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Human Flesh Search: Vigilantes of the Chinese Internet

New America Media, News feature, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Apr 30, 2008

Editor's note: In China "human-powered search engines can turn netizens into cyber lynch mobs, and private lives are turned upside down by collective cyber-vigilantism. NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein is the author of "Apologies Forthcoming. Xujun Eberlein's website is www.xujuneberlein.com.

The first time I noticed the term "ren rou sou sou" on a Chinese website, I was taken aback. "Human flesh hunting" is a literal translation, but the term, applied to the Internet, means a search engine that runs on people power "human flesh searching engine."

Chinese netizens have made up their own cyber vocabulary. Some are "Chinesied" translation of words that Americans have turned into verbs meaning internet acts, such as "spam" and "friend." More are their own inventions that can perplex infrequent web users. A popular new expression, for example, is "very pornographic, very violent," used to describe something that is cool and interesting. Similarly, using the words, "human flesh" (instead of, for example, "human powered") to modify "search engine" also reflects a fashion in diction.

But as I researched the origin of "human flesh searching engine" as a cyber term, I discovered, to my dismay that it actually has a literal meaning that's roughly the equivalent of putting people into a 21st century version of the medieval "stockade."

wantedIn December 2007, a 31-year-old Beijing woman named Jiang Yan jumped off the 24th floor balcony of her apartment. A post on her blog before her suicide blamed her death on her husband's extra-marital affair. News of this "death blog" spread on the Chinese Internet and soon, a mass of outraged netizens launched a "human flesh search engine" to track down the guilty parties. Within days, every detail of her husband's personal life was all over the Internet. For months, this man, his alleged mistress and their parents were bombarded with attack messages and even death threats. In March, the husband sued three websites for cyber violence and privacy violation. On April 17, a Beijing court began deliberating the case the first anti-"human flesh search" case to come before the Chinese courts.

"Ren rou sou sou" apparently started out harmlessly enough in 2001, when an interactive entertainment website called mop.com enlisted viewers to help track down information about movies, books, songs and other trivia. Those who had clues posted them on a "human flesh search engine" area of mop.com and were rewarded with "mop money" an Internet currency only redeemable on mop.com if they proved right.

Gradually, the search process itself became a form of online entertainment. Xinghuanet.com, for example, reports how a participant cyber-named Judy, a professional by day and an "internet detective" by night figured out the school of a student who had insulted his teacher, located two hawthorn trees in a romance novel, identified the workplace and MSN address of a woman who posted provocative personal photos on a blog. Judy posted her findings anonymously, with the aim of "helping right wrongs and have fun at the same time."

As human flesh search engines have gained in popularity, the appetite for them has grown voracious with marital affairs, sex scandals and violence their preferred targets. These are also the topics most guaranteed to attract the broadest participants and audience.

Netizen detectives have recently exposed a man who had an illicit sexual relationship, a woman who wore high-heel sandals and stepped on a kitten's head, a "foreigner" who slept with many Chinese women, etc. Once the personal information appeared on-line, those implicated were bombarded with curses, threats and even "execution orders." Some were fired from their jobs.

An information expert thinks large-scale human flesh search engines are unique to China, a claim that appears to be true. This is understandable as a consequence of China's ubiquitous manpower and ingrained tradition of "people's war" tracing back to Mao. On the other hand, because China's laws are imperfect, the Internet is seen as a way to seek justice. Unfortunately, like any mass action, things can, and do turn ugly. The painful lessons from the Cultural Revolution might be too remote for the young netizens to take.

A couple of weeks ago, Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, became the latest target, and human flesh search engines entered the political realm. On the day of the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco, Wang had written "Free Tibet" on a protestor's back. She later defended her action in the Washington Post, saying that "I did this at his request, and only after making him promise that he would talk to the Chinese group." Instantly, some angry Chinese students launched a human flesh search, and found personal information about Wang and her family. Grace Wang says her parents had to go into hiding in China, with no help from the police.

Ironically, the human flesh search engine backfired in Wang's case, and she became a hero in the Western media (see, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/17/us/17student.html). The BBC invited her to mediate a "conversation" between Chinese and Tibetan students, despite the fact she knows little about Tibet. This is a lesson to the Chinese "angry youth" that their approach, however effective at home, does not work in the West.

Not all Chinese netizens think the human flesh search engine is a good thing. Some are calling for a cessation of cyber violence, others want more complete Internet laws, and some believe it will take time for China's cyberspace to establish rules to govern itself. An article on www.thefirst.cn (http://www.thefirst.cn/91/2008-04-18/203583.htm) claims, optimistically, that flesh search engines began with entertainment, peaked with hunting sexual scandals, and now will morph again into exposing corruption in government.

That would be a good thing, but there is no proof as yet it is happening.
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