September 7, 2008 in Nation/World

Internet manhunts rouse calls for reform in China

Legislators, judges weigh response to vigilante justice
By Tim Johnson McClatchy
 
File Associated Press photo

In China, like elsewhere, a voracious public appetite for matters of extramarital affairs and sex scandals can boost traffic to Web sites.
(Full-size photo)

BEIJING – Wang Fei’s infidelity deeply upset his wife. She wrote of her distress in a diary and then jumped from their 24th-floor balcony.

Her family posted details of Wang Fei’s affair on the Internet, angrily blaming him for his wife’s suicide. Soon, tens of thousands of Chinese Web users knew about Wang Fei.

Many felt incensed, so they revved up a “human-flesh search engine,” which is what Chinese Internet users call their Web hunts. They appealed to fellow Chinese to ferret out information about the philandering husband and humiliate him. They posted photos of Wang and details about his job, his car’s license-plate number and his national ID number. Even his parents were drawn into the fray.

“Internet users went to the house of Wang Fei’s parents and painted a lot of nasty slogans, like, ‘You should pay back with blood for what you did!’ ” said Zhang Yanfeng, Wang’s attorney.

The 28-year-old Beijing resident lost his job as at an advertising agency and found himself hounded frequently on the street by passers-by.

Privacy, free speech

Wang filed a lawsuit against three Chinese Internet portals and Web sites to demand compensation for the damage to his reputation and livelihood. The lawsuit, which was filed in March, has roiled the legal community because it touches on aspects of privacy and the balance between personal rights and the public’s freedom of speech that are relatively unexplored in China. In the past few days, it has also drawn demands for legal reforms.

It also has gathered attention because Internet manhunts are increasing, sometimes taking on a lynch-mob mentality with a slight but not-so-distant echo of history.

In the tumultuous era of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, paramount Communist leader Mao Zedong unleashed students and low-level cadres to purge the nation of “rightists” in a period of political upheaval. Then, students pasted “big character posters” on walls with their denunciations.

Now, Internet users post their accusations on the Web.

In April, Duke University student Grace Wang was vilified after she tried to seek a middle ground between pro- and anti-Tibet independence forces on the North Carolina campus. Internet users in China tracked down her parents, dumping feces at their doorstep and forcing them into hiding.

Experts say the phenomenon is far wider than simple vigilante justice. In some cases, Internet users have banded together to expose fraud, knock down charlatanism or, in one case, to help the wife of a soldier deployed to an earthquake-devastated area of China. In a nation where information is controlled, a thirst for greater flows of information is growing, and people sometimes band together to gather it.

“The technology that makes this possible is neutral,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. “It doesn’t have any agenda.”

Delegating tasks through the Internet to a large and diffuse group to harness its collective wisdom is a process sometimes referred to in recent years as “crowdsourcing.”

Legislative, court action

Worried by Internet manhunts, some legislators from the National People’s Congress, China’s largely ceremonial assembly, late last month proposed amendments to the criminal code to imprison for up to three years employees of government offices, and financial or educational institutions, who are found to leak personal information about people who are victims of “human-flesh search engines.”

The Web manhunt “is not a simple moral battle but a matter that seriously batters the rights of the people,” Zhu Zhigang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Congress who proposed the amendment, told the China Daily newspaper.

“This is a hot topic,” said Liu Deliang, a researcher at the Asia-Pacific Institute for Cyber-law Studies at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications.

Liu said that the Beijing district court, noting interest in the case, will have three judges issue a ruling, rather than one, perhaps as soon as mid-September.

The court also has held a seminar and sought expert opinion from legal scholars.

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