In the final weeks of 2013, a Chinese official announced the newest target in the government’s efforts to seize the ground of new media. Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, called for a crackdown on an independent online investigation into the personal details of suspected wrongdoers, known in China as a “Human Flesh Search“ (人肉搜索). While such searches do have the potential to inflict harm, examining the crackdown on flesh searches in relation to other recent official announcements and legislation regarding online activities, Liu Zhengrong’s proclamation reflects more a continuation of an exhaustive government policy of circumscribing online expression and digital collective action than one of controlling “violent online activities.”
Human flesh searches have been equated with both cyber activism and cyber vigilantism. Sympathetic portrayals of the practice have pointed to the ability of flesh searches to empower ordinary citizens to hold the government more accountable. In an interview with The Atlantic, sociologist Tricia Wang explained, “Flesh searchers feel like they are sharing information in a system that does not have a comprehensive or consistent rule of law.” The searches are a component of the “long revolution,” analyzed by China scholar Guobin Yang in his 2009 book, The Power of The Internet in China, which is slowly forcing Chinese society to be more participatory and transparent.
Proponents of flesh searchers as democratizers highlight cases such as Yang Dacai, the head of the Saanxi Province Safety Supervision Bureau. After a photo of an unidentified official grinning maliciously at the scene of a bus fire that killed 36 people in 2012 went viral, an online investigation revealed the official’s identity. Images were then uploaded of Yang wearing luxury watches he would not be expected to be able afford on his public servant’s salary. The public outcry led to an official investigation, and Yang was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption.
Similarly, following a deadly car crash in Hebei, where the driver emerged arrogantly from his vehicle to taunt the surrounding crowd, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” flesh searchers tore into the hitherto unknown Li Gang. The driver was identified as Li Qiming, the son of the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. Images of the family’s luxury properties went viral. The father was dismissed and the son was given six years in prison.
In a recent article for The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi also noted several cases where a human flesh search has led to violence, such as a specific case sited by Liu Zhengrong in which a young girl committed suicide after seeing her personal details online. However, even taking the negative externalities into account, the official condemnation of the practice should be seen in light of Xi Jinping’s August comments urging the propaganda department to build “a strong army” and to “seize the ground of new media.” Liu Zhengrong’s benevolent claim of protecting Chinese citizens from violent online content is the latest in a series of developments that combined show a calculated policy by Beijing to ensure the government’s supremacy online.
The targeted elimination of human flesh searches comes close on the heels of the government initiative to prosecute online rumors. The policy, which generated considerable condemnation in Western media for the ease with which it may be manipulated for political expediency, states that Weibo users accused of posting “rumors” that are viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times will be held criminally liable. Within the first two weeks of the policy, Chinese human rights defender Wen Yunchao catalogued more than 450 arrests.
Admittedly some individuals have written and distributed knowingly false information online to build personal or corporate reputations. As reported by Danwei, one false story spread by two Weibo celebrities arrested in August was a fabricated compensation of an Italian killed in the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. Yet the story of the deadly crash itself was first broken by a Weibo user because the Department of Propaganda had originally directed official media not to report on the incident. A restriction on posting “rumors” can significantly stifle such independent investigations into official malfeasance when the final arbiter of what qualifies as a rumor is the same government being investigated. A month after the announcement, South China Morning Post quoted Weiboreach, a social media research firm in China, that widespread self-censorship has followed the
In 2012 the Supreme People’s Court proposed a similarly spirited measure. The court proposed that lawyers be disbarred for blogging or emailing trial information without preapproval. Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, told The Guardian that the ambiguity of the court’s announcement could be used to block activist lawyers from contributing to broader informed discussion. That many of China’s rights lawyers are active on Weibo, constraining their ability to disseminate information about their cases effectively serves to limit access to potential information for online activists. Government attempts to emasculate online activism have extended further, in the form of directives to judges themselves.