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The “Human Flesh Search Engine” (Chinese: “人肉搜索”; Pinyin: “Rénròu sōu suŏ”) refers to the massive collaborative effort of Chinese netizens to identify and release as much information on a targeted individual or group. Similar to the Anonymous practice known as “doxing,” the Human Flesh Search Engine has been utilized for a wide range of purposes and issue areas, including vigilant stalking of individuals, evasion of Internet censorship, expose of government corruption and promotion of Chinese nationalism among others.
The term Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE) was originally coined on the MOP forums in 2001 to describe “a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven.” The original “human flesh search engine” began as a subforum on MOP, functioning similar to a Q&A site while focusing on entertainment related questions. However, in the late 2000s, the term evolved, gaining a more sinister connotation as Chinese netizens, known as wang min, began seeking out individuals (as in “human flesh”) for public humiliation or scrutiny.
2001: Chen Ziyao
The earliest known example collective research in this manner occurred on the MOP forums in 2001. After a user posted a photo of an unnamed young woman on the forums, claiming she was his girlfriend, a group of users began performing searches to find out who she was. Someone identified her as model Chen Ziyao (also known as Yoyo Chen), sharing her personal information on the forum to prove the poster was lying.
2006: 毒药 (Poison)
Beginning in February 2006, netizens who frequented the celebrity gossip section of Tianya Club’s End of the World forums collaborated to expose the identity of “Poison” (毒药), a fashion blogger on the MSN network. As early as February 14th, 2006, a Tianya Club forum user posted a thread linking to a now-defunct MSN Spaces page called Project Poison. According to comments in the thread, the page apparently contained the personal information and never-seen-before photos of Poison collected by a group of users on the site. It was eventually revealed that the cam star’s real name was Zheng Chen, that he had grown up on a military compound and was a government official. During the threads on the subject, users coined the phrase “人人都知道你是一条狗,” which translates as “Everyone already knows you’re a dog.” The phrase is a play on the English colloquialism “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” referring to the fact that there is no true online anonymity in communities with active HFSEs.
2006: Hangzhou Kitten Killer
Around the same time as the search for Poison’s identity, a nurse uploaded a graphic video of herself viciously crushing a kitten with high heeled shoes to the now-defunct fetish site Crush World. Though the video was also discussed on English-language websites like eBaum’s World, a MOP user with the handle Beacon Bridge No Return became the first one to trace the video and fetish site back to a server in Hangzhou, earning her the nickname Hangzhou Kitten Killer. Within six days, the woman’s identity was revealed as “Wang Jiao,” along with her phone number, home address and employer. Both she and her cameraman were fired from their government jobs, despite issuing a public apology.
2008: Earthquake Reaction Video
In May 2008, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 killed approximately 68,000 people in Sichuan, China. As the whole nation of China focused its efforts in survivor rescue missions and mourning for the victims, a girl posted a four-minute long video complaining how the victims looked unattractive and how the earthquake reports got in the way of her favorite TV programming schedule. The video was ill-received from the start, with more than a dozen response videos uploaded overnight.HFSE identified the girl as Zhang Ya, posting her personal information from IP to blood type on the Huanqiu BBS. Though not archived, it was reposted on several sites including Kugz.net and Renren.com. Three apology messages from Zhang Ya’s family were posted on Tianya, but each proved to be fake when a 21 year-old woman by the name of Gao Qianhui was detained on May 22nd, 2008 for posting the video.
2008: Very Erotic Very Violent
On December 27th, 2008, a schoolgirl appeared on a report by Xinwen Lianbo on the accessibility of pornographic content online. The girl, Zhang Shu, described a pop-up ad as “very erotic, very violent” during the report. On January 1st, 2008, a HFSE thread[28[ was posted to MOP looking for her identity, resulting in her address, phone number and other contact information being unearthed.
2010: My Father is Li Gang!
In October 2010, a young man named Li Qiming hit two rollerbladers while driving intoxicated through Hebei University. He attempted to flee and when he was stopped by security guards, he yelled out, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare, my father is Li Gang!," who was serving as the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau at the time. A HFSE thread soon led to the personal information and photos of Li Qiming, but also found that his father was involved in corrupt real estate dealings and that the school’s president had been previously accused of plagiarizing his thesis. The phrase later turned into a snowclone catchphrase on the MOP forum after a thread was created where others began inserting the words into classic Chinese poetry.
2010: Brother Sharp
After photos of a stylish looking homeless man began circulating online in February 2010, a Tianya Club user began a HFSE thread to find out more about him. Posters in the thread nicknamed him Brother Sharp (犀利哥) and people began traveling to see him and take their picture with him. On March 2nd, 2010, he made his first news appearance, where he noted through a translator that he did not understand his internet fame. Three days later, his name, Chen Guorong, was revealed and his long-lost brother met him at the mental hospital where he had been admitted. Following this reunion, Guorong returned to Poyang with his family who had been searching for him for two years.
Similar to Anonymous, China’s Human Flesh Search Engine has become closely associated with acts of Internet vigilantism. In December 2008, Chinese court ruled that posting an individual’s personal information online would be considered a type of “cyberviolence” after a 28 year old Wang Fei was hunted down after his deceased wife’s journals were posted online, where she had reflected on her misery after his affair. Daqi.com and a friend of his wife were both fined for revealing Wang Fei’s personal information online.
Explanations of the HFSE and their actions have been posted on the Guardian, Gizmodo, Forbes, Wired, China.org.cn and the New York Times. In August 2010, the IEEE Computer Society research journal Computer published a cover feature on how the Human Flesh Search Engine works, tracking the types of social interactions involved in these searches as well as the participant networks for two specific incidents, breaking down how and where the threads began. In June 2012, Shen Weiwei, a graduate of Penn Law, presented a paper on the Wang Fei case at the Oxford Conference on Chinese Media.
Outside of MOP’s forums, the Human Flesh Search Engine can also be found on Tianya Club, specifically in the “End of the World” subforum. However, it can be deployed from a variety of sites hosting Chinese netizens including Daqi and Xitek. The English-language Chinese internet culture blog ChinaSMACK frequently shares directly translated posts from both MOP and Tianya, but does not separate out the Human Flesh Search Engine stories.
Law and Order
In October 2009, television crime drama Law and Order aired an episode titled “Human Flesh Search Engine” in which the police discover that a fictional social justice site, flashposse.net, is behind the death of a prominent fashion designer. His murder was spurred after a photo of him texting while driving was posted to the forum and another user posted his car registration, address and security code to his apartment. During the episode, the detectives referenced the Hangzhou Kitten Killer as a collaborative effort of the fictional website.
Ryan McLaughin – Human flesh search engines–crowd-sourcing “justice”
New York Times – Chinese court fines Web user in “cyber-violence” case
Blog Critics – TV Review: Law & Order – “Human Flesh Search Engine”
All Things Law and Order – Law & Order “Human Flesh Search Engine” Recap & Review
New York Times – Chinese court fines Web user in “cyber-violence” case
China.org.cn – ‘Human flesh search engine’: an Internet lynching?
IEEE Digital Library – A Study of the Human Flesh Search Engine: Crowd-Powered Expansion of Online Knowledge
Penn Law –
University of Oxford – Chinese Media Legislation and Regulation: Trends, Issues and Questions
Free Speech Debate –