The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY HAN RUBO (韩儒博)

A hairy dog-nap­ping case has brought China's “hu­man flesh search en­gine” back into the pub­lic eye, more than a decade af­ter 2006's “Hangzhou kit­ten killer” dis­played the might of on­line vig­i­lan­tism. The po­lar­iz­ing prac­tice has been called em­pow­er­ing for or­di­nary peo­ple, but crack­downs may be around the cor­ner

“The lu­mi­nous moon­shine be­fore my bed Is thought to be the frost fallen on the ground I lift my head to yell at the se­cu­rity guard My fa­ther is Li Gang” — Satir­i­cal verse mock­ing hit- and- run driver Li Qim­ing


olice ar­rived at the door of He Xingli ready to make an ar­rest. The mar­ried home­owner was ac­cused of hold­ing a lost Corgi called Lion hostage, and send­ing the dog’s 21-year-old owner Xiao Wu de­mands for money, along with threats to eat the an­i­mal. When Xiao went to meet He, though, ac­com­pa­nied by re­porters, the pan­icked woman had ap­par­ently thrown the dog to its death.

But the cops weren’t com­ing for He Xingli: They were there for the six strangers who’d just shown up at He’s apart­ment in Chengdu to seek jus­tice for Lion. “You hu­man trash,” one fe­male ac­tivist had al­ready sprayed on He’s door. “Go die, stupid c**t. Die al­ready.” She was de­tained for six days, ac­cord­ing to Chengdu Busi­ness Daily.

He, the ca­nine kid­nap­per, had fallen victim to China’s un­of­fi­cial, ex­tra­ju­di­cial court of pub­lic opin­ion—the “hu­man flesh search en­gine.” The strange term has ex­isted since at least 2001, though it is only in the last decade that it has be­come a rec­og­nized phe­nom­e­non, cer­tain to strike fear in the hearts of any Chi­nese whose mis­deeds make their way on­line.

Put sim­ply, the “flesh en­gine” is, to bor­row Jus­tice Clarence Thomas’s term, a “high-tech lynch mob.” Each day, there are thou­sands of at­tempts by web users to ini­ti­ate searches; most fall on deaf ears, but oth­ers have ig­nited na­tion­wide cam­paigns for jus­tice, as well as on­line witch hunts. For while flesh searches cer­tainly em­power or­di­nary ne­ti­zens, and have been suc­cess­fully used to ex­pose hun­dreds of no­to­ri­ous, cor­rupt or in­de­cent in­di­vid­u­als, crit­ics say they are sim­ply a form of vig­i­lante jus­tice that un­der­mines China’s ju­di­cial sys­tem.

De­fend­ers, though, ar­gue that un­reg­u­lated reme­dies are es­sen­tial in a so­ci­ety whose rule of law is weak, or where pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als can ex­ert their in­flu­ence to es­cape of­fi­cial jus­tice. Flesh searches oc­cupy the fault lines along the gen­er­a­tional cul­ture wars and po­lar­ized moral stan­dards of mod­ern-day China.

The ori­gins of the phe­nom­e­non are rel­a­tively in­no­cent, dat­ing back to the halcyon pre-weibo or Wechat days of the bul­letin board, or BBS. Dom­i­nated by sites such as and, BBS of­fered Red­dit­style com­mu­ni­ties and con­ver­sa­tions to a new class of young web users, or “ne­ti­zens.” One BBS, “the hu­man-flesh search en­gine,” al­lowed its mem­bers to crowd-source an­swers to ques­tions—the some­what alarm­ing term is sim­ply a lit­eral English trans­la­tion of ren­rou sousuo (人肉搜索), mean­ing an off­line search by a col­lec­tive of hu­man re­sources, or “flesh.”

In 2001, when Mop’s Q&A ser­vice launched, the sub­jects were usu­ally of a triv­ial or en­ter­tain­ment na­ture; in an early ex­am­ple of what was to come, though, one user posted a pho­to­graph claim­ing to be his girl­friend. In fact, the “girl­friend” was sim­ply a model, whose per­sonal in­for­ma­tion was then posted on Mop to re­fute the user’s boasts.

This in­no­cent model, Chen Ziyao, was one of the first victims of the early en­gine. Soon, though, the tech­nol­ogy would be ap­plied to the guilty. In 2006, user “Bro­ken­glasses” posted a de­spair­ing mes­sage on Mop, at­tached to a short film de­scribed as “in­hu­man…i have no in­ter­est in spread­ing this video,” he wrote, “nor can I re­main silent. I just hope jus­tice can be done.” The video showed a slim woman cradling a kit­ten by a river­bank; she then places the kit­ten on the ground and crushes the help­less crea­ture un­der her high heels.

The re­sponse to Bro­ken­glasses’s video was im­me­di­ate and in­dig­nant: “Let’s kick her to death, just like she did the kit­ten” was one of the most pop­u­lar sug­ges­tions. Then Mop’s army got down to busi­ness, start­ing with the task of track­ing down the woman who would soon be known across China as the Hangzhou Kit­ten Killer.

Their first clue was a wa­ter­mark that showed the video was the work of Crush­, a Hangzhou-based fetish site, spe­cial­iz­ing in 15 yuan DVDS of women stomp­ing small pets to death. Once the story was picked up a few days later by the main­stream me­dia—a near univer­sal phe­nom­e­non in the most pop­u­lar flesh searches— the well-dressed woman was iden­ti­fied as Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse from north­east­ern Heilongjiang prov­ince.

As Wang’s con­tact de­tails be­gan ap­pear­ing on­line, her re­sponse was ini­tially de­fi­ant. “Sud­denly hun­dreds of peo­ple are on my QQ and curs­ing me,” she wrote. “What’s the prob­lem if I crush cats? It’s a type of ex­pe­ri­ence. You wouldn’t un­der­stand.” But as the grow­ing fury spilled over into real life, Wang’s life be­gan to fall apart.

She pub­lished a mea culpa, blam­ing

di­vorce and de­pres­sion for why she agreed to film the an­i­mal abuse. Too late: Wang lost her “iron rice bowl” job, which had come with a state pen­sion and other life­long priv­i­leges; it was then re­ported that she had fled her home­town (Wang has not been heard from since). Mean­while, the cam­era­man was fired from a provin­cial tele­vi­sion sta­tion, while Crush­world was bom­barded with mul­ti­ple Dis­trib­uted De­nial of Ser­vice at­tacks, and even­tu­ally shut down.

The flesh en­gine had es­tab­lished it­self, al­most overnight, as a na­tional phe­nom­e­non with a dis­tinct agenda: to iden­tify and shame al­leged mis­cre­ant. No longer just a search by “flesh,” but for flesh, the en­gine had be­come a mass-mo­bi­lized man­hunt.

As man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Tianya, Song Zheng saw the flesh en­gine as a “nat­u­ral” prod­uct of the dig­i­tal age. “It’s es­sen­tially a self-re­pair mech­a­nism… there was a say­ing that ‘[on the in­ter­net] no one knows you’re a dog,’” he told the Guangzhou Daily back in 2008. “Ev­ery­one treats it as a vir­tual world in which you can do things you wouldn’t dare to do in re­al­ity, with a mask on… flesh searches act as a con­straint to the loss of moral­ity in the vir­tual world, like the ‘vi­ral an­ti­body’ dy­namic in the na­ture.”

Wang Jue and com­pany may have been the flesh en­gine’s first fa­mous scalps, but soon its tro­phy walls would be cov­ered with spoils of higher stakes: There was the Xin­jiang mil­i­tary com­man­der’s wife who slapped a tourist site at­ten­dant that had dared to rep­ri­mand her be­hav­ior; Lin Ji­ax­i­ang, a portly mid­dle-aged Party sec­re­tary with the Shen­zhen Mar­itime Ad­min­is­tra­tion, who, ac­cused of drunk­enly mo­lest­ing an 11-year-old at a seafood restau­rant, yelled, “I did it, so what? Name your price; I will pay it!”; Yang Da­cai, an of­fi­cial who was pho­tographed smil­ing at the scene of a ma­jor traf­fic ac­ci­dent, and later earned the nick­name “Brother Watch” for his col­lec­tion of for­eign time­pieces well be­yond the means of an or­di­nary civil ser­vant; Li Qim­ing, who in­ad­ver­tently made his deputy po­licechief par­ent in­fa­mous by bel­low­ing “My fa­ther is Li Gang!” at se­cu­rity guards af­ter a no­to­ri­ous hit-and-run in­ci­dent at He­bei Univer­sity; and Sun Wei, a for­mer Ts­inghua Univer­sity stu­dent widely believed to have got­ten away with the at­tempted mur­der of her room­mate Zhu Ling in 1996—a no­to­ri­ous case that pre­dated the flesh en­gine, but has been pe­ri­od­i­cally re­vis­ited by it.

With the ex­cep­tion of Sun Wei, who ap­par­ently now lives in the US and con­tin­ues to protest her in­no­cence, these searches all re­sulted in their tar­gets be­ing pub­licly shamed and duly pun­ished by the Party, with sev­eral los­ing their of­fi­cial po­si­tions and at least two end­ing up in jail. And they join a li­tany of cor­rupt busi­ness­men and un­pa­tri­otic pornog­ra­phers, ped­erasts, pet killers, po­lice­men, and politi­cians who’ve fallen into the en­gine’s maw and been fu­ri­ously chewed up and spat out.


But of­ten­times, com­plete in­no­cents can find them­selves wrongly sucked into the search’s Sar­lacc Pit: Chang­sha pub­lic se­cu­rity of­fi­cial Hu Han­lin, for ex­am­ple, de­nied par­tic­i­pat­ing in the re­cent vi­cious po­lice blud­geon­ing of a golden re­triever of which he’d been ac­cused: “I only in­ves­ti­gated crimes via video footage,” he pleaded on Weibo, af­ter his name and phone num­ber were posted in an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Vi­o­lent Mur­der of Golden Re­triever” in Jan­uary 2017. “I never di­rectly re­spond to [emer­gency] calls.” This un­con­trol­lable as­pect was not lost on Tianya’s Song, who also called for “of­fi­cial guid­ance and le­gal su­per­vi­sion” for what he termed “self-or­ga­nized on­line rev­elry for the masses.”

The flesh en­gine of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into what ap­par­ently makes China’s younger gen­er­a­tions—of­ten viewed, by their el­ders at least, as priv­i­leged and po­lit­i­cally ap­a­thetic— mad enough not to take it any more. Many flesh searches track down those typ­i­cally tar­geted by, for ex­am­ple, ac­tivists like PETA in the West—such as the He­bei stu­dent who cru­elly killed Garfield, a beloved cam­pus cat, in 2009. In other in­stances, the flesh en­gine acts as an on­line con­stab­u­lary, ex­am­in­ing ev­i­dence in cases per­ceived to have been pre­vi­ously mis­han­dled by au­thor­i­ties, such as the Zhu Ling poisoning, or, more re­cently, the tale of Tang Lan­lan.

Tang was the pseu­do­nym of a 14-year-old Heilongjiang girl who, in 2008, ac­cused over 16 vil­lagers, in­clud­ing both her par­ents, of forc­ing her into pros­ti­tu­tion since she was 7. When, a decade later, on­line news­pa­per The Pa­per tried to re­visit claims that Tang’s al­le­ga­tions were fab­ri­cated, claim­ing that 11 sus­pects may have been wrong­fully jailed, ne­ti­zens re­acted fu­ri­ously to the in­va­sion of Tang’s pri­vacy and turned the flesh search back onto the re­porters, with Tang’s hash­tag soon at­tract­ing over 50 mil­lion views.

“The peo­ple have limited means to get in­for­ma­tion,” citizen jour­nal­ist Wu Gan told The At­lantic in a 2013 ar­ti­cle about flesh searches. “Pub­lic power is not trans­par­ent and op­er­ates in a black box, [but] cit­i­zens can get ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion through the in­ter­net, ex­pos­ing lies and the truth… in some ways [it] has had good ef­fects.”

Yet, in the fog and furore on­line, proper per­spec­tives can be eas­ily lost. Zhang Zetian was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally named “Milk Tea Girl” by ne­ti­zens who adored the high-school stu­dent’s “fresh-faced looks,” af­ter pic­ture of Zhang hold­ing a cup of tea was posted on Ren­, an early Face­book clone. Years later, Zhang was still be­ing rec­og­nized at univer­sity and had grown deeply un­com­fort­able with the con­tin­ued at­ten­tion: “No mat­ter where I go, peo­ple at­tempt to take stealth pho­tos of me,” she told the BBC in 2014. Ad­mir­ers of­ten fol­lowed Zhang with cam­era phones and some stalk­ers even at­tempted to break into her dor­mi­tory.

In an­other in­fa­mous in­ci­dent, Bei­jing ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive Wang Fei says he and his girl­friend were sacked from the agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and re­lent­lessly stalked and abused, af­ter ne­ti­zens posted Wang’s phone num­ber, stu­dent ID, work con­tacts, brother’s li­cense plate, and par­ents’ ad­dress in 2007. The en­gine had been freshly fired up by the pub­li­ca­tion of a di­ary called “Mi­gra­tory Bird Go­ing North,” writ­ten by Wang’s late wife, which recorded her spi­ral into de­pres­sion and sui­cide af­ter learn­ing of her es­tranged hus­band’s new part­ner. Af­ter her death, the tragic mem­oir was posted to a BBS by her griev­ing sis­ter. The fam­ily tragedy quickly be­came a na­tional out­rage; van­dals daubed out­raged mes­sages on Wang’s par­ents’ door and he was forced to go into hid­ing, his life in tat­ters. It is pre­cisely this kind of pop­ulist re­venge—in which once pri­vate mat­ters are vi­ciously ad­ju­di­cated and avenged in the pub­lic square—that give sup­port­ers of the flesh search most pause for thought.

In Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web, a 2012 film based on a pop­u­lar novel, a de­pressed white-col­lar worker, hav­ing just been handed a cancer di­ag­no­sis, re­fuses to give up her seat to an el­derly bus pas­sen­ger. The in­ci­dent is caught on film by an am­bi­tious re­porter, and the re­sult­ing flesh-fu­eled firestorm even­tu­ally drives


the be­lea­guered worker to sui­cide. “I have of­ten been mis­un­der­stood and crit­i­cized on­line, so I know the feel­ing,” Chen told US news­pa­per SF Gate. “[In China] so­cial ethics and the law have not kept up with the speed of tech­no­log­i­cal progress.”

So­cial com­men­ta­tor Wang Dan de­scribed the is­sue in terms of a but­ter­fly ef­fect: “It usu­ally starts with a small mat­ter,” he wrote in China Youth Daily, “but be­cause of the ag­gre­ga­tion of ne­ti­zens and their searches, the sit­u­a­tion grows out of con­trol… in the process, ev­ery ne­ti­zen feels they’re do­ing what they should do, but the re­sult is usu­ally mixed.”

Har­ried wi­d­ower Wang Fei was even­tu­ally awarded mi­nor dam­ages for li­bel against a web ser­vice provider and BBS user in a Chi­nese court, and the govern­ment it­self has oc­ca­sion­ally de­nounced the phe­nom­e­non: In 2014, cy­ber­se­cu­rity of­fi­cial Liu Zhen­grong called the flesh search “il­le­gal and im­moral.” Cer­tainly, the state is wary of the im­pli­ca­tions of the flesh search, as well as its in­flu­ence on the al­ready-par­lous ju­di­cial process.

Yet ma­jor in­jus­tices have also been averted by the in­ter­ven­tion of cru­sad­ing ne­ti­zens, most fa­mously in the case of pedi­curist Deng Yu­jiao who fought off a pair of at­tempted rapists with a knife. Deng was ini­tially charged with mur­der, de­spite act­ing in self-de­fense, but the flesh search kept the news cy­cle turn­ing, and the pub­lic pres­sure grew un­til Deng was even­tu­ally given a sus­pended sen­tence and re­leased. In an­other high-pro­file case in 2017, a man given a life sen­tence for killing a loan shark who had sex­u­ally as­saulted his mother; po­lice had ig­nored his calls for help. The man’s his sen­tence was re­viewed fol­low­ing a pub­lic out­cry.

But the death of Zhao Xin, a 14-year-old school boy in Sichuan the same year, pitched lo­cal au­thor­i­ties against the on­line sleuths with re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent re­sults. Ne­ti­zens had claimed that the boy was be­ing bul­lied by a gang, which in­cluded the chil­dren of pow­er­ful lo­cal fig­ures; Zhao’s mother told Xin­hua said his body had been cov­ered with bruises, but bizarrely, po­lice de­clared the death a sui­cide be­fore any au­topsy took place. Af­ter ru­mors ran ram­pant on­line, a large and an­gry crowd soon gath­ered out­side the school gates to de­mand an ex­pla­na­tion for the in­con­sis­ten­cies in the case.

Ac­cus­ing the fam­ily of dis­tort­ing facts and in­cit­ing un­rest, the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties placed the Zhaos un­der house ar­rest, flood­ing the protest site with armed of­fi­cers, and shut­ting down lo­cal me­dia re­ports. One woman claimed that of­fi­cials had been of­fer­ing 50 RMB for lo­cals to act as wit­nesses to the “sui­cide”; po­lice then de­tained four ne­ti­zens for “in­cit­ing the pub­lic and se­verely dis­turb­ing the pub­lic or­der.” By tak­ing the re­sults of the flesh search off­line and into the streets, pro­tes­tors had ap­par­ently crossed the line with Sichuanese au­thor­i­ties.

Re­ports in the state me­dia were crit­i­cal of this heavy-handed re­sponse: “Ru­mors arise on all sides, but the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have not pro­duced facts to dis­pel them,” wrote one re­porter in a de­tailed ar­ti­cle for Xin­hua, the na­tional news agency. “How long will the peo­ple’s fear of the unknown con­tinue? What dif­fi­cult truths are be­ing held back? These ques­tions re­quire clear-cut an­swers from the rel­e­vant lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.” In­stead, though, many Chi­nese choose to rely on those facts of­fered by the flesh en­gine—and the fu­ries they un­leash.

The au­thor­i­ties have in turn re­acted by es­sen­tially ban­ning such searches: as of June 1, 2017, when the Cy­ber Se­cu­rity Law of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China of­fi­cially took ef­fect, the pub­li­ca­tion of iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion—such as names, pho­to­graphs, and ad­dresses—with­out prior per­mis­sion is pun­ish­able by a max­i­mum three­year prison sen­tence or “crim­i­nal de­ten­tion.” Those who sell such in­for­ma­tion, mean­while, are also li­able to the same sen­tence—and the law has al­ready been fre­quently ap­plied.

He Xingli, the “Corgi Killer,” re­ceived over 100,000 threat­en­ing mes­sages and abu­sive calls from strangers, some even di­rected at her kinder­garten-age daugh­ter; she has re­port­edly de­cided to seek a di­vorce for the safety of her child. In March, both He and the dog’s owner, Xiao, were jailed for seven days for “send­ing threat­en­ing mes­sages on­line” and “dis­sem­i­nat­ing other peo­ple’s per­sonal and pri­vate in­for­ma­tion on the in­ter­net,” re­spec­tively—a de­ci­sion that seems to have sat­is­fied nobody. “If you don’t al­low peo­ple to suf­fer [the flesh en­gine], they will be­gin to feel that they are above the con­se­quences,” opined one ad­vo­cate of the prac­tice on Weibo. “If the law is mo­men­tar­ily un­able to solve this prob­lem, then ne­ti­zens flesh-search­ing… can sup­ply this kind of pun­ish­ment.”

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