Dan Gillmor: They play a key role in a medium made to order for debating the issues of our times. And in the United States, Web logs spout forth a torrent of news and often scalding opinions on just about everything.

Not so in China, where a certain timidity reigns.

Economic freedoms are expanding in this nation of 1.3 billion people, nowhere more powerfully than here in Shanghai, an amazing city that seems to grow a new skyline every year and has become the commercial center of a vast land. Freedom of expression, the heart of political freedom, is making considerably less progress.

The government continues its paranoid surveillance and steering of the traditional media and Internet. Dissidents are still being jailed for online activities. Yet technological trends may be working in favor of freer speech. It won’t happen overnight, needless to say, but if a free-speech media arises in China it might well start with bloggers.

Estimates of the number of Chinese bloggers range as high as 600,000 — not a trivial number. That’s far fewer per capita among computer users, however, than in the United States. But blogs, the leading kind of personal Web site, are likely to have an outsized impact — when and if people feel more free to say what’s actually on their minds.

Last week, I visited Fudan University, one of China’s leading institutions of higher education and home to the nation’s first journalism school. I spoke in a graduate-level class about the rise of citizen-journalists who use increasingly low-cost and powerful digital media tools, and then met with some student bloggers.

As they had been in my visit to the same university a few years ago, the students were exceedingly bright. They asked pointed questions. Their ambition to do genuine journalism seemed strong, even in a society where expressing the wrong opinion can get people in trouble.

When I asked the youthful bloggers what kind of things they wrote about online, the answers reflected today’s reality. “Personal things,” one student responded, and others in the room nodded in agreement. Another student, a computer-science major, also writes about technologies such as software architecture. But politics? Uh, no thanks.

More here.