BEIJING - Wang Fei is widely detested in China. When Wang's wife discovered he
was having an affair last year, she recorded her anguish in a journal for two
months before leaping from the terrace of their 24th-floor apartment in Beijing
at the end of last year. A friend of hers then had her online journal posted in
an Internet forum, which blamed her death on her husband's extra-marital
Harsh criticism of Wang and sympathy for his wife poured onto message boards.
Infuriated Internet users sought revenge through "human flesh search engines" -
websites that can turn up the personal information of people targeted online
for moral excoriation.
"Human flesh search" is a literal translation from the Chinese term renrou
sousuo, which probably started in 2001, when an
entertainment website asked viewers to help track down information about songs,
films and others. It created a "human flesh search engine" for viewers to paste
This is a cyber relay in the search for information. Someone provides the first
bit of information, the second could add a bit more and so on until the whole
picture is complete. But, when information in demand on a human flesh search
engine concerns a person or persons, there may be problems concerning
violations of privacy.
For example, in April after a Chinese student at Duke University in the United
States showed her support for pro-Tibet independence demonstrations, Chinese
bloggers started a human flesh search with pictures of her at the demonstration
to find out who she was. In the end, not only her name, age, and which part of
China she came from was publicized, but also the names of her parents and where
In Wang Fei's case, within days after the wife's "death blog" was posted, his
name, address, phone and national identification numbers soon appeared online
alongside pictures of him. Internet users began harassing Wang over the phone.
They also called his company, which quickly fired Wang and his lover. Wang's
parents found vicious accusations of murder written on their door.
Wang, who is 28 and has yet to find another job, sued two major Internet
portals and an individual in March for defamation and for violating his privacy
through online postings. A Beijing court has accepted the case - the first
anti-"human flesh search" lawsuit in the country.
The defense has argued that sharing Wang's information was legal because it was
already publicly accessible, and that the public had the freedom to criticize
his immoral behavior. A verdict is expected this month from the trial's three
The outcome of Wang's case could shift China's course as the government
considers how to handle new demands for privacy rights. But even with pressure
coming from the public, scholars and liberal-leaning officials, it is unclear
how strongly the government will move to regulate the leaking and abuse of
Issues concerning the right to privacy and the impact of new technologies have
been addressed by countries with more advanced systems. For example, in the
United Kingdom, victims of online defamation can seek to have that Internet
service providers remove offending posts or risk being held liable as
publishers. In the United States, subpoenas can be sought to force the
disclosure of online identities. Privacy is regulated in general in the US by
the Privacy Act of 1974, and various state laws.
But talk of privacy rights is new in China. Like imperial dynasties before it,
the communist government keeps personal records on every citizen. Its
monitoring was most invasive under Mao Zedong, when the state moved citizens
into communes and controlled all jobs, housing and services through the
household registration (hukou) system. Authorities even collected data
on women's menstrual cycles to enforce birth control policies.
Society has transformed since then. Economic reforms begun 30 years ago have
brought financial independence for citizens and an end to multi-generational
living arrangements. Such changes in family structure can produce different
expectations of privacy, said Bonnie McDougall, professor emeritus of Chinese
at the University of Edinburgh. "The sense of privacy in a small family can be
the source of new and perhaps even stronger conflict than would occur in a
larger family," she said.
Rising wealth and debate on rights in general has also contributed to privacy
demands in the legal realm. "The legal protection of private property is of
course extending people's sense of what should be regarded as private in law,"
Using human flesh searches for cyber manhunts like the one that targeted Wang
Fei became well known in 2006, when a Chinese woman filmed herself gouging out
a kitten's eyes and crushing its head with high heels. After she posted the
video online, angry Internet users determined the location of its background as
a county in the northern Heilongjiang province. Forum members soon dug up
details on the woman's life, including her workplace and her marital status.
Her company suspended her.
The search engines booted up again this April when Grace Wang, a Chinese
student at Duke University, tried to mediate between student groups protesting
for and against Tibet independence. Wang began receiving death threats from
Chinese Internet users, and her parents went into hiding after a bucket of
feces was upturned at their door in Qingdao.
The rise of cyber manhunts has added urgency to concerns about information
privacy in China. An online survey conducted by China Youth Daily in June found
that 20% of respondents feared being targeted by the online mob. Eighty percent
supported stronger regulation of cyber manhunts.
Many of China's more than 600 million mobile phone users have also called for
protection of their personal information. It is common for businesses in all
sectors to sell clients' contact numbers, fueling a prolific industry in
advertisement via text messages. Mobile users have reported receiving
advertisements for remodeling services immediately after buying an apartment,
or for medical products after visiting the hospital.
Laws protecting privacy are in the works. The Standing Committee of China's
National People's Congress last month released proposed amendments to the
Criminal Law. One would prohibit employees in government and telecom industries
from leaking individuals' information, punishable by up to three years in jail.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "The draft's author, Zhu
Zhigang, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress,
has been critical of human flesh search engines."
The State Council, China's cabinet, is also considering a draft personal
information protection law that would ban companies and organizations from
sharing personal information without consent.
These are significant steps. Privacy is currently mentioned in various Chinese
statutes but lacks broad protection or a specific definition. The legal moves
in progress would be among the first to explicitly ban certain behavior in
privacy cases, making prosecution easier. The personal information law would
provide the most universal protection of privacy in Chinese law so far.
Legal precedents for the regulation of cyber manhunts may come mainly from Wang
Fei's case. Tightening restrictions on individuals who leak others' information
could be insufficient, said Anne Cheung, a law professor at the University of
"I hope the judgment will touch upon Internet service providers' liability. The
most effective way is to have a notice and take down system - deletion of
personal data or information once a complaint is filed with the Internet
service provider," Cheung wrote in an e-mail message.
No matter the result, privacy may only become a bigger issue in China as the
government expands its monitoring of citizens in public, on the phone and
online. Major cities have begun blanketing their streets and shopping malls
with networked surveillance cameras. Beijing alone has more than 260,000
cameras, many with advanced night vision and zoom functions. Text messages and
e-mail are monitored by systems that flag the use of politically sensitive
keywords, according to rights groups.
Several Chinese social networking sites and the auction site Taobao.com
reignited the debate about Internet privacy last week by announcing that they
would block user profiles gleaned from Chinese search portal Baidu. Although
the websites cited privacy concerns, observers note that the move does not
comprehensively protect user information from public searches.
Owen Fletcher is a freelance journalist from the United States. He can be
reached at email@example.com
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