Shaun Randol: The Rise of China’s Human Flesh Search Engine

By Shaun Randol

One of the many reasons Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games was that, it was hoped, a massive influx of international visitors—journalists in tow—would help push the central government to lessen restrictions on China’s own domestic media. One dramatic outcome would have been a lasting breach in the Great Firewall of China, the country’s highly advanced internet censorship apparatus.

While policies relaxed for foreign journalists reporting from China during the Olympics appear to be a welcome, permanent fixture, citizens reporting on events within China still have their work cut out for them. Four months after the lighting of the Olympic torch there seems to be little official progress in the movement to expand internet free speech to the masses of the great Middle Kingdom. China’s citizens, however, think otherwise.

Glowing praise issued from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the success of the Beijing games conveniently did not mention the few crackdowns, arrests, and internet censorship activities that occurred during the month-long spectacle.

Such admonishment was left to others, like Human Rights Watch’s Minky Worden, who chastised the IOC for leaving out of its fact sheets “the extent to which the International Olympic Committee lowered its standards on human rights around the Beijing Olympic Games.” Similarly, Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) commented, “I think, in the end, the government’s approach to the media hasn’t changed that much.”

Indeed, a recent report from CPJ concludes “more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide today than journalists working in any other medium…45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors.” China continues its ten-year streak at the top of this list.

Fifty-six online journalists are jailed worldwide, says CPJ. In China, 24 of 28 jailed journalists work primarily online. At least 22 of these journalists, of whom human rights activist and blogger Hu Jia is the most famous, were convicted of subversion, divulging state secrets, working against state interests, or variations on these themes.

Tens of thousands of censors monitor China’s web, making sure “subversive” material stays out of sight and out of mind of the public. Other stringent controls are in place as well. When creating new “.cn” web pages, for example, keywords used to describe the site cannot, among other things, do “harm to national interests,” “disrupt national solidarity,” or “disturb public order or disrupt social stability.”

Likewise, videos posted on Tudou.com (China’s answer to YouTube) must adhere to similarly strict guidelines. (Posting Western movies and TV shows, however—in clear violation of international intellectual property laws—is almost never prohibited).

Despite Beijing’s best efforts, however, the momentum appears to be on the side of Chinese bloggers. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC), as of June 2008 China’s “netizen” population reached 253 million, (an increase in 91 million since the same time last year!), surpassing the number of internet users in the U.S. for the top spot. CINIC’s latest statistical report underscores the fact that “The Internet can be said to have become the mainstream media with huge influence and the most development potentiality in the field of mass communication.”

Isaac Mao, credited as China’s first blogger, sees a tipping point on the horizon. As the number of socially, politically, and culturally “sensitive” news items becomes more readily available at the click of a mouse, the burden is put upon Beijing “to try to check and monitor so much content. They can’t tell what is sensitive,” Mao says of the Internet censors. So while more and more journalists and bloggers are being jailed, they are not deterred.

With major news stories seeming to fall like rain in China lately, the massive growth in Internet use reinforces the web’s importance in disseminating news—sanctioned or not. Riots in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake, human rights violations surrounding the Olympics, unsafe toys, the tainted milk scandal, and increasing unrest by laborers in export industries are stories that are too big to be ignored by official Chinese media. Thus, news surrounding these events that become censored and blocked on the Internet takes on much more gravitas.

An interesting development of late is the phenomenon of the weirdly termed “human flesh search engine.” In effect, mass amounts of online users scan databases, websites, videos, and photos in order to check belligerent Communist Party behavior. In one incident, for example, a video leaked out online of a Party official grabbing a little girl’s neck and demanding bribes from the angry parents. Outraged, the “human flesh search engine” went into overdrive, identifying the culprit as Lin Jiaxiang, the Party Secretary of the Shenzhen Maritime Administration. Lin was subsequently fired, but what this really showcases is the power of an angry, web-connected mob—power that Beijing is having more and more difficulty in controlling.

The poisonous milk scandal (which killed as many as six babies and sickened up to 300,000 others, and by extension, angered 600,000 parents) has mobilized nervous officials in Beijing. The public is outraged that a) such a scandal could be perpetrated to such a degree, and b) that the media seemed to be complicit in not giving ample warning to susceptible families. Warnings of the potential danger were censored by individual journalists (often acting out of interest to their own safety) and by officials months before the scandal exploded. Imagine what may happen if the human flesh search engine took up the milk case in a vigilante-like crusade to punish the guilty parties (including milk producers, distributors, Communist Party officials, journalists, and more). It remains to be seen what power such a phenomenon intends to wield.

According to an IOC press release, the legacy for China for hosting the Games includes “significant improvements in public transportation and other infrastructure, steps to improve public health, environmental improvements and a new national commitment to sport.” Greater freedoms in print, televised and online media are, apparently, not part of the official legacy, but a digitized turbulence portends otherwise.

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Shaun Randol, a former intern at the World Policy Institute, is an independent research consultant and a research assistant at the India-China Institute at the New School.

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