When Guang-Zhou resident Ma Yiyong, 57, went to renew his unemployment certificate last month, something extraordinary happened: he did so efficiently and discreetly, with a few keystrokes. "It used to be troublesome in the past," says Ma. "I would have to stand in line several times, and sometimes officials weren't at their desks. Now it's fast."

China's romance with e-government is making life easier, but its biggest benefit may be in circumventing one of the last bastions of communism: the infamous neighborhood committees. These groups of local party members have served as the authorities' eyes and ears. They made it their business to know who was having marital problems, grumbling about the government or out of work. Citizens in Guangzhou, the capital of one of China's most prosperous provinces, can now apply for official documents, gripe about uncollected garbage or post their opinions about current affairs, all online.

Government departments have also begun using similar software and databases, which will make it easier to share data about citizens. Residents don't seem worried about their privacy. "It's the government I'm dealing with, so it must be OK," says Ma. After decades of bumbling apparatchiks, a high-tech Big Brother must be progress.