BEIJING – In the past few years, China's Internet vigilantes have mobilized to root out, expose and shame people they perceive to be exhibiting corrupt or immoral behavior.
Marked for their unfettered zeal, the literal translation of the Chinese term for this ad hoc group of sleuthing online activists is: "human flesh search engine."
Nevertheless, while the stature of this group of online watchmen continues to grow, a new Chinese movie may force the Internet phenomenon out of the online sphere and into the country's public dialogue.
"Invisible Killer," produced and co-written by Xie Xiaodong, is the first movie to broach the subject of Internet vigilantism and dramatize the pitfalls of having a mobilized and motivated online mob administering its own brand of justice.
|VIDEO: The dangers of online mob justice|
In the film, the main character, Gao Fei, is accused online of seducing a married woman. In response, his online "judges" mete out justice by digging up and posting personal information about him on the Internet. Branding him a "fugitive" online, the cyber assault on Gao's character turns even nastier when his home is attacked and a manhunt sponsored by a Web site to locate and interview him turns violent.
The events portrayed in "Invisible Killer" may be fiction, but the story line is not far from reality.
China's online vigilantes have been active for several years, but their first big breakthrough came in 2006. At the time, the Chinese media and what were seen as "amateur sleuths" began a national manhunt to discover the identity of a Hangzhou woman who appeared in gruesome videos crushing cats under sharp stiletto heels.
Outraged netizens demanded justice and began to analyze the videos for clues on the whereabouts of the woman. A week after the release of the grisly video, the online watchdogs had traced the location of the killings and even traced the stiletto heels to a purchase made on eBay. The identity of the "Kitten Killer of Hangzhou" was eventually revealed to be 41-year-old nurse and recent divorcee, Wang Jue.
Wang and her cameraman were soon fired from their jobs.
Since Wang's case, these amateur sleuths have evolved to become, at their best, Internet activists used to root out government corruption.
One prominent example of this was the case of Zhou Jiugeng, who until late last year was the director of a district real estate management office in Nanjing. A government official with what should have been a nominal salary, Zhou drew the ire of Chinese netizens when, at the height of the housing bubble in China, he declared at a press conference that developers selling apartments below market price should be prosecuted.
Zhou immediately drew criticism online for his perceived insensitivity to the plight of everyday Chinese. But it was not Zhou's words that really got him into trouble as much as how he appeared in a photograph. Discerning viewers noticed on Zhou's wrist a Vacheron Constantin watch, an imported luxury that costs more than $25,000. By his side were a pack of "Nanjing 95 Imperial" cigarettes, a high-end brand in China that retails for $22 a pack.
What followed was a swift but intense campaign by the "human flesh search engine" to flush out Zhou's other excesses. Pictures of Zhou's lavish house and luxury Buick soon found their way onto the Internet, proving in the court of online public opinion that Zhou was living well beyond his means as a local government official.
Zhou was removed immediately from his administrative post and the Communist Party under charges of corruption and bribery.
Though it has been speculated that the watch was just a counterfeit, follow-up reports revealing innocence or absolution are often ignored or swept aside. The mere perception of excess or guilt is often enough to indict in the court of online public opinion.
Indeed, the increasingly intense scrutiny that Chinese government officials find themselves under from the Internet has forced worried local officials to pay attention to Chinese netizens, a trend that has begun to draw the attention of a concerned central government.
Speaking to journalists in Beijing earlier this week, Steven Dong, a former TV news presenter for CCTV and currently an adviser to the State Council, said, "The Internet has become the most powerful media in every government official's daily life."
Dong noted that out of 84 government officials who came under close scrutiny by the online watchdogs, one-third of them have been removed from office.
Internet activism or vigilantism?
Despite the successes, there have been ugly moments that have called into question the legitimacy of an anonymous online mob handing down justice as it deems fit. Many of these cases involved heightened nationalism online, such as the Tibet riots of last April.
In the case of Grace Wang, she didn't even need to be in China to become a target of the "human flesh search engine." When the Tibet riots broke out last year, Wang, a Chinese national and a freshman at Duke University at the time, found herself trapped in the middle of a confrontation between pro-Tibet independence and pro-China counter-demonstrators.
With friends on both sides, Wang tried to facilitate a conversation between organizers, promising to write "Free Tibet, Save Tibet" on the back of a pro-Tibet protester in exchange for his participation in a talk with members from the pro-China side.
Wang quickly became the subject of Chinese netizens' ire. They posted her photo online and thousands of angry comments from Chinese declared her a traitor. Her e-mail was flooded with hostile messages, including one that promised, "If you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces."
More disturbing, though, was the revelation that personal information, including her phone number, national identification card number and directions to her parents' apartment in the city of Qingdao, had been posted.
Wang's parents were forced into hiding when outraged Chinese stoned their home and threw human feces outside their front door.
Regulating the mob
It was precisely cases like Wang's that prompted Xie Xiaodong to write and produce "-Invisible Killer."
Speaking to NBC News, Xie said he isn't against the idea of online activism in principle. "I'm not against the human flesh search itself. What I'm against is we have no protection for [our] privacy rights," said Xie. "So I think the government has the duty and responsibility to make a law to safeguard ordinary people's privacy rights."
Attempts to regulate the online watchdogs have been plagued by the simple fact that much of the information netizens are able to cull is already freely available.
Instead, the Chinese government has attempted to cast aside the supposed veil of anonymity on the Internet in China by passing a law earlier this year that requires all domestic news sites with comment sections to require real name registration for users. This and a similar real-name registration law proposed in 2006, but pulled off the table after a significant public backlash, have represented the government's only significant foray into regulating netizens.
But Xie is optimistic that his movie will help people see that even without government intervention, the online sleuths can regulate themselves as long as people follow one basic tenet: "Respect other peoples' right. That's the best way to protect yourself."