Human flesh search engines: Chinese vigilantes that hunt victims on the web
A new phenomenon is sweeping China after the quake: digital witch hunts of those who dare to be outspoken or criticise
* Read a transcript of the video at the end of article
She looks like any other disgruntled young person. Arms tightly crossed, mouth
twisted in contempt, she could be letting off steam about parents, school,
But when 21-year-old Gao Qianhui sat down in front her webcam last month, she
had far more important issues on her mind. Upset that the three-day mourning
period for the 80,000 victims of the earthquake in southwest China had
disrupted her television viewing schedule, she launched into a five-minute
spew of vitriol and then posted the video online.
"I turn on the TV and see injured people, corpses, rotten bodies... I
don’t want to watch these things. I have no choice.” Ms Gao sighed: “Come
on, how many of you died? Just a few, right? There are so many people in
Within hours, Ms Gao had become the latest victim of a human flesh search
engine, where Chinese netizens become cyber-vigilantes and online
communities turn into the world’s largest lynch mobs.
Using the vast human power behind the Chinese web, every detail of Ms Gao’s
life, from her home and work address in Liaoning province, north east China,
to the fact that her parents were divorced, was dug up and published on
hundreds of forums and chatrooms.
“Now humiliate her,” ordered one internet user, Yang Zhiyan.
The outraged reaction to the video drew the attention of the local police and
they detained Ms Gao the next day. They did not make clear what law she was
alleged to have broken.
Ms Gao was the fifth person to be targeted by a human flesh search engine
since the 8.0-magnitude earthquake ripped through Sichuan province on May
On the day of the quake, three high school students in the provincial capital,
Chengdu, made a spoof news cast as they were evacuated from their
classrooms, joking that they hoped their school would collapse and they
would not have to go back. A few days later, shaky and tearful after the
harassment of hundreds of netizens, the same students filmed an apology: “We
really didn’t have bad intentions. We really do love our country…Thank you
to all of our internet friends for alerting us to our mistake and for
In Hong Kong, a schoolgirl was also forced to publicly apologise after writing
on her blog that she “had no feelings for Sichuan, no sadness or sympathy”.
The human flesh search engine discovered that she attended an elite school
and contacted the head teacher. The girl was threatened with expulsion and
forced to shut down her blog.
With their vast number of participants and angry nature, these witch hunts for
a digital age are a uniquely Chinese phenomenon.
Xujun Eberlein, the Chinese-American writer and observer, said: “China’s
population makes it easy to mobilize a large number of netizens to
participate in such a search, especially considering that there are many
smart and reasonably well-educated people in China who are intellectually
She added: “I think there is some pleasure in the idea of making information
available when there has been such significant suppression of both thoughts
and facts over the previous five decades.”
According to Ms Eberlein, the term “human flesh search engine”, a literal
translation of the Chinese, was first coined in 2001 when an entertainment
website asked users to track down film and music trivia.
With 210 million Chinese wired up to the internet, it was a powerful concept.
It quickly caught on and came to be used as a tool to punish the
perpetrators of extra-marital affairs, domestic violence and morality
In one infamous case in 2006, a woman now dubbed “the kitten killer of
Hangzhou” posted a video of herself stomping a kitten to death with her
stiletto heels. China’s netizens erupted with rage and hundreds of amateur
sleuths traced the video to Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai. They
discovered the woman’s name and that she had recently purchased a pair of
high-heeled shoes on eBay. They attacked her until she apologized on a local
government website and lost her job.
“Righteousness is one of the five virtues in the Confucian tradition,” Ms
Eberlein said. “With the convenience of the internet, and in the case of
non-responsive law, the righteous people took matters into their own hands.”
But 2008 has seen these search engines take on a new role. As Tibet erupted
and the Olympic torch relay was hampered by violent international protests,
they have been increasingly driven by a potent wave of Chinese nationalist
In April, Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University in America, faced
the wrath of the online mob when a photograph of her writing “Free Tibet” on
a classmate’s back during a campus vigil appeared on a Chinese forum.
“Traitor to your country” had been printed over the image.
She insisted that she had been trying to act as a mediator and had only
written the slogan after the student agreed to talk with pro-China
demonstrators, also gathered on the campus.
But the story of the young Chinese women who had swapped sides roared through
the Chinese web with unstoppable momentum.
Ms Wang’s Chinese name, Chinese identification number and contact details in
America were tracked down and posted across the internet. She received hate
mail and threats that if ever she returned to China, she would be “chopped
into 10,000 pieces”. Her parents’ address in China was published and they
were forced to go into hiding.
Tibetans have also been targeted. After 44-year-old Lobsang Gendun was
photographed protesting at the Olympic torch relay in London, Paris and San
Francisco, the human flesh search engine whirred into action.
With huge overseas communities, it took just a couple of hours for Chinese web
users to collate the pieces of Mr Gendun’s life – replete with Google
satellite map and photos of his American home.
“I suggest assassination,” wrote one poster. “Execution by shooting,” said
another. No, no, insisted yet another: “Use China’s most ancient form of
execution – dismember him.”
In an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, it turned out there was another
exiled Tibetan called Lobsang Gendun living in Utah. Since the targeting of
his namesake began, Mr Gendun, a self-proclaimed “Olympic supporter”, has
received hundreds of aggressive emails and telephone calls.
“Yes, we curse him to death and we are eager to see him go to Hell,” a
participant in the hate campaign against Mr Gendun – it did not seem to
matter which one – said. “But do you see us pouring petrol round his house?
We are just expressing our rage.”
Yang Zhiyan, the chief instigator of the backlash against 21-year-old Gao
Qianhui, was also quick to dismiss any notion of wrong doing. “She just had
to be stopped,” the 27-year-old said simply. “In the face of a catastrophe,
we Chinese have to be of one heart.
“Gao Qianhui publicly defamed the State Council’s announcement of a national
mourning period through the fastest and most effective avenue possible [the
internet] and she should be dealt with according to the laws on public
He added, proudly: “It was the great netizens who alerted the police and gave
them her details to arrest her.”
Video translation- what Gao Qianhui said:
"I turn on the TV and see injured people, corpses, rotten bodies, all
these crazy things. I don’t want to watch these things. I have no choice.
Look, now the entire internet is black-and-white and without colour. Do you
think we're all colourblind like you? Have your eyes been blasted with so
much rubble that you can't see any colour now?
"You guys, if you're hit by the rubble just go suffer by yourself
quietly...What are you screaming for? What rescue are you asking for? Not that
I'm blaming you...you guys in Sichuan are in a terrible place in China. They
say the Indian plate is crashing into you. Don't you think you guys deserve
"I don't think this earthquake was strong enough. If only it had just
been a bit stronger to flip you guys over. Today we're mourning for you.
Tomorrow we're donating money to you. May 21 is such a great day. Lots of
people want to get married. And now we have to mourn for you. Do you think
those couples should get married or not? What a spoilsport! May 20, May 21,
such auspicious days, now all spent mourning for you. Come on, how many of
you died? Just a few, right? There are so many people in China anyway.
"F***...You're driving everyone crazy...What are you doing! Do you
think you're all that goodlooking? Which part of your body is that precious?
People are giving you cash and giving you food. And you guys are doing
nothing? These few days, it's just impossible to go anywhere without being
reminded of you silly c****...Everywhere I go people are saying, 'Argh,
aftershocks in Sichuan again, this and that...'
"As for that old lady who's been lying there for over 100 hours? Why
haven't you died yet? Are you a mummy?
"F***... the earthquake might as well kill you guys... All you have
given us are catastrophes... All your children are jinxes."