One of the most prominent apologists for China’s authoritarian approach to economic development is unlikely to find much to like in a new Bloomberg Businessweek article about one result of China’s recent economic liberalization.

Pan Shiyi is a real estate tycoon whose company Soho China has built some of the most fashionable developments in the country. Pan has a political side, too, which he expresses in a blog followed by 16 million Chinese. After Pan posted a call for increased transparency on how authorities monitor pollution, the governments of Beijing and 73 other cities started releasing more daily pollution data. He was also invited to tour the offices of the environmental protection agency for Beijing after a heated online exchange with its spokesman.

Such an episode would have been unthinkable in China 10 years ago, given the tight censorship. But China now has an emerging business class that wants to influence the debate on pollution, economic reform, U.S.-China relations, and broader political change. Some, such as Pan and Lee Kai-Fu, ex-head of Google China (GOOG), use the Internet to spread their views. Others, including the founders of the Boyuan Foundation, take an institutional approach to reform and seek ways to engage the government. Most of these executive-activists back what’s known in China as universal values—the rule of law, free markets, and freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.

Lee’s two microblogs have more than 66 million followers, an audience nearly as big as the Communist Party’s membership. In between notes on his family, Lee points out cases of corruption and censorship and advocates greater freedom of expression. In the past half year, the government imposed a temporary gag on his social media activities after he criticized the state’s backing of a search engine run by the People’s Daily. (Lee is back blogging.) An army colonel has accused Lee of being an American spy.

One suspects that Thomas Friedman might wonder why Pan believes he should have any right to do anything other than what the government tells him to do. Perhaps Pan can teach Friedman a lesson about the value of freedom.