Social media provides solutions for Chinese justice-seekers ignored by the authorities, but may create as many problems as it solves
Update: The Supreme People’s Procuracurate concluded in September that there was insufficient evidence to charge Bao Yuming of raping a minor, as the accuser’s parents had falsified her age and she had been over 18 when she first met him. Bao, who illegally held dual Chinese-US citizenship, has been deported, and his license to practice law has been revoked.
After repeatedly being ignored by police in Shandong province and Beijing, a high-profile case, in which a former business executive is accused of raping his adopted daughter over a period of three years, got the attention of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate just days after South Reviews magazine published the alleged victim’s story on their official Weibo account.
A team has been dispatched to Shandong to investigate the girl’s claims, confirming a familiar pattern for desperate seekers of justice in China: When official channels fail to produce results, publishing one’s plight on social media may create enough public outrage to pressure the authorities to act.
The tactic has been widely employed during the Covid-19 outbreak. On January 28, a Wuhan woman wrote on Weibo, “My father has a fever and cough. He even has difficulty breathing. We fear he may be infected with the novel coronavirus. But there are no beds in the hospitals. We can’t get him tested and have to stay at home. Please help us. Begging you. I can’t lose him.”
The woman’s cry for help was reposted more than 8,000 times and received over 2,800 comments. Her father was admitted to the hospital soon afterward, and has even been cured and discharged at the time of writing.
At the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, when hospital beds were in short supply and medical resources overwhelmed, the hashtag “#Covid-19-infectees seeking help# (肺炎患者求助)” gained more than 5 billion views. Many users posted their name, address and symptoms along with the hashtag. Netizens would forward the information to local communities and related government authorities, who would then make arrangements for those in need.
However, mobilizing the court of public opinion is not without risk. Sensational and emotional stories generate the most interest, regardless of their veracity, and some stories have turned out to to be fabricated. This has then sometimes led to cyberbullying aimed at those accused by an online mob notoriously quick to outrage, while the infamous “human flesh search engine” sees calls for investigation by the appropriate authorities morph into a more direct kind of vigilante justice meted out by netizens on whomever they believe deserves it.
In August 2018, an edited video clip titled “Civil Servant Beats a Boy” went viral on Weibo. The accused alleged that he had slapped the 13-year-old at a swimming pool after the teen had verbally abused his wife, sexually assaulted her, and refused to apologize. The furor, though, was already too big to contain; it eventually drove the wife of the accused to kill herself because of unbearable mental pressure and humiliation.
Today’s social media environment provides almost endless scope for emotional issues to be dragged into the spotlight, forcing authorities to respond. The power of Weibo as a tool of expression and even scrutiny of authorities has seen positive results.
However, “in the long run, a department set aside for verification [of users’ stories] is necessary on Weibo’s part,” Zhou Yujie, a lawyer from Beijing Weiheng Law Firm Hefei Branch, tells TWOC. “It is also important for the government to raise public awareness of laws and regulations when it comes to illegal ‘cyber manhunts.'”
Moreover, justice via Weibo masks the underlying issue that forces help-seekers to take to social media in the first place. “Most importantly, [the government must] strengthen law enforcement by local authorities,” says Zhou.