Beijing has two English-language newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. There is also a weekly newsmagazine called Beijing Review. Most guidebooks and Web sites take a fairly dismissive attitude toward Chinese media, and to some degree this is deserved. Anonymous editorials reflect the position of the Chinese government, and never deviate from this position. In the China Daily, news articles often have no bylines and read like editorials. Once a week, there is a two-page spread on a second or third-tier city promoting foreign investment there. The Beijing Review mostly consists of mind-numbingly boring articles on how China is inexorably growing its GDP. In a society that loves to keep score, though, nobody really talks much about being #1 in metric tons of carbon emissions.

You can learn interesting things by reading these publications (for example, you probably didn’t know that over 50% of the world’s cigarette lighters are made in Wenzhou) and the weather reports are mostly reliable. However, there are never negatives, and there are no opposing viewpoints. Smiling faces abound. In a harmonious society, who would ever disagree?

And then there’s the relatively new upstart, the Global Times. It’s published by the People’s Daily, and is the official newspaper of the Communist Party. And this is really interesting, because while the government is controlled by the Communist Party, the Communist Party is not the government. Interestingly enough, the Communist Party maintains a fairly “big tent” approach to politics. This is pragmatic, because in a one party system, there have to be escape valves. You just marginalize them. It’s a remarkably similar approach to our own system, two parties, conservative and more conservative, both of whom serve only the wealthy and powerful, except in our system nothing that matters ever gets done.

So today, in the Global Times, the headlines scream “Taboo Sex Raises Eyebrows.” This in the same issue as an article about the burgeoning gay scene in Beijing (which has a lot more burgeoning to do, incidentally), an article critical of a high school teacher’s arrest (for writing an online book about the plight of sex workers in Guangdong province), and an article replete with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about Chinglish signs. And all of this in just one issue!

Don’t get too excited. This is still a Communist Party newspaper, published in an authoritarian country. For example, every page contains a link to True Xinjiang. This is mostly a collection of self-congratulatory articles written by Han Chinese on the governance of a province almost universally described as “restive.” Still, only a few years ago, a newspaper like the Global Times would have been unthinkable. It seems to represent a new, more open left wing of the Communist Party of China–a wing willing to be more experimental, more open, and to some degree, more self-critical.

In a way, I have mixed feelings about this. As an American, I hope that China clings to its backward system of government, because I am absolutely convinced that it makes them far less competitive than they otherwise would be. And if China were to become even half as competitive on the world stage, the United States would be completely doomed. In my view, most of our economy is based on hot air and bullshit, and our government is so consumed with winning the next election that it’s forgotten how to govern (or even that doing so is necessary). On the other hand, living here, I see the potential China has to become the world’s newest superpower. For 5,000 years, this was the world’s most advanced civilization. China has a long memory, and yearns to relive these golden times.

How will it end? Only time will tell. The beginnings of an independent media, though, is an interesting and provocative start.