‘Human flesh search engine’, or simply ‘human flesh search’, refers to collective efforts by Chinese Internet users to answer questions or search for information about specific people, combining online searches with information obtained offline and posting the results publicly. Most often the objective is to identify individuals suspected of official corruption or questionable social conduct. What frequently prompts these searches, which sometimes become Internet witch-hunts, are photos circulated on social media sites of someone misbehaving. The government seems to tolerate human flesh searches directed against lower-level local officials: punching bags that help relieve popular frustration and discontent. Critics of human flesh searches worry that the phenomenon is a return to the type of public shaming and scapegoating that typified the Maoist era of mass politics and victimisation.
An Overview of Human Flesh Searches
The term was coined in 2001 as the name of a forum on Mop.com — a discussion website popular with Internet users in their teens and early twenties. The forum was intended to allow Internet users to post and answer trivia questions. But the phrase began to take on its current meaning in the last few months of 2001 when a user of the Mop.com forum posted a photograph of a beautiful woman and claimed it was his girlfriend. This aroused the suspicions of other Mop visitors. They discovered that the girl was in fact a model named Chen Ziyao, and they posted her information and photos of her modelling activities as evidence.
The first human flesh search that Chinese and Western news media covered was the 2006 ‘kitten-killer’ incident. Photographs and a video surfaced on the Internet showing a woman in stilettos crushing a kitten to death with her heels. Internet vigilantes worked together to locate the upload server, and identify the location shown in the images. The manhunt was of such a scale and intensity that it immediately became of a topic of interest to national print and broadcast news media as well. Within six days of the video being posted, the woman was identified, apparently by acquaintances, as Wang Jue. The triumphant searchers published her phone number, address and employer — a hospital where she worked as a nurse. The hospital fired her, and the website of the government of her native Luobei county in Heilongjiang province published an apology from her.
One of the most infamous human flesh searches targeted Wang Fei — a young employee of the Beijing office of the multinational advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi — whose wife Jiang Yan committed suicide in December 2007 after finding out that Wang was having an affair with a younger colleague. When, in January 2008, Jiang Yan’s sister published online the diary Jiang Yan had written in her dejected final days, a furore of moral condemnation erupted. Wang’s personal details were human flesh searched and published. He received hundreds of indignant phone calls, his parents’ house was vandalised, and he was forced out of his job. Interestingly, Wang successfully sued for damages from the Tianya.cn chat forum where much of the human flesh searching had been organised.
After the ethnic riots in Lhasa on 14 March 2008, and in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, the Party and its propaganda organs whipped up popular sentiment in China against ‘unpatriotic’ individuals who did not toe the party line on Tibet. Human flesh searchers targeted Grace Wang 王千源, a Chinese student who had spontaneously attempted to act as negotiator between ‘pro-China’ and ‘pro-Tibet’ demonstrators at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. As she later wrote in the Washington Post: ‘I thought I could help try to turn a shouting match into an exchange of ideas.’ She was called a ‘race traitor’ and received death threats serious enough to lead the FBI to become involved. Acting on information about her parents’ address published on the Internet, someone defaced the entrance to their apartment in Qingdao, Shandong province, with faeces and wrote ‘Kill the whole family’ in red letters in the hallway of the apartment building; they were forced to go into hiding.
In October 2008, a grainy video circulating on the Internet showed a fat, possibly drunk man apparently attempting to force a young girl into the men’s toilets. Subtitles added to the film said that it was shot at a restaurant in Shenzhen, and that the girl was eleven years old. A human flesh search identified the perpetrator as Lin Jiaxiang, Party Secretary of the Shenzhen Maritime Association. While the tape itself was inconclusive evidence, the groundswell of citizen resentment at the perceived immunity of government cadres caused Lin to lose his party job, even though Shenzhen courts determined he had no criminal case to answer.
More recently, in August 2012, Yang Dacai, a director of the Shaanxi province Safety Supervision Bureau, was photographed grinning at the site of a bus crash that killed thirty-six people. Incensed Internet users started a human flesh search that not only identified him but uncovered photographs of him wearing expensive watches that could not have been purchased with his nominally meagre salary. The attention that Yang attracted led to him being sacked, expelled from the Party and, in September 2013, jailed for fourteen years on corruption charges.
That same year, the award-winning filmmaker Chen Kaige directed Caught in the Web (Sousuo 搜索), the title of which literally means ‘search’ and is a reference to the human flesh search that destroys the life of the female protagonist.
An even more recent example of a human flesh search is the identification and vilification of Ding Jinhao, the teenage tourist who defaced a temple at Luxor in Egypt mentioned in the Introduction to this volume.