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China’s Cyberposse

Illustration by Leo Jung

Published: March 3, 2010

The short video made its way around China’s Web in early 2006, passed on through file sharing and recommended in chat rooms. It opens with a middle-aged Asian woman dressed in a leopard-print blouse, knee-length black skirt, stockings and silver stilettos standing next to a riverbank. She smiles, holding a small brown and white kitten in her hands. She gently places the cat on the tiled pavement and proceeds to stomp it to death with the sharp point of her high heel.

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Illustration by Leo Jung

“This is not a human,” wrote BrokenGlasses, a user on Mop, a Chinese online forum. “I have no interest in spreading this video nor can I remain silent. I just hope justice can be done.” That first post elicited thousands of responses. “Find her and kick her to death like she did to the kitten,” one user wrote. Then the inquiries started to become more practical: “Is there a front-facing photo so we can see her more clearly?” The human-flesh search had begun.

Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing — have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.

There is no portal specially designed for human-flesh searching; the practice takes place in Chinese Internet forums like Mop, where the term most likely originated. Searches are powered by users called wang min, Internet citizens, or Netizens. The word “Netizen” exists in English, but you hear its equivalent used much more frequently in China, perhaps because the public space of the Internet is one of the few places where people can in fact act like citizens. A Netizen called Beacon Bridge No Return found the first clue in the kitten-killer case. “There was credit information before the crush scene reading ‘www.crushworld.net,’ ” that user wrote. Netizens traced the e-mail address associated with the site to a server in Hangzhou, a couple of hours from Shanghai. A follow-up post asked about the video’s location: “Are users from Hangzhou familiar with this place?” Locals reported that nothing in their city resembled the backdrop in the video. But Netizens kept sifting through the clues, confident they could track down one person in a nation of more than a billion. They were right.

The traditional media picked up the story, and people all across China saw the kitten killer’s photo on television and in newspapers. “I know this woman,” wrote I’m Not Desert Angel four days after the search began. “She’s not in Hangzhou. She lives in the small town I live in here in northeastern China. God, she’s a nurse! That’s all I can say.”

Only six days after the first Mop post about the video, the kitten killer’s home was revealed as the town of Luobei in Heilongjiang Province, in the far northeast, and her name — Wang Jiao — was made public, as were her phone number and her employer. Wang Jiao and the cameraman who filmed her were dismissed from what the Chinese call iron rice bowls, government jobs that usually last to retirement and pay a pension until death.

“Wang Jiao was affected a lot,” a Luobei resident known online as Longjiangbaby told me by e-mail. “She left town and went somewhere else. Li Yuejun, the cameraman, used to be core staff of the local press. He left Luobei, too.” The kitten-killer case didn’t just provide revenge; it helped turn the human-flesh search engine into a national phenomenon.

AT THE BEIJING headquarters of Mop, Ben Du, the site’s head of interactive communities, told me that the Chinese term for human-flesh search engine has been around since 2001, when it was used to describe a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven. Mop had a forum called human-flesh search engine, where users could pose questions about entertainment trivia that other users would answer: a type of crowd-sourcing. The kitten-killer case and subsequent hunts changed all that. Some Netizens, including Du, argue that the term continues to mean a cooperative, crowd-sourced investigation. “It’s just Netizens helping each other and sharing information,” he told me. But the Chinese public’s primary understanding of the term is no longer so benign. The popular meaning is now not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, initially performed online but intended to cause real-world consequences. Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China.

Versions of the human-flesh search have taken place in other countries. In the United States in 2006, one online search singled out a woman who found a cellphone in a New York City taxi and started to use it as her own, rebuffing requests from the phone’s rightful owner to return it. In South Korea in 2005, Internet users identified and shamed a young woman who was caught on video refusing to clean up after her dog on a Seoul subway car. But China is the only place in the world with a nearly universal recognition (among Internet users) of the concept. I met a film director in China who was about to release a feature film based on a human-flesh-search story and a mystery writer who had just published a novel titled “Human-Flesh Search.”

Tom Downey is the author of “The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse.”

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