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Korean Suicide Sparks Internet Regulation Debate in China

New America Media, News analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Oct 17, 2008

As South Korea mulls a law to regulate the Internet, Chinese netizens debate whether it might be the time to do the same in China. NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein is the author of "Apologies Forthcoming. Xujun Eberlein's website is www.xujuneberlein.com.

Vicious online gossip was blamed for pushing South Korean film star Choi Jin Sil to hang herself in her bathroom. The news that the Korean government now plans to enforce a Choi Jin Sil law to regulate the Internet has triggered another wave of debate on internet regulation in Chinese cyberspace.

actressCyber rumors, apparently, were a direct cause of Choi's suicide, and Korean police have arrested a rumor spreader involved in the case. Even long before this event, cyber violence prompted the Korean government to implement the so-called "real name system." This system requires all commercial websites with 30,000 or more users, and all media websites with 20,000 or more users, to verify a user's real ID before allowing them to post any message. The "Choi Jin Sil law" extends the real-name system to any website with 10,000 or more users.

Now some Chinese netizens are wondering if China needs to follow suit. China has been rocked by stories of human flesh searches which are basically Internet vigilantes unleashing a cyber equivalent of lynching.

More people, however, are worried that such regulation would heavily restrict freedom of speech. Their worries are not without basis.

The fear is, in an effort to crack down on cyber lynch mobs, you could be punishing all netizens. There is a Chinese adage describing such a situation: you want to pelt the rat, but you also have to worry about smashing the treasured dish it is in. The treasured dish here is the freedom of speech.

In recent years, China's political freedom has improved considerably, and the Internet has played a major role in this. For example, western readers need only to take a look at EastSouthWestNorth Blog and Danwei.org, two of the main English websites that link to, and translate, Chinese Internet posts every day.

On the other hand, China's official media has opened up to a much lesser degree. It temporarily loosened up during the Sichuan earthquake earlier this year, but the bindings snapped right back into place as the Olympics approached. Unlike Western countries, the Chinese masses do not have many options to vent their dissatisfaction. The Internet, despite its cyber police, is still the most readily available venue. Any further restriction would certainly decrease the dimensions of freedom. The real name system might have fewer negative impacts in a democratic country; in China, such a system would certainly restrict valid voices of dissent.

This is to say, as China stands today, Internet regulations would both help limit cyber lynching and also hurt freedom of speech. Cyber lynching is really an issue of moral standards. It needs moral leaders who can speak up against problematic people.

One problem with China's situation today is that the Chinese have political and economic leaders, but no moral leaders. The current system does not encourage it. In the old times there was the Confucian moral standard, and in the early period of the Mao regime there was a Communist moral standard. Now, there is none. This is a particularly serious problem among the young generation of Chinese.

The Oriental Outlook magazine recently reported about the "Die Bao incident," which seems to be a quite typical example. A careless 21-year-old female college student in Chongqing posted some random comments on a website about the Sichuan earthquake, including words like "the earthquake could be stronger." She was soon attacked by a group of netizens her age, who frequently called to "rape and kill" her. All her private information was "human fleshed" and exposed on the Internet, including her unfortunate childhood secret. The animosity was so severe that her school decided to suspend her for a year. The most terrifying thing is, many of the attackers were the young woman's buddies, who showed her a friendly face in person while baring monster teeth in cyberspace.

In many cases, the participants in human flesh searches take on the self-appointed role of moral judges and use double standards: on one hand, they place the judgment of immorality on the victims; on the other hand, they themselves commit immoral acts.

In short, there is a more urgent need for the Chinese people to establish new moral standards or return to traditional ones, such as Confucianism, rather than add restrictions on Internet use. Human flesh searches are indicative of spare intellectual capacity in China, and that capacity could be turned to more productive activities. For example, ferreting out rampant government corruption.

But to build a community of people with shared moral standards one needs more freedom of speech and assembly, rather than further restrictions on Internet use.

Related Articles:

Human Flesh Search: Vigilantes of the Chinese Internet

Earthquake Connects China and the World

Apology Keeps Hong Kong Sex Scandal Buzzing

Martial Arts Film Reconciles Feuding Viets

Gathering Storm -- A 'Typhoon' of Regional Asian Films

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