China Attacks 'Human Flesh Search'

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES — China's list of online do's and don'ts is increasing with its pursuit of charges against individuals who use the Internet to uncover information about others — as well as the companies that make it possible.

While many adult entrepreneurs look for opportunity in today's global marketplace, one of the stumbling blocks to worldwide success can be the stubborn determination of some jurisdictions to keep our wares — and other forms of free expression — out of the reach of their citizens — people who are our potential customers and that demand our product.

One troubling example is Communist China, which not only represents one of the world's largest markets, but through its rapidly growing affluence, infrastructure and technical sophistication, is becoming an ever more attractive target for merchants.

China's Great Wall, however, is now also a virtual one — and its ability to keep out foreign invaders and other "undesirable" elements is growing.

Most recently under attack is the problem of "renrou sousuo," or "human flesh search" — a concept which has grown beyond the pursuit of erotic imagery.

"Human flesh searching can expose corruption, fraud and other social evils," Min Dahong, an Internet and digital media researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Journalism and Communications, said. "But abuse will turn it into a form of cyber violence that may backfire on anyone."

In an article entitled "Call to Oversee Cyber Spree," China Today staff reporter Li Yahong related the story of Beijing resident Wang Fei, whose wife blogged about his affair before committing suicide. Afterwards, her friends "waged a human flesh search on Wang Fei, publishing his work unit and phone numbers, the name of his alleged mistress, their photos, and other personal information on the Internet."

Wang sued the culprits and the online companies that were involved for defamation and privacy violations — and won — a verdict which some, according to the article, see as "an expression of dissatisfaction over unrestrained Internet culture and [a call] for more severe punishments of websites that facilitate privacy violations."

As is often the case when speech-limiting legislation is being proposed, the children are used as a convenient and opposition-resistant excuse; with nearly 32 percent of Chinese Internet users reportedly in the 18-24 age group; and according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 83.5 percent believe adult websites induce sex crimes among youth.

The problem of youth access to potentially harmful materials and the challenges of effective age verification are also cited by the Chinese government: which despite legally requiring Internet café owners to physically inspect patron's ID cards before allowing them to access the Internet, claims that café owners don't follow the law — citing an anonymous café owner who stated "We seldom ask for ID, and people can enter freely."

While this observer may question the verity of such anonymous sources, it's clear that China doesn't question the effect of unrestricted Internet access on its youth, including exposure to "vulgar" content.

"Rampant Internet vulgarity has posed a serious threat to the physical and mental health of youngsters and directly harmed the interests of the general public," State Council Information Office Deputy Director Cai Mingzhao said.

In response, the state is ramping up its efforts to halt the free flow of information to its citizens, highlighted by this year's censorship crackdown, in which the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center (CIIRC) reportedly shut down more than 1,900 websites and removed nearly a quarter of a million web pages, images and links which it found offensive.

The CIIRC is now reportedly pursuing China's four largest sites; Sina, Sohu, Tencent and Netease, resulting in the addition of hundreds of staff workers to pour through the sites' content — especially forums and blogs — holding webmasters "responsible for deleting harmful content." The agency also objects to the Google and Baidu search engines, due to the fact that they offer links to adult websites.

At the start of 2009, China boasted nearly 3 million websites containing 16 billion pages — a level of growth the government was unprepared for. "Our oversight of the net lags behind its rapid development," CIIRC Director Li Jiaming said.

Yahong's article concludes with an analogy by new media researcher Min Dahong, who "likens the Internet to a fast growing child whose healthy growth depends on legal regulation and stiff guidance."

Spare the rod and spoil the child?

In digital China, the answer appears to be "yes."