Friday, June 27, 2008

Human Flesh Search: Old Topic, New Story

Yesterday, London's TimesOnline published a news story titled "Human flesh search engines: Chinese vigilantes that hunt victims on the web." The journalist, Hannah Fletcher, had contacted me a few weeks back, after she saw my article "Human Flesh Search: Vigilantes of the Chinese Internet" on New America Media. Two months of time has elapsed since I wrote that piece, and you might've thought the topic too old. Not so. Reality continued to provide new content for Ms. Fletcher's well-written and informative story.

Coincidentally, I saw another Chinese report a couple of days ago – thanks to the resourceful ESWN – with a humorous title "Human Flesh Search Recruiting Professional Army." You can read the original Chinese here. It reports that, the interactive entertainment website that first coined the term, is going to have organized "human flesh search" that would no longer target private matters, thus making such search no longer "senseless and vulgar." It looks like the story is still unfolding.

Since Ms. Fletcher generously quoted comments I emailed her, I thought I might as well share that email dated May 23rd in its entirety –

Dear Ms. Fletcher,

Thanks for the kind note. Indeed these are important questions. I tried to address them in the article you mentioned; let me try to expand a little bit.

I do believe that "human flesh search," in terms of its large scale and angry connotation, is unique to China.

For one thing, China's population makes it easy to mobilize a large number of netizens to participate in such a search, especially considering that there are many smart and reasonably well educated people in China who are intellectually underemployed.

For another, privacy is not a traditional Chinese concern, and there is no clear law to punish exposing someone's personal information on-line. Chinese also believe that "the law does not restrict the masses." Combine this with a culturally based inquisitiveness that does not have any strong tradition of respecting privacy, and you get people who are willing to go out (or stay in) and gather information to be propagated to others.

On top of all this I think there is some pleasure in the idea of making information available when there has been such significant suppression of both thoughts and facts over the previous five decades.

Several other cultural elements are also at play here. On one hand, China's law is imperfect, and the law enforcement does not respond to morality issues. On the other hand, "righteousness" is one of the five virtues in Confucian tradition. With the convenience of the internet, in the case of non-responsive law, the righteous people tend to take matters into their own hands.

The communist tradition of deploying "people power" to carry on the Party's tasks might also have facilitated the birth of "human flesh search," though in this case it might be another case of backfire.
Is it a force for good or bad? Ancient Chinese wisdom believes everything has two sides and that's my way of thinking as well. In any mass action, regardless its motive, things can get ugly and this has proven to be the case time and again in history. The Cultural Revolution is one big example. Some recent human flesh searches in China have gotten the targets wrong and harmed innocent people.

However, instead of targeting individuals, if this force turns itself to government monitoring, I think it will help reduce the corruption that is commonplace right now.

In the end, it will depend on which characteristics of the trend dominate – nosiness or the desire to get information out. The latter would be a good thing, and I do think there is some indication that things are trending that way. (One of my recent blog posts touches indirectly on this).

In any case I expect there will be lots of undesirable activity mixed in. It would be interesting to compare this to something like Wikipedia, which is another venue for harnessing spare intellectual capacity.

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you need any further information, and when your article comes out.

Best wishes,

Xujun Eberlein

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