China's "Human-Flesh Search" Channels Netizen Rage Against Offline Targets

Targets have included cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, and amateur porn makers, as well as citizens or journalists viewed as unpatriotic.

Chinese Netizens

Chinese Internet cafe usersThe Guardian/Dan Chung

There's a new type of vigilante roaming across China. But unlike Batman or other caped superheroes, who work with a few sidekicks at most, this type of faceless vigilante draws power from legions of netizens who channel Internet crowd-sourcing to become "human-flesh search engines" that hunt down and punish wrongdoers in real life. The New York Times reports on the phenomenon.

The movement took off in early 2006, when an infamous online video of a middle-aged Chinese woman killing a kitten sparked thousands of responses and online calls for retribution. Chinese netizens tracked down the kitten killer's home in just six days and made her name, phone number and employer public, which led to both the woman and the cameraman who filmed her losing relatively cushy government jobs.

Similar examples of netizen vigilante justice have taken place in the U.S., South Korea and other nations. But only Chinese netizens have embraced human-flesh search engines as a regular practice to punish a wide range of people, not unlike the smaller groups of more computer-savvy hackers who gang up to attack perceived foreign or domestic enemies.

Targets have included cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, and amateur porn makers, as well as citizens or journalists viewed as unpatriotic. Tactics and goals include getting the offenders fired from jobs, publicly shaming them in front of neighbors, and perhaps running them out of town.

In 2007, a distraught woman's suicide led Chinese netizens to go after her cheating husband and the husband's girlfriend. Another incident in 2008 spurred the human-flesh search to go after a provincial government official who allegedly tried to force a little girl into the men's bathroom, as seen on a security camera.

As satisfying as much of this may sound, the frenzy of a human-flesh search can also seem blind to the facts and is not driven by any systematic or impartial approach to choosing targets. The cheating husband was hardly a singular example in China -- he and the wife who committed suicide were headed for divorce. Restaurant staff said that the government official may have been drunk and didn't necessarily intend to molest the young girl, but was caught up in an argument with the girl's rich family.

Another human-flesh search target, undergrad-student Grace Wang, drew the ire of patriotic Chinese netizens after she tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters at Duke University. And a woman who argued that the government was coldly using the devastating earthquake in May 2008 to rally nationalist sentiment also became a target of human-flesh searchers.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a researcher at Princeton University, told the New York Times that China's central government may allow the human-flesh searches as a safety valve that allows Chinese netizens to vent anger over injustices. Despite some government censorship of the Internet, China leaves most of the forums and Internet activity alone for the most part.

That strategy of taming the Wild West Internet without actually exerting total control may have paid off so far for China. It's telling that all targets have been fairly lowly officials or normal citizens -- no human-flesh search has ever targeted higher-level officials, despite public perception of corruption there as well.

[via [New York Times]