Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern author, once wrote, “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.”

China has never been more pluralistic, urban, and prosperous, yet it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the world’s worst famine, which killed between thirty and forty-five million people, more than World War I.

Only five years had passed since the 1989 democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, when students, barely older than I was, built a tent city in the very citadel of Party power, a mini-state-within-a-state, alive with impulsive idealism.

Two years later, I returned to China to study at Beijing Normal University. Most of what I knew about the school was from the history of 1989, when it was one of China’s most active campuses during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations; there were days when 90 percent of the student body marched to the square to protest. But by the time I arrived, the most urgent priority for practically everyone I met that summer was a pent-up desire to consume.

In 2001, President Jiang Zemin identified the Internet as a “political, ideological, and cultural battlefield.” The week I returned from Shandong, the Ministry of Public Security expanded a list of information officially “prohibited” from the Web. Whenever possible, the government liked to organize the world by category, and it had already banned a list of nine types of information, including “rumors” and anything that “damages the credibility” of the state.

Bit by bit, the Party was erecting what came to be known as the Great Firewall—a vast digital barricade that prevented Chinese users from seeing newspaper stories critical of China’s top leaders or reports from human rights groups; eventually, it blocked social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Two days later, the Beijing State Security Bureau contacted Yahoo! China and asked for the name behind the account, the contents of the e-mail, and the locations from which the e-mail was accessed. Yahoo! complied, and on November 23, 2004, Shi Tao was arrested and later charged with “leaking state secrets.”

Autonomy was creeping into daily life. In Mao’s day, it had been considered immoral to take a second job, because spare time belonged to the state.

The state media, which had once encouraged everyone to be “a rustless screw” in the machine, now acknowledged the new reality of competition: “You must rely on yourself,” the Hebei Economic Daily wrote. “Blaze your own path, and fight.”