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Vigilante Calls for 'Human Flesh' Ignite Chinese Web

For most in the West, The People's Republic of China has become virtually synonymous with immovable authoritarianism, and, in particular, strict online censorship. While the Chinese government may keep a firm lid on political discourse, there remains one major corner of the Internet where free speech -- and twisted community justice -- flow freely.

Faced with a diluted, heavily censored mainstream media, Internet users in China have flocked to open, anonymous forums to hear and discuss the stories and gossip they can't find elsewhere. Completely unregulated speech, though, has a major downside. As Tom Downey describes in a fascinating article for The New York Times, many forums are now devoted entirely to something known as "human flesh searches" -- a vengeful, mob-oriented approach to online vigilante justice, committed to tracking down and punishing online "evildoers."

Whether a woman killing a cat on film or a philandering husband who drives his wife to suicide, the targets of flesh searches rarely escape unscathed. Forum users will post personal information, addresses, phone numbers -- anything they can find -- and then encourage an endless stream of harassment. The bedeviling rarely graduates into full-fledged violence, but jobs are lost, lives are ruined, and targets are often forced into hiding.

Most fascinating, though, is how this phenomenon interacts with such a notoriously despotic political regime. The government, it seems, has allowed for the unbridled propagation of human flesh searches, because, in effect, it believes the practice strengthens nationalist sentiment. By allowing citizens to become atomized arbiters of justice, China can reinforce the idea of "community" that's so critical to its national ethos. Some searches have targeted individuals critical of the government, while others have taken aim at low-ranking provincial officials. (Never, though, have any high ranking Beijing brass fallen victim.) At the same time, it placates the populace by allowing a certain measure of autonomy that doesn't exist in other online media.

This bloodthirsty, informal judicial system isn't just scary; it also feeds directly into a vicious cycle of totalitarianism. In a land where individual liberty is at a premium, granting even the slightest freedoms can sufficiently appease the people and thus keep the Chinese citizenship in one piece. When human flesh searches have channeled this fleeting and deviant form of 'freedom,' even autonomy can turn ugly. We're aware that we'll never be able to fully understand the Chinese mentality -- but, after reading this, we're not sure we ever want to, either. [From: NYT]

Tags: censorship, china, cyberbullying, human flesh search, HumanFleshSearch, MobMentality, privacy, top