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.
Put simply, the “flesh engine” is, to borrow Justice Clarence Thomas’s term, a “high-tech lynch mob.” Each day, there are thousands of attempts by web users to initiate searches; most fall on deaf ears, but others have ignited nationwide campaigns for justice, as well as online witch hunts. For while flesh searches certainly empower ordinary netizens, and have been successfully used to expose hundreds of notorious, corrupt or indecent individuals, critics say they are simply a form of vigilante justice that undermines China’s judicial system.
Defenders, though, argue that unregulated remedies are essential in a society whose rule of law is weak, or where powerful individuals can exert their influence to escape official justice. Flesh searches occupy the fault lines along the generational culture wars and polarized moral standards of modern-day China.
The origins of the phenomenon are relatively innocent, dating back to the halcyon pre-Weibo or WeChat days of the bulletin board, or BBS. Dominated by sites such as Mop.com and Tianya.cn, BBS offered Reddit-style communities and conversations to a new class of young web users, or “netizens.” One Mop.com BBS, “the human-flesh search engine,” allowed its members to crowd-source answers to questions—the somewhat alarming term is simply a literal English translation of renrou sousuo (人肉搜索), meaning an offline search by a collective of human resources, or “flesh.”
In 2001, when Mop’s Q&A service launched, the subjects were usually of a trivial or entertainment nature; in an early example of what was to come, though, one user posted a photograph claiming to be his girlfriend. In fact, the “girlfriend” was simply a model, whose personal information was then posted on Mop to refute the user’s boasts.
This innocent model, Chen Ziyao, was one of the first victims of the early engine. Soon, though, the technology would be applied to the guilty. In 2006, user “BrokenGlasses” posted a despairing message on Mop, attached to a short film described as “inhuman…I have no interest in spreading this video,” he wrote, “nor can I remain silent. I just hope justice can be done.” The video showed a slim woman cradling a kitten by a riverbank; she then places the kitten on the ground and crushes the helpless creature under her high heels.
The response to BrokenGlasses’s video was immediate and indignant: “Let’s kick her to death, just like she did the kitten” was one of the most popular suggestions. Then Mop’s army got down to business, starting with the task of tracking down the woman who would soon be known across China as the Hangzhou Kitten Killer.
Their first clue was a watermark that showed the video was the work of Crushworld.net, a Hangzhou-based fetish site, specializing in 15 yuan DVDs of women stomping small pets to death. Once the story was picked up a few days later by the mainstream media—a near universal phenomenon in the most popular flesh searches—the well-dressed woman was identified as Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse from northeastern Heilongjiang province.
As Wang’s contact details began appearing online, her response was initially defiant. “Suddenly hundreds of people are on my QQ and cursing me,” she wrote. “What’s the problem if I crush cats? It’s a type of experience. You wouldn’t understand.” But as the growing fury spilled over into real life, Wang’s life began to fall apart.
She published a mea culpa, blaming divorce and depression for why she agreed to film the animal abuse. Too late: Wang lost her “iron rice bowl” job, which had come with a state pension and other lifelong privileges; it was then reported that she had fled her hometown (Wang has not been heard from since). Meanwhile, the cameraman was fired from a provincial television station, while Crushworld was bombarded with multiple Distributed Denial of Service attacks, and eventually shut down.
The flesh engine had established itself, almost overnight, as a national phenomenon with a distinct agenda: to identify and shame alleged miscreant. No longer just a search by “flesh,” but for flesh, the engine had become a mass-mobilized manhunt.
As managing editor of Tianya, Song Zheng saw the flesh engine as a “natural” product of the digital age. “It’s essentially a self-repair mechanism…there was a saying that ‘[on the internet] no one knows you’re a dog,’” he told the Guangzhou Daily back in 2008. “Everyone treats it as a virtual world in which you can do things you wouldn’t dare to do in reality, with a mask on…flesh searches act as a constraint to the loss of morality in the virtual world, like the ‘viral antibody’ dynamic in the nature.”
Wang Jue and company may have been the flesh engine’s first famous scalps, but soon its trophy walls would be covered with spoils of higher stakes: There was the Xinjiang military commander’s wife who slapped a tourist site attendant that had dared to reprimand her behavior; Lin Jiaxiang, a portly middle-aged Party secretary with the Shenzhen Maritime Administration, who, accused of drunkenly molesting an 11-year-old at a seafood restaurant, yelled, “I did it, so what? Name your price; I will pay it!”; Yang Dacai, an official who was photographed smiling at the scene of a major traffic accident, and later earned the nickname “Brother Watch” for his collection of foreign timepieces well beyond the means of an ordinary civil servant; Li Qiming, who inadvertently made his deputy police-chief parent infamous by bellowing “My father is Li Gang!” at security guards after a notorious hit-and-run incident at Hebei University; and Sun Wei, a former Tsinghua University student widely believed to have gotten away with the attempted murder of her roommate Zhu Ling in 1996—a notorious case that predated the flesh engine, but has been periodically revisited by it.
With the exception of Sun Wei, who apparently now lives in the US and continues to protest her innocence, these searches all resulted in their targets being publicly shamed and duly punished by the Party, with several losing their official positions and at least two ending up in jail. And they join a litany of corrupt businessmen and unpatriotic pornographers, pederasts, pet killers, policemen, and politicians who’ve fallen into the engine’s maw and been furiously chewed up and spat out.
But oftentimes, complete innocents can find themselves wrongly sucked into the search’s Sarlacc Pit: Changsha public security official Hu Hanlin, for example, denied participating in the recent vicious police bludgeoning of a golden retriever of which he’d been accused: “I only investigated crimes via video footage,” he pleaded on Weibo, after his name and phone number were posted in an article entitled “Violent Murder of Golden Retriever” in January 2017. “I never directly respond to [emergency] calls.” This uncontrollable aspect was not lost on Tianya’s Song, who also called for “official guidance and legal supervision” for what he termed “self-organized online revelry for the masses.”
The flesh engine offers a fascinating insight into what apparently makes China’s younger generations—often viewed, by their elders at least, as privileged and politically apathetic—mad enough not to take it any more. Many flesh searches track down those typically targeted by, for example, activists like PETA in the West—such as the Hebei student who cruelly killed Garfield, a beloved campus cat, in 2009. In other instances, the flesh engine acts as an online constabulary, examining evidence in cases perceived to have been previously mishandled by authorities, such as the Zhu Ling poisoning, or, more recently, the tale of Tang Lanlan.
Tang was the pseudonym of a 14-year-old Heilongjiang girl who, in 2008, accused over 16 villagers, including both her parents, of forcing her into prostitution since she was 7. When, a decade later, online newspaper The Paper tried to revisit claims that Tang’s allegations were fabricated, claiming that 11 suspects may have been wrongfully jailed, netizens reacted furiously to the invasion of Tang’s privacy and turned the flesh search back onto the reporters, with Tang’s hashtag soon attracting over 50 million views.
“The people have limited means to get information,” citizen journalist Wu Gan told The Atlantic in a 2013 article about flesh searches. “Public power is not transparent and operates in a black box, [but] citizens can get access to information through the internet, exposing lies and the truth… in some ways [it] has had good effects.”
Yet, in the fog and furore online, proper perspectives can be easily lost. Zhang Zetian was enthusiastically named “Milk Tea Girl” by netizens who adored the high-school student’s “fresh-faced looks,” after picture of Zhang holding a cup of tea was posted on Renren.com, an early Facebook clone. Years later, Zhang was still being recognized at university and had grown deeply uncomfortable with the continued attention: “No matter where I go, people attempt to take stealth photos of me,” she told the BBC in 2014. Admirers often followed Zhang with camera phones and some stalkers even attempted to break into her dormitory.
In another infamous incident, Beijing advertising executive Wang Fei says he and his girlfriend were sacked from the agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and relentlessly stalked and abused, after netizens posted Wang’s phone number, student ID, work contacts, brother’s license plate, and parents’ address in 2007. The engine had been freshly fired up by the publication of a diary called “Migratory Bird Going North,” written by Wang’s late wife, which recorded her spiral into depression and suicide after learning of her estranged husband’s new partner. After her death, the tragic memoir was posted to a BBS by her grieving sister. The family tragedy quickly became a national outrage; vandals daubed outraged messages on Wang’s parents’ door and he was forced to go into hiding, his life in tatters. It is precisely this kind of populist revenge—in which once private matters are viciously adjudicated and avenged in the public square—that give supporters of the flesh search most pause for thought.
In Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web, a 2012 film based on a popular novel, a depressed white-collar worker, having just been handed a cancer diagnosis, refuses to give up her seat to an elderly bus passenger. The incident is caught on film by an ambitious reporter, and the resulting flesh-fueled firestorm eventually drives the beleaguered worker to suicide. “I have often been misunderstood and criticized online, so I know the feeling,” Chen told US newspaper SF Gate. “[In China] social ethics and the law have not kept up with the speed of technological progress.”
Social commentator Wang Dan described the issue in terms of a butterfly effect: “It usually starts with a small matter,” he wrote in China Youth Daily, “but because of the aggregation of netizens and their searches, the situation grows out of control…in the process, every netizen feels they’re doing what they should do, but the result is usually mixed.”
Harried widower Wang Fei was eventually awarded minor damages for libel against a web service provider and BBS user in a Chinese court, and the government itself has occasionally denounced the phenomenon: In 2014, cybersecurity official Liu Zhengrong called the flesh search “illegal and immoral.” Certainly, the state is wary of the implications of the flesh search, as well as its influence on the already-parlous judicial process.
Yet major injustices have also been averted by the intervention of crusading netizens, most famously in the case of pedicurist Deng Yujiao who fought off a pair of attempted rapists with a knife. Deng was initially charged with murder, despite acting in self-defense, but the flesh search kept the news cycle turning, and the public pressure grew until Deng was eventually given a suspended sentence and released. In another high-profile case in 2017, a man given a life sentence for killing a loan shark who had sexually assaulted his mother; police had ignored his calls for help. The man’s his sentence was reviewed following a public outcry.
But the death of Zhao Xin, a 14-year-old school boy in Sichuan the same year, pitched local authorities against the online sleuths with remarkably different results. Netizens had claimed that the boy was being bullied by a gang, which included the children of powerful local figures; Zhao’s mother told Xinhua said his body had been covered with bruises, but bizarrely, police declared the death a suicide before any autopsy took place. After rumors ran rampant online, a large and angry crowd soon gathered outside the school gates to demand an explanation for the inconsistencies in the case.
Accusing the family of distorting facts and inciting unrest, the local authorities placed the Zhaos under house arrest, flooding the protest site with armed officers, and shutting down local media reports. One woman claimed that officials had been offering 50 RMB for locals to act as witnesses to the “suicide”; police then detained four netizens for “inciting the public and severely disturbing the public order.” By taking the results of the flesh search offline and into the streets, protestors had apparently crossed the line with Sichuanese authorities.
Reports in the state media were critical of this heavy-handed response: “Rumors arise on all sides, but the local authorities have not produced facts to dispel them,” wrote one reporter in a detailed article for Xinhua, the national news agency. “How long will the people’s fear of the unknown continue? What difficult truths are being held back? These questions require clear-cut answers from the relevant local authorities.” Instead, though, many Chinese choose to rely on those facts offered by the flesh engine—and the furies they unleash.
The authorities have in turn reacted by essentially banning such searches: as of June 1, 2017, when the Cyber Security Law of the People’s Republic of China officially took effect, the publication of identifying information—such as names, photographs, and addresses—without prior permission is punishable by a maximum three-year prison sentence or “criminal detention.” Those who sell such information, meanwhile, are also liable to the same sentence—and the law has already been frequently applied.
He Xingli, the “Corgi Killer,” received over 100,000 threatening messages and abusive calls from strangers, some even directed at her kindergarten-age daughter; she has reportedly decided to seek a divorce for the safety of her child. In March, both He and the dog’s owner, Xiao, were jailed for seven days for “sending threatening messages online” and “disseminating other people’s personal and private information on the internet,” respectively—a decision that seems to have satisfied nobody. “If you don’t allow people to suffer [the flesh engine], they will begin to feel that they are above the consequences,” opined one advocate of the practice on Weibo. “If the law is momentarily unable to solve this problem, then netizens flesh-searching…can supply this kind of punishment.”
“Sins of the Flesh” is a feature 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 iTunes Store.