Human flesh search engines (rén ròu s?usu?/????) is a term that seems to pop up in China-related news on a nearly daily basis now. However, in talking to some IRL friends last week, I was surprised to learn they had no idea what the peculiar vernacular really referred to.
So, here is my attempt at giving some explanation and history of this rather uniquely Chinese phenomenon.Essentially, the rather loosely translated “human flesh search engines” basically melds the concept of crowd sourcing, whereby a group of people come together virtually for a common goal, with vigilantism.
With 300 million Internet users, a rather slap-dash legal system and more corruption and scandal than the The Wire and Nip/Tuck combined, China offers the perfect spawning pool for such a system.
In a 2008 Forbes article, Xujun Eberlein, an American Chinese author and commentator, drew a line between cybervigilantes and the fact that Chinese culture “does not have any strong tradition of respecting privacy”. She also pointed out that “righteousness” is one of five Confucian virtues, and “righteous people tend to take matters into their own hands”.
A survey in China Youth Daily last June showed 79.9 percent of the 2,491 netizens polled believed that human flesh searches should be regulated; 65.5 percent thought it might become a new way of venting anger and revenge; 64.6 percent said it infringed on privacy; 24.8 percent supported legislation to restrict such searches; and 20.1 percent feared they would become a target.
A brief history of renrou searches
Below is a (somewhat) brief chronological rundown of the more prominent human flesh search engine incidents. It wouldn’t be possible to list them all here, particularly with the occurrences of such actions being a now daily happening, but these should give at least an overview to a newcomer of this phenomenon.
2001-–A netizen on Chinese BBS Mop posted a photo of Microsoft model Chen Ziyao claiming it was his girlfriend. Members publicized her personal information to prove the would-be boyfriend was a fraud.
The Kitten Killer of Hangzhou
March 2006–Wang Jue, the “Kitten Killer of Hangzhou”, was filmed crushing a kitten to death with her stilettos. A media and online frenzy ensued, with netizens scrutinizing the video’s background and uncovering an eBay purchase of matching shoes, which was then traced back to a QQ account. Consequently, it was revealed the woman was a 41-year-old nurse in Heilongjiang province. Both herself and the person who recorded the video lost their jobs, despite offering a rather weak explanation and an apology.
The Paper Tiger
October 2007–A 52-year-old farmer, Zhou Zhenglong, faked the photo of a supposedly extinct wild South China tiger from an old Lunar New Year poster. He was paid 20,000 yuan by the Shaanxi Department of Forestry for the photos, and the department quickly went on to hold a major press conference to announce the tiger’s discovery. Forums lit up with calls of the photo being faked, and Zhou was outed as a fraud a few weeks later. After a long drawn-out ordeal, authorities admitted the picture was faked, and arrested Zhou. On September 27, 2008, Zhou was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for fraud.
The Death Blog
December 2007-–Wang Fei, an advertising executive at Saatchi & Saatchi in Beijing, cheated on his wife, Jiang Yan. Yan blogged privately about her devastation over discovering her husband’s infidelity shortly before plunging to her death from the couple’s 24th-flor apartment.
After her death, a site was setup by Yan’s friend, Zhang Leyi, which republished the distraught diary posts, and the witch-hunt began. Within days, photos of Wang and his mistress-–along with phone numbers, addresses and national ID numbers–were posted on Internet forums. Shortly thereafter, his and his parents’ homes were vandalized with slogans which accused him of being responsible for his wife’s death. His place of business was forced to fire him due to the harassment they were receiving.
Last spring, Wang sued Zhang Leyi, as well as leading Chinese Internet portals Tianya and Daqi, for violating his privacy and causing defamation of character. In December 2008, the Chaoyang District Court in Beijing fined the Web site Daqi.com and Zhang Leyi a total of 8,000 yuan (about US$1,100).
The Race Traitor
April 2008–Grace Wang, a 21-year-old Duke University student from Shandong province, got caught up in a “Free Tibet” protest on her university campus. Rather than join the horde of Chinese holding a protest to the protest, she threw herself into the wide gap between the two sides and attempted to make a bridge. As a reward for her attempted diplomacy, Wang was labelled a “race traitor” and the human flesh search engines went to work. Wang’s address and phone number in the US, as well has her parents’ address in Shandong, were posted online. Death threats and a pot of human faeces on her parents’ doorstep resulted.
Be sure to read Grace Wang’s editorial in the Washington Post for her version of things. My thoughts on this, as posted at the time, can be read here.
The Sichuan Quake Hunts
May 2008–On the day an 8.0-magnitude earthquake shattered Sichuan, three high school students in Chengdu, the province’s capital, filmed a spoof newscast joking that they hoped their school would collapse–as actual schools were collapsing only miles away. After a few days of online lambasting, the kids were back on camera tearfully apologizing.
May 2008–A Hong Kong student at an elite school wrote on her blog that she “had no feelings for Sichuan, no sadness or sympathy”. The human flesh search engines found what school she attended and contacted her headmaster. The girl was forced to publicly apologize, was threatened with expulsion, and made to shut down her blog.
May 2008–Gao Qianhui, a 21-year-old Liaoning girl, recorded a 5-minute video rant that callously attacked the victims of the Sichuan earthquake for disrupting her ability to play online games and watch her favorite TV shows due to a three-day national mourning period.
“I turn on the TV and see injured people, corpses, rotten bodies… I don’t want to watch these things. I have no choice.”I think this earthquake was not strong enough. If only it had just been a bit stronger to flip you guys over. Today we’re mourning for you. Tomorrow we’re donating money to you, huh?”Come on, how many of you guys are dead? Just a few, is it not? We’ve got so many people in China anyway.”
Within hours all details of Gao’s life were posted online, prompting local police to take her into custody.
Dirty Sexy Money
July 2008–A rainstorm and resulting flooding in the Jiangxi capital of Nanchang produced a seductively anonymous photo that inspired a human flesh search. After more than 1,000 message board replies the girl was found and her identity revealed–to some disappointment.
October 2008–Lin Jiaxiang, a party secretary of Shenzhen Maritime Administration, was caught on the security camera at a restaurant walking toward a restroom with a young girl. Moments later the girl was seen running back to her parents. Allegedly, Lin asked the girl for directions to the washroom and then attempted to force her into the restroom. In the ensuing argument with the child’s parents and restaurant staff, the man exclaimed: “Do you know who I am? I was sent here by the Beijing Ministry of Transportation, my level is the same as your mayor. So what if I pinched a little child’s neck? Who the f**k are you people to me?! You dare f**k with me? Just watch how I am going to deal with you.”
After the story appeared online, netizens immediately hunted down numerous images of Lin and revealed his identity and position with the Shenzhen Maritime Administration. Lin was subsequently fired from his job and it was reported he would be “severely punished”. (Surveillance video with English captions)
November 2008–A 12-minute sex video of a Shanghai Kappa store employee set fire to the Internet and caused a human flesh search for the instantly infamous “Kappa Girl”. The ensuing findings led to the girl getting fired from the Kappa store, detained by Shanghai police for spreading obscene material online, and then offered a gig with UK-based adult entertainment studio Harmony Films.
December 2008–Nanjing city Jiangning district Housing Administration director Zhou Jiugeng was relieved from duty for “expressing inappropriate opinions to the media without authorization, which caused negative social effects”, and for “purchasing high-priced cigarettes using public funds”. The dismissal came after comments in an interview led angry netizens to uncover a photo of Zhou with a high-priced brand of cigarettes on his desk and an expensive watch on his wrist–things not to be bought with public funds.
Recently, the city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province, outlawed human flesh search with an ordinance that will come into effect on June 1, 2009. Violators could face a fine of up to 5,000 yuan and may be forbidden to use a computer or go online for up to six months.
Like much of the rules and regulations that tackle Internet laws, the ordinance relies heavily on the Internet providers policing themselves–requiring Internet bars, hotels and related establishments to install security systems for recording the user’s true identity and his Internet usage.
The Xuzhou law may form a precedent by which other laws are created regarding “renrou searches”, but there’re some solid arguments that they’ll be of little use to prevent cybervigilantes.
If you’re interested in following the latest human flesh search happenings, be sure to check out ChinaSMACK, a blog that digs up and translates the most talked about BBS topics on the Chinese Internet.