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China's virtual vigilantes: Civic action or cyber mobs?

Concerned citizens are targeting anyone from accused pedophiles to activists with 'human flesh search engines' that post people's personal information online.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 2008


Some call it a weapon in the hands of a righteous army, forged so that wrongdoers might be smitten. Others say it simply allows a mob of vigilantes to publicly vilify and humiliate anyone they choose to pick on through grotesque invasions of privacy.

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Either way, the peculiarly Chinese Internet phenomenon known as the "human flesh search engine," a citizen-driven, blog-based hunt for alleged undesirables, claimed a fresh victim this month when a mid-ranking government official lost his job.

Accused of accosting a young girl, Lin Jiaxiang found his name, address, phone number, and workplace plastered all over Chinese cyberspace for 250 million Internet users to see, and his alleged crime the subject of hundreds of insulting blog postings.

Mr. Lin might be thought to have gotten his just deserts, especially since the police refused to prosecute him because he'd been drunk. Grace Wang, however, a Chinese student at Duke University, was outraged when netizens back home, offended by her efforts to mediate a campus dispute between pro-Tibetan and Chinese students last March, tracked down her parents' address and emptied a bucket of feces by their front door.

Once the actions of Ms. Wang and Lin had attracted attention in Internet chat rooms, both were quickly identified by people who recognized the photos of them posted on the Web.

It was not long before others who knew them had created an ad hoc human flesh search engine, and began posting many other personal details about the two.

With more Internet users than anywhere else in the world, there is no shortage of amateur detectives ready to join the hunt. And with chat rooms the only public space where Chinese citizens can express themselves anonymously and with any real freedom, they have become forums for strong opinions on many issues.

"It is a tradition in China," says Yu Hai, a sociologist at Shanghai's Fudan University. "People here like to moralize. And since traditional media are government mouthpieces, the Internet has become a very convenient channel for ordinary people to vent their feelings."

They can do so pretty much however they like, not only because they can disguise their identities, but also because there is no privacy law in China yet. "There is no practicable, feasible, and concrete legal instrument" to regulate Internet use, says Li Xu, deputy head of Tsinghua University's Institute for Internet Behavior.