China's online vigilantes hunt human flesh

Forget the FBI, Interpol or Jack Bauer. No one tracks down a miscreant as fast as China's online sleuths

Forget the FBI, Interpol or Jack Bauer. No one tracks down a miscreant as fast as China's online vigilantes. Lin Jiaxiang, a maritime safety official from Shenzhen, recently became the latest target of the charmingly named "human flesh search engine" - the mass internet pursuit, some say witchhunt, of those accused of bad behaviour. In Lin's case, security camera footage of his row with a man whose 11-year-old daughter he was accused of grabbing led to his swift identification and sacking.

The practice is not unique to China; only the graphic name. But with the world's largest internet population (250 million-plus, and growing each day), it has proved particularly effective here.

Show an official abusing his position, a woman crushing kittens with high heels, or simply a student boasting of her luxurious life as a mistress, and outraged citizens swing into action, closely analysing photos or quotes for the tiniest clues to identity or whereabouts. The notorious kitten killer of Hangzhou was unmasked by hundreds of internet users who traced her through an eBay purchase of stilettos.

She lost her job shortly afterwards, as the virtual anger spilled over into real life. Others have suffered paint-soaked walls and faeces-covered doorsteps as well as death threats and abuse by phone, email and fax; though not physical attacks, which suggests that even the angriest participants observe limits.

That does not make it easier for targets, especially when the search hits on the wrong person. A Tibetan living in the United States was deluged with abusive phone calls and emails after he was wrongly named as the man who tried to grab the Olympic flame from Paralympian Jin Jing in Paris.

But one, at least, is fighting back. Wang Fei was vilified after his wife killed herself and relatives blamed his alleged affair with a colleague. He is now suing the internet sites that hosted the search. Yet even his lawyer Zhang Yanfeng is reluctant to condemn the phenomenon entirely. Harnessing online people power is usually good for society, he thinks. "It only becomes negative when they search for people and then violate their privacy rights."


Tania Branigan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pass notes No 3,246: back injury
Xi Jinping, tipped to be the next president of China, has not been seen in public for a while. Rather than explain his absence, the authorities have banned a certain search term from a social media site

12, Sep, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Britain won't be the only country snooping on people's internet use
If the government gets its way and starts monitoring what you're emailing, it will join a list of countries with a draconian approach to the internet

Patrick Kingsley

02, Apr, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Peng Liyuan: prepare to see a lot more of China's new first lady
Singer, fashion icon, married to President Xi Jinping … she's like Carla Bruni, but popular

26, Mar, 2013 @2:51 PM

Article image
Should Britain make its driving test harder?
The British government wants to raise the driving age to 18 and impose a curfew on new drivers. But how does our test compare with other countries, such as South Africa, China and Pakistan?

Tom Banham

11, Oct, 2013 @12:33 PM

Article image
Freedom is not found online | Aditya Chakrabortty
Aditya Chakrabortty: Cyber-utopians thought the internet would bring democracy to foreign dictatorships. How wrong they were

Aditya Chakrabortty

30, Mar, 2010 @6:00 AM

Article image
The artists who own the moon

Stuart Clark: With China sending the Jade Rabbit rover and Google egging on private companies to make their own landings, the race for lunar ownership is hotting up. But has a group of artists got there first?

Stuart Clark

05, Jan, 2014 @7:00 PM

Article image
Why Indonesians are all a-Twitter
How can a country where millions of people are so poor they've never even used a computer be the world's biggest user of Twitter?

Ben Doherty

22, Nov, 2010 @8:00 PM

Article image
Meet Shabani the gorilla, the internet’s latest unlikely crush
Hordes of Japanese women are going ape over Higashiyama Zoo’s brooding silverback, hashtagging the hunky monkey with #Ikemen – ‘Hot young guy’

29, Jun, 2015 @3:42 PM

Article image
'Daddy, who are all these poor people?' How Anton Casey's Facebook comments dissed Singapore
The expat British fund manager sneered at users on public transport – and provoked a torrent of abuse

23, Jan, 2014 @1:23 PM

Article image
Jimmy Dushku: the man North Korea is following on Twitter

The 25-year-old US whizz kid is one of just three accounts the communist state is following. But why?

13, Jan, 2013 @8:00 PM