BEIJING—It all began with a Shanghai psychologist outraged at the Internet postings of a foreign English teacher boasting of his sexual conquests of Chinese women.
"This piece of garbage must be found and kicked out of China!!!" Zhang Jiehai, a member of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, wrote on his Web diary.
Soon, Zhang's angry essays ricocheted from one Web site to another, routinely gathering 100,000 viewers, amid spiraling calls for a campaign to out the anonymous Internet womanizer.
Late last week, names surfaced on the Internet. Students at English schools in Shanghai started pointing at teachers. Apparently wary that violence would erupt against unsuspecting foreigners, Zhang this week backed off his demands to root out the blogger.
The case of the foreign writer, who goes by the Internet name "Chinabounder," is only the latest example of Internet vigilantes stirring up mobs to ferret out those they see as acting improperly. Already this year, Internet users tracked down and harassed a college student blamed for having an affair with a married woman and identified a model caught on videotape crushing a kitten with her stiletto heel as a perverse publicity stunt.
What made the cases similar were cascading denunciations on the Internet that have drawn comparisons with mob behavior during the Cultural Revolution, the chaotic period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Red Guards tormented people they viewed as insufficiently loyal to Mao Zedong.
Such vigilante attitudes aren't isolated to China. Complaints of electronic lynch mobs are also soaring in South Korea, the most wired nation in the world. A 30-year-old man became a national hate figure last year when online vigilantes accused him of driving his girlfriend to suicide. In another case, a photo posted to the Internet of a woman who failed to clean up after her dog on a subway led to an Internet hunt for her.
In a bid to halt online harassment, Seoul announced in July that it would require Internet users to undergo identity checks and use their real names when posting to popular Web sites. The regulations go before the National Assembly next year.
Some of the Internet manhunts build a great deal of momentum. China now has 123 million Internet users.
Social scientists note that Chinese have few venues for expressing opinions, so they often vent on the Internet, shielding themselves with anonymity but quickly joining in nationalistic or moralistic online crusades.
"If you judge this phenomenon with Western values, it is definitely a primitive custom that we should get rid of. However, most Chinese people think it right to beat the thieves or expose the names of the individuals who are regarded as evil," said Yu Changjiang, a sociologist at Peking University.
A popular Hong Kong commentator and blogger, Roland Soong, said the vast number of Internet viewings on the Shanghai blogger issue became "a phenomenon."
"It is something that everybody is talking about. The post is news. It shows up at all the major news portals," Soong said at a forum in Beijing Monday night.
As the Internet frenzy mounted, The Associated Press reported last week that the Web site was a hoax set up by a group of artists, including a British man, two Chinese men, an Australian woman and a Japanese woman. The blog, headlined "Sex In Shanghai: Western Scoundrel in Shanghai Tells All," is now closed to all except for friends of the blogger.
Some Chinese Internet users doubt that the blog is a hoax and continue the manhunt. For his part, Zhang backed off his campaign to "chase down the foreign scoundrel" and boot him from China. But he still updates his Chinese-language blog, "The Internet Hunt for an Immoral Foreigner."
"I do hope that no one innocent is dragged into the incident," the scholar said in an interview posted on the Sohu.com Web site. "How can you prove that a certain teacher has done it? ... It will go against my original purpose if we continue hunting like this."
Jeremy Goldkorn, creator of Chinese media blog Danwei, described the online frenzy of such cases as an "Internet swarm."
"There has been a definite rise of nationalist sentiment—`Oh, you dirty foreigners, evil vile pigs. Get out!'—those kind of things," Goldkorn said at the forum. But he added that the number of Chinese who take "a very reasonable position" on the issue is often overlooked.
Still, commentators voice concern about sudden, violent sentiments on the Web.
"Trial by virtual lynching has become the norm in China's cyberspace community," a commentator for the China Daily newspaper, Raymond Zhou, wrote in June after a previous massive Internet manhunt.
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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