March 3, 2010
By TOM DOWNEY
The short video made its way around China’s Web in early 2006, passed on through file sharing and recommended in chat rooms. It opens with a middle-aged Asian woman dressed in a leopard-print blouse, knee-length black skirt, stockings and silver stilettos standing next to a riverbank. She smiles, holding a small brown and white kitten in her hands. She gently places the cat on the tiled pavement and proceeds to stomp it to death with the sharp point of her high heel.
“This is not a human,” wrote BrokenGlasses, a user on Mop, a Chinese online forum. “I have no interest in spreading this video nor can I remain silent. I just hope justice can be done.” That first post elicited thousands of responses. “Find her and kick her to death like she did to the kitten,” one user wrote. Then the inquiries started to become more practical: “Is there a front-facing photo so we can see her more clearly?” The human-flesh search had begun.
Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing — have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.
There is no portal specially designed for human-flesh searching; the practice takes place in Chinese Internet forums like Mop, where the term most likely originated. Searches are powered by users called wang min, Internet citizens, or Netizens. The word “Netizen” exists in English, but you hear its equivalent used much more frequently in China, perhaps because the public space of the Internet is one of the few places where people can in fact act like citizens. A Netizen called Beacon Bridge No Return found the first clue in the kitten-killer case. “There was credit information before the crush scene reading ‘www.crushworld.net,’ ” that user wrote. Netizens traced the e-mail address associated with the site to a server in Hangzhou, a couple of hours from Shanghai. A follow-up post asked about the video’s location: “Are users from Hangzhou familiar with this place?” Locals reported that nothing in their city resembled the backdrop in the video. But Netizens kept sifting through the clues, confident they could track down one person in a nation of more than a billion. They were right.
The traditional media picked up the story, and people all across China saw the kitten killer’s photo on television and in newspapers. “I know this woman,” wrote I’m Not Desert Angel four days after the search began. “She’s not in Hangzhou. She lives in the small town I live in here in northeastern China. God, she’s a nurse! That’s all I can say.”
Only six days after the first Mop post about the video, the kitten killer’s home was revealed as the town of Luobei in Heilongjiang Province, in the far northeast, and her name — Wang Jiao — was made public, as were her phone number and her employer. Wang Jiao and the cameraman who filmed her were dismissed from what the Chinese call iron rice bowls, government jobs that usually last to retirement and pay a pension until death.
“Wang Jiao was affected a lot,” a Luobei resident known online as Longjiangbaby told me by e-mail. “She left town and went somewhere else. Li Yuejun, the cameraman, used to be core staff of the local press. He left Luobei, too.” The kitten-killer case didn’t just provide revenge; it helped turn the human-flesh search engine into a national phenomenon.
AT THE BEIJING headquarters of Mop, Ben Du, the site’s head of interactive communities, told me that the Chinese term for human-flesh search engine has been around since 2001, when it was used to describe a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven. Mop had a forum called human-flesh search engine, where users could pose questions about entertainment trivia that other users would answer: a type of crowd-sourcing. The kitten-killer case and subsequent hunts changed all that. Some Netizens, including Du, argue that the term continues to mean a cooperative, crowd-sourced investigation. “It’s just Netizens helping each other and sharing information,” he told me. But the Chinese public’s primary understanding of the term is no longer so benign. The popular meaning is now not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, initially performed online but intended to cause real-world consequences. Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China.
Versions of the human-flesh search have taken place in other countries. In the United States in 2006, one online search singled out a woman who found a cellphone in a New York City taxi and started to use it as her own, rebuffing requests from the phone’s rightful owner to return it. In South Korea in 2005, Internet users identified and shamed a young woman who was caught on video refusing to clean up after her dog on a Seoul subway car. But China is the only place in the world with a nearly universal recognition (among Internet users) of the concept. I met a film director in China who was about to release a feature film based on a human-flesh-search story and a mystery writer who had just published a novel titled “Human-Flesh Search.”
The prevailing narrative in the West about the Chinese Internet is the story of censorship — Google’s threatened withdrawal from China being only the latest episode. But the reality is that in China, as in the United States, most Internet users are far more interested in finding jobs, dates and porn than in engaging in political discourse. “For our generation, the post-’80s generation, I don’t feel like censorship is a critical issue on the Internet,” Jin Liwen, a Chinese technology analyst who lives in America, told me. While there are some specific, highly sensitive areas where the Chinese government tries to control all information — most important, any political activity that could challenge the authority of the Communist Party — the Western media’s focus on censorship can lead to the misconception that the Chinese government utterly dominates online life. The vast majority of what people do on the Internet in China, including most human-flesh-search activity, is ignored by censors and unfettered by government regulation. There are many aspects of life on and off the Internet that the government is unwilling, unable or maybe just uninterested in trying to control.
The focus on censorship also obscures the fact that the Web is not just about free speech. As some human-flesh searches show, an uncontrolled Internet can be menacing as well as liberating.
ON A WINDY NIGHT in late December 2007, a man was headed back to work when he saw someone passed out in the small garden near the entryway to his Beijing office building. The man, who would allow only his last name, Wei, to be published, called over to the security guard for help. A woman standing next to the guard started weeping. Wei was confused.
Wei and the guard entered the yard, but the woman, Jiang Hong, was afraid to follow. As they approached the person, Wei told me, he realized it was the body of someone who fell from the building. Then he understood why Jiang wouldn’t come any closer: the body was that of her sister, Jiang Yan, who jumped from her apartment’s 24th-floor balcony while Hong was in the bathroom. Two days earlier, Yan, who was 31, had tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills — she was separated from her husband, Wang Fei, who was dating another woman — but her sister and her husband had rushed her to the hospital. Now she had succeeded, hitting the ground so hard that her impact left a shallow crater still evident when I visited the site with Wei a year and a half later.
Hong soon discovered that her sister kept a private diary online in the two months leading up to her death and wanted it to be made public after she killed herself. When Hong called her sister’s friends to tell them that Yan had died, she also told them that they could find out why by looking at her blog, now unlocked for public viewing. The online diary, “Migratory Bird Going North,” was more than just a reflection on her adulterous husband and a record of her despair; it was Yan’s countdown to suicide, prompted by the discovery that her husband was cheating on her. The first entry reads: “Two months from now is the day I leave . . . for a place no one knows me, that is new to me. There I won’t need phone, computer or Internet. No one can find me.”
A person who read Yan’s blog decided to repost it, 46 short entries in all, on a popular Chinese online bulletin board called Tianya. Hong posted a reply, expressing sadness over her sister’s death and detailing the ways she thought Yan had helped her husband: supporting him through school, paying for his designer clothes and helping him land a good job. Now, she wrote, Wang wouldn’t even sign his wife’s death certificate until he could come to an agreement with her family about how much he needed to pay them in damages.
Yan’s diaries, coupled with her sister’s account of Wang’s behavior, attracted many angry Tianya users and shot to the top of the list of the most popular threads on the board. One early comment by an anonymous user, referring to Wang and his mistress, reads, “We should take revenge on that couple and drown them in our sputa.” Calls for justice, for vengeance and for a human-flesh search began to spread, not only against Wang but also against his girlfriend. “Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.”
The search crossed over to other Web sites, then to the mainstream media — so far a crucial multiplier in every major human-flesh search — and Wang Fei became one of China’s most infamous and reviled husbands. Most of Wang’s private information was revealed: cellphone number, student ID, work contacts, even his brother’s license-plate number. One site posted an interactive map charting the locations of everything from Wang’s house to his mistress’s family’s laundry business. “Pay attention when you walk on the street,” wrote Hypocritical Human. “If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.”
Wang is still in hiding and was unwilling to meet me, but his lawyer, Zhang Yanfeng, told me not long ago: “The human-flesh search has unimaginable power. First it was a lot of phone calls every day. Then people painted red characters on his parents’ front door, which said things like, ‘You caused your wife’s suicide, so you should pay.’ ”
Wang and his mistress, Dong Fang, both worked for the multinational advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Soon after Netizens revealed this, Saatchi & Saatchi issued a statement reporting that Wang Fei and Dong Fang had voluntarily resigned. Wang’s lawyer says Saatchi pushed the couple out. “All the media have the wrong report,” he says. “[Wang Fei] never quit. He told me that the company fired him.” (Representatives for Saatchi & Saatchi Beijing refused to comment.) Netizens were happy with this outcome but remained vigilant. One Mop user wrote, “To all employers: Never offer Wang Fei or Dong Fang jobs, otherwise Moppers will human-flesh-search you.”
What was peculiar about the human-flesh search against Wang was that it involved almost no searching. His name was revealed in the earliest online-forum posts, and his private information was disclosed shortly after. This wasn’t cooperative detective work; it was public harassment, mass intimidation and populist revenge. Wang actually sought redress in Chinese court and was rewarded very minor damages from an Internet-service provider and a Netizen who Wang claimed had besmirched his reputation. Recently passed tort-law reform may encourage more such lawsuits, but damages awarded thus far in China have been so minor that it’s hard to imagine lawsuits having much impact on the human-flesh search.
FOR A WESTERNER, what is most striking is how different Chinese Internet culture is from our own. News sites and individual blogs aren’t nearly as influential in China, and social networking hasn’t really taken off. What remain most vital are the largely anonymous online forums, where human-flesh searches begin. These forums have evolved into public spaces that are much more participatory, dynamic, populist and perhaps even democratic than anything on the English-language Internet. In the 1980s in the United States, before widespread use of the Internet, B.B.S. stood for bulletin-board system, a collection of posts and replies accessed by dial-up or hard-wired users. Though B.B.S.’s of this original form were popular in China in the early ’90s, before the Web arrived, Chinese now use “B.B.S.” to describe any kind of online forum. Chinese go to B.B.S.’s to find broad-based communities and exchange information about everything from politics to romance.
Jin Liwen, the technology analyst, came of age in China just as Internet access was becoming available and wrote her thesis at M.I.T. on Chinese B.B.S.’s. “In the United States, traditional media are still playing the key role in setting the agenda for the public,” Jin told me. “But in China, you will see that a lot of hot topics, hot news or events actually originate from online discussions.” One factor driving B.B.S. traffic is the dearth of good information in the mainstream media. Print publications and television networks are under state control and cannot cover many controversial issues. B.B.S.’s are where the juicy stories break, spreading through the mainstream media if they get big enough.
“Chinese users just use these online forums for everything,” Jin says. “They look for solutions, they want to have discussions with others and they go there for entertainment. It’s a very sticky platform.” Jin cited a 2007 survey conducted by iResearch showing that nearly 45 percent of Chinese B.B.S. users spend between three and eight hours a day on them and that more than 15 percent spend more than eight hours. While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.
I found the intensity of the Wang Fei search difficult to understand. Wang Fei and Jiang Yan were separated and heading toward divorce, and what he did cannot be uncommon. How had the structure of the B.B.S. allowed mass opinion to be so effectively rallied against this one man? I tracked down Wang Lixue, a woman who goes by the online handle Chali and moderates a subforum on Baidu.com (China’s largest search engine, with its own B.B.S.) that is devoted entirely to discussions about Jiang Yan. Chali was careful to distance herself from the human-flesh search that found Wang Fei and Dong Fang. “That kind of thing won’t solve any problems,” she told me. “It’s not good for either side.” But she didn’t exactly apologize. “Everyone was so angry, so irrational,” Chali says. “It was a sensitive period. So I understand the people who did the human-flesh search. If a person doesn’t do anything wrong, they won’t be human-flesh-searched.”
Chali was moved by the powerful feeling that Wang shouldn’t be allowed to escape censure for his role in his wife’s suicide. “I want to know what is going to happen if I get married and have a similar experience,” Chali says. “I want to know if the law or something could protect me and give me some kind of security.” It struck me as an unusual wish — that the law could guard her from heartbreak. Chali wasn’t only angry about Jiang Yan’s suicide; she also wanted to improve things for herself and others. “The goal is to commemorate Jiang Yan and to have an objective discussion about adultery, to talk about what you want in your marriage, to find new opinions and have a better life,” Chali says. Her forum was the opposite of the vengeful populism found on some B.B.S.’s. The frenzy of the occasional human-flesh search attracts many Netizens to B.B.S.’s, but the bigger day-to-day draw, as in Chali’s case, is the desire for a community in which people can work out the problems they face in a country where life is changing more quickly than anyone could ever have imagined.
THE PLUM GARDEN Seafood Restaurant stands on a six-lane road that cuts through Shenzhen, a fishing village turned factory boomtown. It has a subterranean dining room with hundreds of orange-covered seats, an open kitchen to one side and a warren of small private rooms to the other. Late on a Friday night in October 2008, a security camera captured a scene that was soon replayed all over the Chinese Internet and sparked a human-flesh search against a government official.
In the video clip, an older man crosses the background with a little girl. Later the girl runs back through the frame and returns with her father, mother and brother. The subtitles tell us that the old man had tried to force the girl into the men’s room, presumably to molest her, and that her father is trying to find the man who did that. Then the girl’s father appears in front of the camera, arguing with that man.
There is no sound on the video, so you have to rely on the Chinese subtitles, which seem to have been posted with the video. According to those subtitles, the older man tells the father of the girl: “I did it, so what? How much money do you want? Name your price.” He gestures violently and continues: “Do you know who I am? I am from the Ministry of Transportation in Beijing. I have the same level as the mayor of your city. So what if I grabbed the neck of a small child? If you dare challenge me, just wait and see how I will deal with you.” He moves to leave but is blocked by restaurant employees and the girl’s father. The group exits frame left.
The video was first posted on a Web site called Netease, whose slogan is “The Internet can gather power from the people.” The eighth Netizen comment reads: “Have you seen how proud he was? He’s a dead man now.” Later someone chimed in, “Another official riding roughshod over the people!” The human-flesh search began. Users quickly matched a public photo of a local party official to the older man in the video and identified him as Lin Jiaxiang from the Shenzhen Maritime Administration. “Kill him,” wrote a user named Xunleixing. “Otherwise China will be destroyed by people of this kind.”
While Netizens saw this as a struggle between an arrogant official and a victimized family of common people, the staff members at Plum Garden, when I spoke to them, had a different take. First, they weren’t sure that Lin had been trying to molest the girl. Perhaps, they thought, he was just drunk. The floor director, Zhang Cai Yao, told me, “Maybe the government official just patted the girl on the head and tried to say, ‘Thank you, you’re a nice girl.’ ” Zhang saw the struggle between Lin and the family as a kind of conflict she witnessed all too often. “It was a fight between rich people and officials,” she says. “The official said something irritating to her parents, who are very rich.”
Police said they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute Lin, but that didn’t stop the government from firing him. It was the same kind of summary dismissal as in the kitten-killer case — Lin drew attention to himself, and so it was time to go. The government had the technology and the power to make a story like this one disappear, yet it didn’t stand up to the Netizens. That is perhaps because this search took aim at a provincial-level official; there have been no publicized human-flesh searches against central-government officials in Beijing or their offspring, even though many of them are considered corrupt.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, argues that China’s central government may actually be happy about searches that focus on localized corruption. “The idea that you manage the local bureaucracy by sicking the masses on them is actually not a democratic tradition but a Maoist tradition,” she told me. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged citizens to rise up against local officials who were bourgeois or corrupt, and human-flesh searches have been tagged by some as Red Guard 2.0. It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials. Cases like the Lin Jiaxiang search, as imperfect as their outcomes may be, are examples of the human-flesh search as a potential mechanism for checking government excess.
The human-flesh search engine can also serve as a safety valve in a society with ever mounting pressures on the government. “You can’t stop the anger, can’t make everyone shut up, can’t stop the Internet, so you try and channel it as best you can. You try and manage it, kind of like a waterworks hydroelectric project,” MacKinnon explained. “It’s a great way to divert the qi, the anger, to places where it’s the least damaging to the central government’s legitimacy.”
THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT has proved particularly adept at harnessing, managing and, when necessary, containing the nationalist passions of its citizens, especially those people the Chinese call fen qing, or angry youth. Instead of wondering, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, why the world was so upset about China’s handling of Tibet, popular sentiment in China was channeled against dissenting individuals, painted as traitors. One young Chinese woman, Grace Wang, became the target of a human-flesh search after she tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters at Duke University, where she is an undergraduate. Wang told me that her mother’s home in China was vandalized by human-flesh searchers. Wang’s mother was not harmed — popular uprisings are usually kept under tight control by the government when they threaten to erupt into real violence — but Wang told me she is afraid to return to China. Certain national events, like the Tibet activism before the 2008 Olympics or the large-scale loss of life from the Sichuan earthquake, often produce a flurry of human-flesh searches. Recent searches seem to be more political — taking aim at things like government corruption or a supposedly unpatriotic citizenry — and less focused on the kind of private transgressions that inspired earlier searches.
After the earthquake, in May 2008, users on the B.B.S. of Douban, a Web site devoted to books, movies and music, discussed the government’s response to the earthquake. A woman who went by the handle Diebao argued that the government was using the earthquake to rally nationalist sentiment, and that, she wrote, was an exploitation of the tragedy. Netizens challenged Diebao’s arguments, saying that it was only right for China to speak in one voice after such a catastrophe. These were heady days, and the people who disagreed with Diebao weren’t content to leave it at that. In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, Feng Junhua, a 25-year-old man who on the Internet goes by the handle Hval, was getting worried. Feng spent a lot of time on Douban, and, he told me later, he saw where the disagreement with Diebao was going — the righteous massing against the dissenter. He e-mailed Diebao, who lived in Sichuan Province, to warn her of the danger and urge her to stop fighting with the other Netizens. “I found out that the other people were going to threaten her with the human-flesh search engine,” he told me. “She wrote back to me, saying she wanted to talk them out of it.”
The group started to dig through everything Diebao had written on the Internet, desperate to find more reasons to attack her. They found what they were looking for, a stream-of-consciousness blog entry Diebao posted right after the earthquake hit: “I felt really excited when the earthquake hit. I know this experience might happen once in a lifetime. When I watched the news at my aunt’s place, I found out that it caused five people to die. I feel so good, but that’s not enough. I think more people should die.” Diebao wrote this right after the earthquake struck her city, possibly while she was still in shock and before she knew the extent of the damage.
The group tried to use this post to initiate a human-flesh search against Diebao. At first it didn’t succeed — no one responded to the calls for a search. (There are hundreds, maybe thousands of attempts each week for all kinds of human-flesh searches, the vast majority of which do not amount to much.) Finally they figured out a way to make their post “sparkle,” as they say in Chinese, titling it, “She Said the Quake Was Not Strong Enough” and writing, of Diebao: “We cannot bear that an adult in such hard times didn’t feel ashamed for not being able to help but instead was saying nonsense, with little respect for other people’s lives. She should not be called a human. We think we have to give her a lesson. We hereby call for a human-flesh search on her!”
This time it took hold. A user named Little Dumpling joined the pile-on, writing: “Earthquake, someone is calling you. Please move your epicenter right below [Diebao’s] computer desk.” Juana0906 asked: “How could she be so coldblooded? Her statement did greater harm to the victims than the earthquake.” Then from Expecting Bull Market, the obligatory refrain in almost every human-flesh search, “Is she a human?”
Feng, the user who tried to warn Diebao of the impending search, became angry that so many people were going after Diebao. “I cannot stand seeing the strong beating the weak,” he told me. “I thought I should protect the right of free speech. She can say anything she wants. I think that she just didn’t think before she spoke.” But the searchers managed to rally users against Diebao. “Her school read a lot of aggressive comments on the Internet and got pressure from Netizens asking them to kick out this girl,” Feng told me. Shortly after the human-flesh search began, Diebao was expelled from her university. “The school announced that it was for her own safety, to protect her,” Feng says.
Feng decided to get revenge on the human-flesh searchers. He and a few other users started a human-flesh search of their own, patiently matching back the anonymous ID’s of the people who organized against Diebao to similar-sounding names on school bulletin boards, auction sites and help-wanted ads. Eventually he assembled a list of the real identities of Diebao’s persecutors. “When we got the information, we had to think about what we should do with it,” Feng says. “Should we use it to attack the group?”
Feng stopped and thought about what he was about to do. “When we tried to fight evil, we found ourselves becoming evil,” he says. He abandoned the human-flesh search and destroyed all the information he had uncovered.
Tom Downey is the author of “The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse.”