On May 10 this year, Deng Yujiao - a 21-year-old waitress at the Dream City 'leisure centre' in a hotel in Hubei province - stabbed a local party official to death and wounded another. When she was arrested, she claimed the officials had tried to force themselves on her. Not so long ago, this was the kind of case that would have been dealt with quietly in a provincial court, far away from public view. But early news reports of the killing caught the public's attention. The waitress was arrested and police mounted an investigation against her for involuntary manslaughter. After police found what were described as anti-depressants and sleeping pills, she was put in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. Wu Gan, 36, a blogger and online activist in Hubei, brought her plight to the attention of mainland netizens, and before long Ms Deng was the talk of the nation, with online posters and bloggers hailing her as a hero for resisting corrupt officials and as a champion of women's virtue. Posting on the website Tianya, one blogger commented: 'Deng Yujiao, you are good. I admire and support you, and will learn from you.' Another blogger wrote: 'I would be content if I could marry a girl like this.' Two lawyers, Xia Lin and Xia Nan, became involved in the case on May 21, but two days later they were dismissed by Ms Deng's mother under what appeared to be pressure by local police. She alleged that the police had destroyed the evidence that she and the lawyers had gathered. On May 22, the central government ordered that all reports on the case toe the official line. This did not stop the online support for Ms Deng. On May 24, lawyer Xia Lin posted a detailed reconstruction of what Ms Deng claimed had happened on the night of the murder on his blog. She said she was pushed onto a couch, with the local officials demanding she provide 'special services'. Mr Xia's blog received more than 45,000 hits, and nearly 2,500 people left comments, almost all signalling overwhelming support. Amid swelling internet support for Ms Deng, she was charged with intentional manslaughter on June 16. She walked free on grounds of diminished responsibility. The Chinese-language Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou, which covered Ms Deng's story closely - and did an interview with her that contradicted the official version of events on the night of the murder - called the outcome of the trial proof 'that public expression and civic society are becoming ever stronger'. Few people - even government officials - are likely to disagree with this. With around 300 million mainlanders online, chat forums and blogs are providing mainland citizens with an unprecedented opportunity to share information - and collectively act on it. Speaking to the New York Times, Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkley, said the internet was raising 'public awareness of democratic ideas - accountability, transparency, citizens' rights to participate, that the government should serve the people'. Meanwhile, writing in the Guardian, journalist Wang Wei pointed out that a senior official had recently admitted that they are being seen as 'enemies of the people'. Wang wrote: 'He has every reason to say so, not because every public servant is corrupt or lustful, but because the public's frustration ... is ascending to a boiling point.' Even the mainland media - at least in some quarters - agreed. The Southern Metropolitan Daily, in its editorial on the outcome of Ms Deng's trial, continued: 'The supply of stories of institutional failings leading to tragedy are almost unlimited, while public attention is limited.' But, the editorial argued, as long as the mainland lacks judicial independence, netizens are likely to continue to act as their own watchdogs, as much out of fear that any one of them could become a victim as out of concern for fellow citizens.