn you years of prison time.
You would not get a chance to run that risk anywhere else: all newspapers and TV and radio stations are owned by the government and edited by men and women who know where the red lines are drawn. Each time a new issue comes up, the Communist Party propaganda department sends them a directive telling them the line to take.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution. But it is upheld only for those who do not challenge Communist Party rule. Communist Party security agents decide what constitutes a challenge.
Certainly you cannot call for free elections or a multiparty state, or criticize party leaders by name. Nor can you advocate independence for Tibet, or Taiwan's right to self-rule. Nor can you try to set up an independent trade union.
Citizens who have slipped off the rocks, and ended up in jail, include land rights activists, practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, tenants protesting eviction from their homes by developers, defense lawyers, and Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs demanding more respect for their cultures and religions, members of Christian churches not authorized by the state, and anticorruption campaigners, among others.