Internet users in China are able to discover the identities of people shown in photos and videos, help solve crimes and report wrongdoers, collect information about and destroy the reputations of people who have committed antisocial actions and even bring down government officials.
How do they do it?
Human flesh search.
In its simplest form, a human flesh search engine is a group of individuals working together online to collect information on a certain topic or person. The term was created to describe a phenomenon where individuals did online research using massive amounts of people collaborating together: rather than using a search engine, use a human search engine. This method of information cultivation can be done anywhere there are large amounts of people using the internet, but was popularized and cultivated into a true social force in China — a country where the government maintains heavy handed control of the media and internet.
The original human flesh searches engines appeared around a question and answer board on China’s Mop forums in 2001. A user would ask the community a question, and massive amounts of other users would work together to find an answer. Soon, these question and answer dialogues took on a more versatile and powerful inception.
Human flesh search engines quickly evolved to not only include online information searches conducted by humans but full fledged online manhunts about humans. The “flesh” part of this term is now meant both for the searchers and the searched. In practice, this method of online research is often used by vigilantes or netizens looking to find the identities of and/ or dirty on individuals who have popped up on the social media radar for various social, moral, or political infractions.
How are Human Flesh Searches Conducted?
Called Rénròu Sōusuǒ 人肉搜索 in Chinese, human flesh searches often occur when a particular individual offends the online community through their words or actions. Typically, these infractions have been videoed or photographed and the evidence was released online — often going viral. These offences can happen both in the online and brick and mortar worlds, and these searches truly blend these two sides of human social interaction together. When such offences occur, groups of concerned or enraged netizens group up around social networking sites and forums to find out as much information about the targeted individual, organization, or entity as possible.
The methods used by these searchers generally consist of scouring social media sites and forums — such as Mop, Tianya, KDnet, Weibo, and QQforums — blogs and other websites for virtual tracks left by the targeted individual in order to find out who they are and as much information about them as possible. But they don’t stop there, as a good human flesh search will include netizens contacting people who reside in proximity, work, or go to school with their target and drive the flesh search into the brick and mortar world. Their findings are usually disseminated publicly.
The spoils of human flesh searches often result in some type of retribution being taken out on the target — which include public humiliation, the exposing of secrets, reports given to their employers and families, providing evidence in legal case against them, or, in the case of government officials, putting pressure on their superiors to remove them from duty. The after effects of human flesh searches can result in the target losing their jobs, their families, having their social media, email, and bank accounts hacked, being blacklisted from future employment, or even being socially excommunicated.
Human flesh searches become increasingly heinous in situations where the online community feels that the target may not, for various reasons, receive an adequate punishment through the legal system. So the intent here is not only to expose the person who took part in an offensive act but to encourage adequate punishment.
As Tricia Wang stated in an article in the Atlantic: “In a way, this is like an ad hoc, ground-up rule of law. It’s thrown together, it’s not very systematic, it can fall apart at any second — but what’s amazing is that there is no face-to-face contact and yet trust is able to form.”
Who is human flesh searched?
To put it generally, individuals who are human flesh searched are those who pique the interest of a particular group of Chinese internet users. In reality, this interest is often bestowed upon people who have done or said things which create a sense of public outrage. Pretty much anybody who is caught doing something crass, illegal, unpatriotic, horrid, lewd, offensive, corrupt, or just downright wrong in China could be at risk of being human flesh searched. It doesn’t matter if the individual is a high ranking government official, a lowly working class stiff, or even a high school student, they can be held accountable for their actions by masses of cyber vigilantes.
What a human flesh search looks like
In 2009, a fight between two high school girls in Shanghai was videoed and uploaded to the internet which quickly went viral. The video showed one girl beating the crap out of another, who passively received the blows. Chinese netizens, believing the aggressor in the fight was too harsh, human flesh searched her, and, among countless photos, the following “report” was collected and then published:
Name: Xiong Jiaqing
Birthdate: 1992 October 1 (Libra)
Blood Type: A
Place of Birth: Shanghai
Current Residence: Shanghai – Pudong New Area
School: Nanhu Vocational Schools, No. 2 Branch Campus
Emphasis of Study: Railway/Track 09 Level [for working in the railway/subway field]
School Student Office Telephone Number: 6554414965542002 – 8201
Character: Rough, active and open-hearted, straight-forward, impatient.
Personal Habits: Occasionally smokes, never drinks, loves sleeping in.
Physique: Medium build.
Marital Status: Single
Schools I’ve Attended: Junior high school: Shanghai Jianping Century Middle School
Home Address: Mudan Road, Lane 418, #1
Home Phone: 86-021-68450700
This personal information was made public for whoever could use it for whatever purpose. If someone wanted to send here an angry social media message, they could now do so. If someone wanted to confront her in person, they now know her home address and the school she goes to.
Examples of Human Flesh Searches
There have probably been thousands of human flesh searches conducted through China’s social media sites and forums over the past decade. Below is a sample of some of the more publicized cases.
Many prominent government officials in China have been taken down by information leaked about them through the country’s informal, though very active and well connected, online media. The most recent was Lei Zhengfu, the party boss of Chongqing, who had a video leaked online of him having sex with his 18 year old mistress. The video was graphic, hiding little of this frog faced official, and it led to him being sacked — as if it wasn’t punishment enough for all of China to see him doing this:
Yang Dacai, the chief of the Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau, was caught in a photograph smiling on the scene of a massive accident that killed 36 people. This smile was enough to get him human fleshed searched. Netizens quickly assembled a collection of photos of Yang which showed that he had a taste for expensive accessories and attire — including an extensive collection of luxury watches — that belied the meager salary of a civil servant. Due to the public outrage that resulted, Yang Dacai was sacked.
In October of this year, a school teacher in Taiyuan was caught on her classroom’s CCTV camera repeatedly slapping a 5 year old student. The video was released online and quickly went viral. This lead to a human flesh search of this teacher as well as a sweep for other teachers who may be abusing their students. In the manhunt, a teacher was discovered who posted photos on her social media account of what appeared to be her abusing her students. She was promptly human flesh searched, which led to her being fired and her social media and bank accounts being hacked, along with a big dose of public humiliation.
In May of this year, a British guy was caught on video sexually assaulting a Chinese girl and then being beaten by a group of men on a street in Beijing. The video was released online and caused a massive public sensation which sent ripples across the country. Within days, the guy was targeted by human search engines, and various other photos and stories of his “antics” in China materialized. This incident shows that even foreign tourists without Chinese social media accounts, a Chinese language online footprint, or deep social connections in the country is not immune to being human flesh searched.
In April of this year, a video of two teenagers beating up a couple of old men at a nursing home in Changzhou went viral. After being human flesh searched, one of the youths was identified. The resounding online uproar caused the Changzhou police to take action on the matter.
In 2010, a video was posted on China’s Mop forums which showed a young girl brutally killing a rabbit. The video was part of a film genre marketed internationally as “crush fetish.” The girl was part of a group who filmed themselves crushing animals to death, reputedly being paid around 6000 RMB (US $1,000) for each. Needless to say, she was human flesh searched and her identity, phone number, social media accounts, and address were revealed. Buckling under the pressure she came out and apologized. It is not clear if she faced any additional retribution.
In 2009, a Zhejiang University professor publicly insulted Chinese girls who date foreign men. This provoked a rather biting response directed at the professor from a social media user known as “Zhejiang University Girl,” who claimed to be dating an African-American. Her rebuttal against the professor included many of the reasons why Chinese girls supposedly prefer foreign men, which included insulting the sexual prowess of their Chinese counterparts. Enraged by these comebacks — especially the comparative analysis of penis size — this student found herself human flesh searched. The result of which lead to “her” coming out with a public apology. It turned out that she was really a he. The man responsible said he created the persona because he was offended that so many Chinese girls in Hangzhou were dating foreign men, and, apparently, wanted to rile up some sentiment against them.
In 2009, a stray cat at Hebei University that the students named Garfield and took care of was blown up. Apparently, the culprit found the cat in a place where it was normally fed by students and toss it a firecracker (I’m assuming), which blew the cat’s head clear off its body. The perpetrator was latter revealed via human flesh search as a student at the university, and he more than likely faced repercussions for the action.
In 2006, one of the first famous cases of human flesh searching occurred. A video of a woman stomping to death a kitten with a pair of high heel shoes went viral on a popular web forum. Netizens joined together and discovered that the woman was a government employee in Heilongjiang province and reported her to her employers. She was promptly sacked, losing, among other things, her life-long severance package.
While many human flesh searches are used to balance out the scales of justice, so to speak, some are used for more benign purposes — such as discovering the identity of a pretty girl in a photo or that of a particularly attractive beggar.
In 2008, a photo of a woman with unbelievably long, slender legs walking across a flooded street in Nanchang was published on a Chinese social media site by a user requesting the help of the human search engines to find out who she was. Thousands of users responded, and, before long, the identity of the long legged beauty was revealed. Her name was Bing Bing, a 26 year old from Harbin who was married to a man from Nanchang. But after seeing her face the allure was apparently lost on China’s netizens.
Why Use Human Flesh Searches?
Human flesh search engines in China pick up where the country’s censorship policies, legal system, and political cronyism leave off. While China’s mainstream media outlets, various webpages, and conventional search engines are perpetually under the thumb of the authorities, the human search engines are vastly more difficult to control. Their shear numbers and ability to disseminate information to thousands — if not millions — of individuals within moments is a force that no governing body can fully contend with short of turning off the internet all together. Couple this with a legal system which is know for turning a blind eye away from offences involving animal abuse, sexual assault, or those perpetrated by high ranking individuals, and the climate becomes ripe for cyber vigilantism.
When you want to find out what’s going on in China, you don’t turn on the TV news or read the mainstream media, you tune into the country’s various social media networks and forums. It is through these mediums that news and information is shared across this country. And though these social networks are highly censored by the government, the incredibly high number of users and shear amount of data being shared generally uts netizens ahead of the curve. In point, human flesh search engines are often able to quickly distribute controversial content and come up with a codification system before the censors know what hit them.
The fact of the matter is that human flesh searches have proven to be successful methods for the public to push for an idea of justice. Many government officials have been sacked for their offences after being flesh searched — which is big in a country where the public has virtually no say in politics. In a way, the public of China has become empowered against corrupt, dishonest, or perverted officials who would otherwise be able to act with virtual impunity. In short, human flesh searches work in China, and they’ve matured into a public watchdog system reminiscent of the old baojia system of civilian law enforcement that’s built into this culture. China’s social networks and forums have become the people’s intelligence agency, and the human flesh search is one of its main methods for collecting intel and exerting its power.
Investigative journalist, Wu Gan described the phenomenon as such:
“The cultural significance of flesh searches is this: In an undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information. Information about [the activities of] 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. It is a kind of asymmetrical means of protest [畸形的抗争手段], and in some ways has had good effects.”
In the internet age, where the government and the media cannot be trusted, the people will fill the void.
The digital world in China is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. You can’t run and you can’t hide from it. The virtual world and real world are now one and the same, and it is almost impossible to exist in one and not the other. If you have an identity, it can be searched for, found, shared, and taken action upon. In a world were mass populations of people are connected online and go about their days provisioned with devices that can record photos, audio, and video there is a good chance that if you step out of line it will be captured and shared. If you do something stupid, offensive, corrupt, or illegal in China there is a chance that a digital eye will be watching. All too often, what that eye sees can be put in front of millions of people at the push of a few buttons as the next human flesh search begins.
Read about how Mexican netizens are taken action against organized crime.