Chinese movie adds to cyber manhunt debate

What do a cheating spouse, a child-molesting government official and a kitten murderer have in common?

The answer lies on the Chinese Internet, where what is known as the "human flesh search engine" has inspired a local movie. The directly translated term refers to cyber manhunts that have targeted countless people in the country, including all of the above, and are carried out in a vigilante fervor by Internet users on message boards and chat forums.

The manhunts often target corrupt officials, extremely common in a country with no free press to expose scandals, or ordinary citizens who commit acts that Internet users see as morally reprehensible. Web users in the hunts trawl the Internet for personal information about victims, such as phone numbers, addresses and employer information, post it on message boards and urge harassment of their targets.

Victims of human flesh searches have included a woman who drew the rage of Web users when she posted a video of herself crushing a kitten's skull online. The woman was ultimately suspended from her job. In another case, Internet users this year tracked down an intern at China's state-owned broadcaster, CCTV, after he appeared in a news program made by the station. The program showed that pornographic search results could be found on Google's China portal, fueling a row over the issue between Google and the Chinese government. The intern, interviewed in the program as a "student," slammed Google and its search results for causing an unnamed friend to fall back into an old porn addiction. Internet users located the intern's profile page on a local social-networking Web site and filled his status updates with hundreds of mocking comments. Some accused him of fakery or asked if his porn-addicted friend had recovered.

Human flesh searches have become increasingly common in China since they appeared several years ago, sometimes leading to punishment for official corruption. The searches targeted more than 80 government officials in China last year, causing one in three of them to lose their jobs, Steven Guanpeng Dong, a media relations adviser for the State Council, China's cabinet, told reporters this month. One southern Chinese official lost his job last year after a video appeared online of him apparently trying to molest a young girl, whom he asked to lead him to the restroom.

But the online lynch mobs have also stirred a public debate that has included calls for legislation to protect user privacy on the Internet.

The online searches are "not the right way to help democracy in China," said Dong, who called for a law to regulate the Web.

A movie billed as China's first about the cyber manhunts will thrust the issue farther into the public eye when it hits theaters Friday. The film, called "Invisible Killer," highlights the damage the hunts can cause by following the death of a woman who is accused online of having an affair. Internet users fly to town to track down her alleged lover, while others who recognize the woman in public pound her with questions. Her decapitated body is later found on a beach. The movie touches on the privacy concerns raised by the online searches, including when a police officer asks an Internet user why he put personal information about the alleged lovers online.

"Are people on the Internet above the law? Who do you think you are?" he asks.

Director Wang Jing sees the movie as both entertainment and social message. Human flesh search advocates may modify their views if they see the movie and put themselves in the shoes of the victim, Wang said at an advance showing of the film.

The public has a right to monitor officials, but searches that target other citizens often violate their privacy rights, he said.

In a recent online survey, 80 percent of respondents said they opposed legislation regarding human flesh searches, said Wang. But respondents in another survey just as strongly opposed a system that would require real-name registration to use certain Web sites, he said.

"This is ironic," he said. "The majority of people agree with exposing the private affairs of others online, but are also unwilling to reveal their own information. This movie challenges that view."

Information is often tightly controlled in China. Government bodies are usually opaque, and news reports on sensitive topics like corruption can disappear from Web sites after an official warning. Chinese bloggers who write on corruption often have their blogs closed or are subject to harassment and detained by police.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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