Ten years of the human flesh search, China’s online vigilante system—and its devastating real-life consequences
“The luminous moonshine before my bed
Is thought to be the frost fallen on the ground
I lift my head to yell at the security guard
My father is Li Gang”
— Satirical verse mocking hit-and-run driver Li Qiming
Police arrived at the door of He Xingli ready to make an arrest. The married homeowner was accused of holding a lost Corgi called Lion hostage, and sending the dog’s 21-year-old owner Xiao Wu demands for money, along with threats to eat the animal. When Xiao went to meet He, though, accompanied by reporters, the panicked woman had apparently thrown the dog to its death.
But the cops weren’t coming for He Xingli: They were there for the six strangers who’d just shown up at He’s apartment in Chengdu to seek justice for Lion. “You human trash,” one female activist had already sprayed on He’s door. “Go die, stupid c**t. Die already.” She was detained for six days, according to Chengdu Business Daily.
He, the canine kidnapper, had fallen victim to China’s unofficial, extra-judicial court of public opinion—the “human flesh search engine.” The strange term has existed since at least 2001, though it is only in the last decade that it has become a recognized phenomenon, certain to strike fear in the hearts of any Chinese whose misdeeds make their way online.
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Sins of the Flesh is a story from our issue, “Vital Signs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.