A high-level Chinese regime official spoke out against the “human flesh search engine” last week, saying it was harmful, immoral, and illegal, and threatened netizens who launch searches.
The human flesh search engine, as it is called in China, is a crowd-sourced Internet investigation native to China. Netizens share information about a targeted individual and quickly build up a profile of who that person is and what he or she has done.
This activity is sometimes characterized as unrestrained, vigilante cyber justice.
In some cases, it is, and the results have been unfortunate. But in other cases, when official corruption prevents or short circuits genuine justice, the exposure of the crime and the criminal on the Internet seems the only recourse to justice available to Chinese netizens.
Yang Hengjun, a Chinese analyst and blogger, explained in an article in Red Flag Manuscript, a journal published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee: “It is true that ‘the human flesh search engine’ is only seen in China. However, this is because there is no supervision over political power in China.
“Our civilians don’t have any standard way to seek justice, which is available in Western countries. There you have the judicial system, freedom of speech, and freedom of demonstration/protest. In China we don’t have these rights so the only choice is to expose bad officials online.”
The official CCP perspective is different.
Using the recent suicide of a Guangdong high school girl who was accused of theft and whose personal information was made public by crusading netizens, CCP official Liu Zhengrong called the human flesh search engine lawless, a network of violence.
In an interview with state media, he connected protecting the legitimate interests of Chinese citizens with safeguarding public security, emphasizing the rights of Chinese individuals.
Liu, who is deputy chief of the State Council Information Office’s Internet Affairs Bureau, said that those launching searches that lead to harm will be prosecuted according to law.
However, the laws are vague, and what constitutes harm is subject to interpretation by the CCP. Consider the cases where searches have turned up the evidence of Party officials’ graft and corruption: the officials are punished, or from their viewpoint, harmed by the revelations.
In Shaanxi Province, minor official Yang Dacai’s fondness for very expensive watches enabled the human flesh search engine to bring him to justice in a high-profile case. He was sentenced in September, after pleading guilty to charges of taking over US$40,000 in bribes and possessing over US$800,000 in funds of doubtful origin, said the New York Times.
The Times called his case one of many in which officials have been held to account for corruption and abuse of power by the work of netizens.
The Shanghai-based Outlook magazine looked at the ongoing discussion in China of human flesh search engines, an excerpt of which is provided in translation by China Digital Times.
In 2010 Zhejiang Province published draft regulations that Outlook magazine reads as prohibiting the search engines.
On June 8 the State Council published a white paper that proposed protections for online free speech and acknowledged the role of the Internet in monitoring officials.
The magazine also published an interview with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Journalism and Communication researcher, YinYungong.
“Human flesh search engines are a double-edged sword. While they may at times infringe on innocent people’s private information—and even go too far—they also manifest the ability of the Internet to monitor. This is plain to see,” Yin told Outlook.
Although the potential for personal injury from harmful rumors and misguided searches is undeniable, the accompanying potential for the regime to prevent unwanted disclosure of corruption and abuse cannot be denied.
Pointing out Yang’s stress in the Red Flag Manuscript on both the protection of the individual and the maintenance of public stability, a recent article in The Diplomat concluded that blending these goals undermined the credibility of the regime’s position on internet management.