When the human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped extra-legal house arrest and beatings and found his way to the U.S. Embassy last month, he became an instant hero on the Chinese Internet.

How had he escaped? How could a single blind man tear such a hole in the government’s pervasive blanket of weiwen, or stability maintenance? Many called it a “miracle”; stories of “China’s blind spiderman” went viral. Eventually someone who had helped Chen tweeted an account. Chen had done merely this: “In 19 hours climbed eight walls, jumped a dozen or so irrigation ridges, fell down a few hundred times, injured a foot, and finally crossed a stream that got him out of the village.”

The Internet is the first medium in the history of Communist rule in China that the government has not been able to fully control. The authorities hire hundreds of thousands of police and spend billions of yuan annually monitoring the Web and blocking unwanted messages. Yet for hundreds of millions of Chinese, the Internet continues to grow as a source of uncensored news and platform for popular expression. Regarding Chen, Internet opinion has been overwhelmingly positive.

Online chatter in recent years has generated new notions of what it means to be Chinese. For decades China’s rulers have insisted that “China” means not much more or less than “Chinese government leaders.” To be “patriotic” has meant to support the party-state; anyone who disobeys is “anti-China.” After the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in 1989, China’s government demanded, as a condition of his release, that he promise to refrain from “anti-China” activity. Fang agreed — but refused to allow the party to own the word “China.” He pledged that “my concerns for China, as a Chinese citizen, will be for its peace, its prosperity, and its modernization.” After his release, he continued to criticize China’s rulers.

Twenty-three years ago, Fang, who died last month at 76, was a lone pioneer. Today, people frequently distinguish between themselves and their rulers. The practice has become sufficiently common online that Chinese authorities have declared zhengfu (government) a “sensitive term” that Internet filters must highlight so police can check how it is used. To avoid the filter, microbloggers refer to their government in such sarcastic terms as guichao (esteemed dynasty) and xi chaoxian (western North Korea). Meanwhile, use of gongmin (citizen), in the dignified sense in which Fang used it, has spread widely.

It is regrettable that American experts on U.S.-China relations continue to use “China” and “the Chinese” to refer exclusively to elite circles within the Beijing government. For these experts, “the Chinese” view of anything — currency, technology transfer, cyberwar, Tibet, Taiwan, Syria — is inevitably the government’s view, no matter how far it departs from the views of other Chinese. They warn that such adherence is a matter of respecting the “sensitivities” of “the other side” and that if Washington supports human rights or democracy it will be “seen in China” as American sabotage. But seen this way by whom in China? In the days since Chen left U.S. protection to go to a Beijing hospital, Chinese opinion online has weighed heavily on the side of saying the Americans did not help Chen enough.

U.S. acceptance of the China equals “Communist Party leadership” formula dates from the Nixon-Mao breakthrough. In the early 1970s, the regime’s rulers were indeed the only Chinese whom Americans could reasonably approach. But to persist with such a constricted understanding today is obtuse, even dangerous.

The Obama administration has signaled that it wants to pull free. When President Barack Obama visited Shanghai in 2009, he probably knew that his “town meeting” was packed with pre-selected party people. But he asked that some questions come from the Internet, and some of those queries — including on Internet censorship — were obviously not party-approved.

During the recent crisis over Chen, Obama said that “we want China to be strong [and] want it to be prosperous.” Days later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed with “we want a strong and prosperous China.” Here the word “China” was adroitly ambiguous. To Americans, and to many Chinese, it could mean the United States wishes the best for “all the Chinese people.” But to Communist Party leaders, given the way they have used the term for decades, the message could be: “The American president favors wealth and power for the Communist Party-state.” That was the interpretation projected in China’s government-run media.

Allowing “China” to mean only a small elite is dangerous in that it adumbrates nearly a fifth of the world’s population. It also prevents a square consideration of how long the regime will last — by far the most sensitive topic in the diplomatic language game. One cannot raise it; it is an affront to “the other side” even to think it (though Chinese elites, who consistently send their money and children abroad, seem to think about it themselves). And the question persists: If “China” means only “the regime,” what happens, some day, if it is not there?

The two dynasties in Chinese history that most resemble the Communist episode are the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and the Sui (A.D. 589-618). Both oversaw huge new construction and great increases in wealth but also ruthless tyranny, deaths from forced labor, and horrors such as burning of books and burying of scholars (the “dissidents” of another era).

China will eventually outgrow its current spasm as well, perhaps without Chen Guangcheng’s help. On the other hand, maybe this artist of miracle escapes can pull off a second miracle: changing the way the U.S. government understands “China.”

Perry Link, who was a coeditor of “The Tiananmen Papers,” teaches comparative literature and foreign languages at the University of California, Riverside.

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