By David Bandurski — Following incidents of online violence and breaches of personal privacy, there has been some talk in China about the need to define so-called “human flesh searches” (or “crowdsourcing“) as a criminal offense. But as I remarked when interviewed for a recent news story on the subject, these searches are merely tools, and they can be used to advance any number of agendas. [Frontpage image by Thomas Hawk available under Creative Commons at Flickr.]
In yesterday’s edition of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, however, Yang Tao (杨涛), a government prosecutor from Jiangxi province, made the point far more eloquently in explaining why targeting “human flesh searches” through China’s Criminal Law is a slippery distraction.
Yang’s editorial follows:
“’Human Flesh Searches’ Have No Original Sin”
By Yang Tao (杨涛)
Beating attacks had occurred for some time recently at various locations in Jiangxi’s Yichun City, including the Nonghua Center on Yuanshan Avenue and the Sports Center, all involving a middle-aged male targeting unaccompanied woman. These did not involve robbery or sexual assault, but were attacks on the head with an iron hammer. For a time, women [in the city] were very apprehensive. Then a citizen posted a message on the Internet called, “Calling on a Human Flesh Search for the Head-Chopper,” which drew close to a hundred responses and more than 2,000 visits . Included in the responses were descriptions of six similar attacks, and the characteristics of the attacker started to emerge. On September 1, the police centered on a suspect and took him into custody (Jiangnan Metropolis Daily, September 6). If we say that the “Tongxu (铜须) Gate” and “cat mutilation” incidents of 2006 . . . show the negative effects of the so-called “human flesh search”, well then, the “Head-Chopping Case” (敲头案) is a classic case of citizens using the Internet to seek justice. In fact, there have been many cases like the “Head-Chopping Case,” including the “Case of the Kneeling Deputy Mayor” and “Tiger-Gate.”
Not long ago, National People’s Congress Standing Committee member Zhu Zhigang (朱志刚) talked about “online wanted posters” (网上通缉) and “human flesh searches” disclosing the surnames of citizens, personal phone numbers and other basic information. He said this behavior was a serious violation of citizens’ basic rights, that its consequences were even graver than the sale of personal information, and proposed that “human flesh searches” be regulated in the Criminal Law.
I heartily disagree with this suggestion. The rights-violating behavior egged on by various “human flesh searches” is not presently without legal restrictions. If “human flesh searches” involve insult to another person this can fall under civil infringement, and can give rise to a civil suit. Severe cases may incur punishment for “defamation” (侮辱罪) or “slander” (诽谤罪). Cases involving violations of privacy are also cases of civil infringement and can give rise to civil suits. The only matter worth debating is whether if “human flesh searches” involve serious (情节严重) violations of privacy Criminal Law can be applied in determining punishment. Therefore, what makes it hard to punish “human flesh search” cases is not the absence of relevant legal regulation but rather how those harmed can effectively obtain proof [of wrongdoing]. This is because those Web users releasing private information and spreading rumors and insults are hiding on the Internet, and those who suffer at their hands find it difficult to turn up relevant evidence to support protection of their own rights.
If we view “human flesh searches” themselves as having “original sin,” and if we seek to directly regulate such behavior as a crime, well then, I must regrettably point out that this will be a major blow to the efforts of ordinary people to seek justice. Looking again at the “Head-Chopping Case,” we have to wonder if it were not for a “human flesh search” whether a profile of the attacker would have emerged so quickly and whether the case would have been broken in good time. And seeing as we have been unable, even as “human flesh searches” have given rise to rights infringement, to effectively turn up evidence and locate perpetrators, how is it that we think that once we have regulated “human flesh searches” under criminal law it will become easier to get our hands on evidence and find those responsible?
We can see from the “Head-Chopping Case” that “human flesh searches” can be used as tools to seek justice. Making “human flesh searches” a crime should be rejected from a value standpoint. Like the proposed “real-name registration system for the Web” (网络实名制) that met with the disapproval of the vast majority of people, making “human flesh searches” a crime is unrealistic and impracticable. Concerning “human flesh search engines,” these double-edged swords, we can only “choose the lesser of two evils” and remain tolerant of their existence. And of course we should do our utmost after the fact [of wrongdoing] to punish and regulate [such acts as necessary].
Yang’s editorial was featured in the news section at QQ.com, where it drew hundreds of comments from Web users, including:
“Human flesh searches” are tools. If you take a cooking knife and put it in the kitchen it can be used to cut up meat and vegetables. But if you kill someone with that knife it becomes a weapon — and the guilt lies not with the knife itself, but with the person.
From Xining City:
We need to be reasonable in making laws. Do you think that just because there are corrupt officials we should sentence anyone who is an official? If you must sentence them then I welcome it.
“Chinese Human Flesh Search Engine Goes Global,” ESWN, April 11, 2008
“The yellow, violent mob culture of a BBS,” Danwei.org, January 16, 2008,
“Letting loose fair game in cyberspace,” China Daily, August 28, 2008
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 9, 2008, 11:02am HK]