In the 7 March issue of The New York Times Magazine, Tom Downey writes about “human flesh searches” in China. He begins with the story of a Heilongjiang woman who posted a video of herself trampling a kitten to death and was, as a result of the ensuing human flesh search, dismissed from her government job along with the man who made the video. (The cameraman was employed by the town newspaper.) He then describes the case of an adulterous husband whose wife committeed suicide and who was dismissed from his job at Saatchi & Saatchi — suggesting that international companies are not immune to the pressure of human-flesh searchers. An official in Shenzhen was fired following accusations, based on a security camera video, that he sexually abused a child at a restaurant, even though neither the video nor a police investigation yielded evidence. Finally, a woman who wrote that the government’s use of the Sichuan earthquake for stoking nationalism was wrong was expelled by her university “for her own safety.” Downey also mentions the Grace Wang story.
Downey points out that “human flesh searches” have taken place in other countries, but “China is the only place … with a nearly universal recognition … of the concept,” to the point that a film director is “about to release a feature film” on it and a mystery writer has just published an eponymous novel. He also suggests that “recent searches seem to be more political … and less focused on … private transgressions.”
Another recent story, by Anita Chang for Associated Press, focuses on the case of a young woman who died in Fujian. Her mother, an illiterate peasant, believes that she had been gang-raped by thugs with police links and the case subsequently covered up, and the police announced that the death was due to an “ectopic pregnancy.” After the story appeared on the Internet, several online activists took up her case, one of whom, Guo Baofeng, “became famous … for sending Twitter updates while in police custody.” (Twitter is blocked in China, presumably because it allows people to “follow” dissidents, but it can be accessed via proxies.) Three of these activists have been arrested for defamation. “Dozens of bloggers showed up outside Mawei District People’s Court … in Fuzhou city where the verdict [on the defamation case] was to be announced … The case was indefinitely postponed.” Meanwhile, the parents went on to Peking to seek justice (in vain), were accompanied by supportive activists who kept tweeting, blogging, and posting photos.
Currently, one of the stories that are making the round and will likely lead to a human-flesh search (unless an arrest is made first) is of a high-school teacher in Jiangsu Province who talks about his sexual harassment of female students. The conversation is secretly recorded by one of these students, who comes back to confront him.
Downey writes that it strikes Western observers how “different Chinese Internet culture is from our own.” He notes that social networking hasn’t really taken off (probably because they require revealing one’s real-life persona — TTD), while forums are far more popular “and perhaps even democratic than anything on the English-language Internet.” It is also less peripheral than it may seem: according to a 2007 survey, nearly 45% of Chinese BBS users spend between 3 and 8 hours a day on them.
Downey recognizes that the human-flesh searches show that “an uncontrolled Internet can be menacing as well as liberating.” In some cases, the online pursuit of justice undoubtedly works for the good, but most cases are more complicated. Chang writes that “there have been a few victories. … A karaoke bar waitress went unpunished after fatally stabbing a drunk government official who … demanded sex.” Since she was nonetheless, controversially, found guilty of premeditated assault, her reprieve should indeed be seen as a victory. But most cases are more complex. If the Jiangsu schoolteacher is dismissed, as he is likely to be, he probably deserves it; but the evidence of the secret tape could hardly stand in any independent court, for it is the student who describes the events the teacher had reportedly described earlier, while the clearly frightened teacher tries feebly to argue that he had been drunk and talking nonsense. Even in the case of the parents of the Fujian woman, what if they are wrong? That is not a possibility their online supporters are willing to consider.
Downey interviewed people involved in discussing the case of the adulterous husband. A woman who moderates a Baidu.com forum entirely devoted to the case told him that she wanted “‘to know if the law or something could protect me and give me some kind of security.’ It struck me as an unusual wish — that the law could guard her from heartbreak.” What the human flesh searches reveal is that, in a country where the lack of impartial justice is one of the most fundamental problems, inflammable civic activism is often geared more towards immediate revenge than towards the construction of such justice. Yet more evidence flying in the face of the civil society => democracy hypothesis.