By Namrata Hasija
The Shanghai film festival in June 2012 was abuzz with the movie ‘Caught in the Web’, which showcased an emergent phenomenon in China: ‘renrou sousuo yinqing’ meaning ‘human-flesh search engines’ which attract thousands of Chinese citizens across the country. This article tries to answer: what are these human flesh search engines? How do they operate and what do they imply about Chinese society vis-a-vis its Internet users?
What are renrou sousuo yinqing or human flesh search engines?
According to definitions available online and in the Chinese media, human flesh search engines mean ‘a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. It means that the network is not a computer driven search engine but real human beings are implicated.’ The targets range from cheating spouses, corrupt government officials to people having a moderate stand on Tibet.
These engines do not use a single website on the Internet but a variety of bulletin board services including Mop, Tianya, and Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) to run searches. For instance, Mop had a human flesh search engine where members were devoted to posing questions and running searches about entertainment trivia as early as 2001. However, the nature of these search engines has greatly transformed over the years, especially after an incident in 2006 when a video uploaded on the Internet showed a middle-aged woman using her heels to stomp a kitten to death. A Mop user soon posted on the site that the killer should be brought to justice. Soon the post attracted thousands of responses and a hunt began for the killer. The Chinese media picked up the story with a photo of the killer, which was recognized by a woman, who then posted the name and occupation of the killer online. Bowing down to public outrage, the woman and the cameraman who filmed the incident were dismissed from their government jobs.
Incidents like these have changed the basic nature of search engines from mere entertainment gossip-mills to sites where people are willing to fight for all kinds of causes, ranging from political to societal issues. In another instance, a recent post on one of these sites in August 2012 showed Yang Dacai, a local officer grinning while 36 people became victim’s of bus fire on the Yanan highway. The local government again had to bow down to popular angst and he was sacked soon after netizens hunted him down and revealed his identity. There are numerous examples like these ranging from a cheating husband to a local official trying to rape a girl where netizens have run searches and revealed the true identity of these people resulting in public fury ad outcry against them, which in most cases has brought them to justice, thus, transforming these engines into a trend across China.
Western media and even a national daily in India which ran a story on these human flesh search engines have called them a ‘virtual opposition’ for the Communist Party of China (CPC) as it has brought many local officials to justice. However, calling them a virtual opposition to the CPC will be a little far-fetched. First, the searches are not solely of corrupt government officials, second, only local officials have been targeted and third, these have frequently been a vent for mob feelings of hunger for justice or vendetta. A case in point being the hunt for a girl’s whereabouts in China who had shown a moderate stance on Tibet ahead of the Beijing Olympics. When it became clear that the girl stayed abroad, details of her mother’s house in China were revealed leading to the subsequent vandalisation of her house.
The central, provincial and local governments in China have also used these sites as platforms for posting their own views on the Internet and publicising them under the guise of ordinary citizens. Indeed, as many as 50,000 government agencies have blogs and websites on the Internet (http://defenceforumindia.com/forum/china/42597-china-faces-virtual-opposition-ahead-party-meet.html). Sites like these are reminiscent of Maoist strategies followed during the Cultural Revolution wherein which encouraged citizens to go after local officials and expose them so that the core central leadership remained untouched.
On the other hand, many analysts see CPC’s decision to invite foreign media for the first time to cover the upcoming 18th National Congress of the party as a result of this growing awareness among the netizens about corruption. However, one needs to realize that even though they will be fed information in a cordon sanitaire, the meetings of the politburo will still remain closed door.
Rather than showcasing opposition to a one-party rule in China, these human flesh search engines focus more on issues that drive people emotionally, including ‘corrupt officials, polarizing events and contested moral standards. Labelling these engines as any sort of political movement will not be correct at this point in time.
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
email: [email protected]