Web vigilante justice in China draws cry for reform

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2008 

BEIJING — Wang Fei's infidelity deeply upset his wife. She wrote of her distress in a diary, and then jumped from their 24th floor balcony.

Her family posted details of Wang Fei's affair on the Internet, angrily blaming him for his wife's suicide. Soon, tens of thousands of Chinese web users knew about Wang Fei.

Many felt incensed, so they revved up a "human-flesh search engine," which is what Chinese Internet users call their Web hunts. They appealed to fellow Chinese to ferret out information about the philandering husband and humiliate him. They posted photos of Wang Fei and details about his job, his car's license-plate number and his national ID number. Even his parents were drawn into the fray.

"Internet users went to the house of Wang Fei's parents and painted a lot of nasty slogans, like, 'You should pay back with blood for what you did!'" said Zhang Yanfeng, Wang Fei's attorney.

The 28-year-old Beijing resident lost his job as at a major advertising agency, and found himself hounded frequently on the street by passersby.

So he filed a lawsuit against three Chinese Internet portals and Web sites to demand compensation for the damage to his reputation and livelihood. The lawsuit, which was filed in March, has roiled the legal community because it touches on aspects of privacy and the balance between personal rights and the public's freedom of speech that are relatively unexplored in China. In the past few days, it has also drawn demands for legal reforms.

It also has gathered attention because Internet manhunts are increasing, sometimes taking on a lynch-mob mentality with a slight but not-so-distant echo of history.

In the tumultuous era of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, paramount Communist leader Mao Zedong unleashed students and low-level cadres to purge the nation of "rightists" in a period of political upheaval. Then, students pasted "big character posters" on walls with their denunciations.

Now, Internet users post their accusations on the web.

In April, Duke University student Grace Wang was vilified after she tried to seek a middle ground between pro- and anti-Tibet independence forces on the North Carolina campus. Internet users in China tracked down her parents in Qingdao, dumping feces at their doorstep and forcing them into hiding.

Experts say the phenomenon is far wider than simple vigilante justice. In some cases, Internet users have banded together to expose fraud, knock down charlatanism or in one case, to help the wife of a soldier deployed to an earthquake-devastated area of China. In a nation where information is controlled, a thirst for greater flows of information is growing, and people sometimes band together to gather it.

"The technology that makes this possible is neutral," said David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University's China Media Project. "It doesn't have any agenda."

Delegating tasks through the Internet to a large and diffuse group to harness its collective wisdom is a process sometimes referred to in recent years as "crowdsourcing."

Worried by Internet manhunts, some legislators from the National People's Congress, China's largely ceremonial assembly, late last month proposed amendments to the criminal code to imprison for up to three years employees of government offices, and financial or educational institutions, who are found to leak personal information about people who are victims of "human-flesh search engines."

The Web manhunt "is not a simple moral battle but a matter that seriously batters the rights of the people," Zhu Zhigang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Congress who proposed the amendment, told the China Daily newspaper.

"This is a hot topic," said Liu Deliang, a researcher at the Asia-Pacific Institute for Cyber-law Studies at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications.

Liu said that the Beijing district court, noting interest in the case, will have three judges issue a ruling, rather than one, perhaps as soon as mid-September. The court also has held a seminar and sought expert opinion from a number of legal scholars.

Liu offered his opinion to the court.

"If China wants to have a law on this topic, it has a long way to go because the definition of what is private is not clear," Liu said.

Moreover, he added, rule of law is still weak in China, and "people don't have a strong idea of the need to respect other peoples' rights."

Perhaps the first big Internet manhunt occurred in 2006 when outrage greeted a Web video of a woman in high heels crushing a kitten. Users identified the background as in Heilongjiang province, and identified the woman and her employer, leading to her suspension.

Among the other big Internet manhunt cases so far this year:

  • In May, a 21-year-old woman posted a four-minute YouTube video in which she scorned the devastating Sichuan earthquake earlier that month, saying she didn't care about the victims. Once Chinese Web sites picked up on the video, Internet users immediately found her name, blood type, home address and phone numbers of most of her relatives.
  • In late June, a peasant farmer was arrested in Shanxi province for faking a photograph that appeared to show a rare South China tiger in the wild. Internet users determined that the photo had been lifted from a poster.
  • When word spread during the Olympic Games in August that the father of Guo Wenjun, a gold medalist in air pistol, abandoned her to the care of a coach nine years earlier, tens of thousands of Internet users began hunting the father. Guo's mother asked for the search to be called off, saying it brought huge embarrassment to the family.

Many Web sites promote such searches, knowing that a voracious public appetite for matters of marital affairs and sex scandals can sharply boost traffic. But not all Chinese Internet users believe the "human-flesh search engines" are a good thing.

In an unscientific poll of Web users, China's most popular site, Sina.com, found recently that 41 percent of respondents thought the Internet hunts had abused people's privacy, and that the same percentage thinks criminal penalties should be imposed on cases of abuse.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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