Cyberspace gumshoes are afoot

Magnier is a Times staff writer.

The private eyes in China’s most famous detective agency rarely sleep, are relentless in pursuing their prey and can put Interpol and Homeland Security to shame. Oh, and they work for free.

But before you think about hiring them, there’s a catch. The detectives are all online: millions of people working together as a “human flesh search engine,” a bizarre term meant to capture the mix of cutting-edge and old-as-the-hills tactics used in a growing number of Internet vigilante campaigns here.

And once again they have found their target, fueling a scandal that has captivated millions while underscoring the anger and lack of trust many feel toward officials, police and the law.

In late October, a video surfaced on the Internet showing an unnamed official at a seafood restaurant in the city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, facing off against a family. The video, widely distributed on the Internet, shows the official talking, pushing and yelling at family members after allegedly grabbing an 11-year-old girl and trying to force her into a restroom.


“I did it, so what?” the official says, according to an accompanying transcript. “How much money do you want? Give me a price. I will pay it!”

Then pointing at the girl’s father, he reportedly adds, “Do you know who I am? I was sent here by the Transportation Ministry in Beijing. I have the same seniority as your mayor. So what if I grabbed a little child’s neck?”

The video enraged Internet users, setting into motion the human flesh search engine. These investigations -- some would say witch hunts -- include the use of databases, photo analysis, search engines, social networking sites and hacking into online accounts. This is complemented and often trumped by kibitzing on a massive scale in a culture where personal connections are key to getting things done.

“With that kind of speed and manpower, sooner or later someone gets lucky,” said Liang Shuxin, 33, a blogger and deputy editor of the popular online Tianya forum, who has participated in human flesh searches.

In short order, the white-shirted, pot-bellied official on the video was identified as Lin Jiaxiang, 58, party secretary of the Shenzhen Maritime Administration.

Lin was subsequently fired, his reputation left in tatters.

“This case is a perfect storm,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. “You have a scandal, conflict, sex and power, plus video footage. And it also says a lot about the system.”

In particular, some said, it underscores the huge power imbalance between citizens and Communist Party officials who have few checks on their behavior.

“Mr. Lin was not bluffing,” blogger “Luo Ben” said on the website “He told the brutal truth: Ordinary people are nothing in their eyes, they can abuse ordinary people any way they want to.”

The growing use of mass online detective work also underscores the headaches Beijing faces in trying to control increasingly brash Internet users, despite legions of cybercops, expensive filtering software and intimidation tactics.

“This is very hard to control,” said Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese blogger. “You can censor cases, but it’s hard to find a single person responsible and it’s so quick. Before the propaganda order comes, it’s done.”

Beijing has been tolerant of the occasional campaign against bad-apple officials, provided they’re at a low enough level and citizens don’t focus too much on a broad condemnation of the system. The Chinese restaurant scandal appears to be the first time the tactic has brought down a central government official.

Reflecting the subtle cat-and-mouse game, however, the searchers also know the line they shouldn’t cross and won’t go after really big targets who might attract the secret police, analysts said.

“They’ve lived in a dictatorship for a long time,” Anti said. “They don’t go too far.”

Wary of the growing power of human flesh search engines and their threat to privacy, a member of China’s rubber-stamp parliament recently proposed that the practice be regulated under criminal law.

Although the use of mob justice has yielded what many see as a positive outcome, it also has the potential to be abused. “It’s like a knife,” Liang said. “It can be used to cut vegetables or to kill someone.”

One of the biggest cases occurred in February 2006 when an anonymous video surfaced of a woman in high heels stomping a cat to death. In that case, her identity was reportedly discovered in part through photo analysis technology and a tip from someone who worked with her.

Internet users also exposed a man this summer who claimed he had photographed a rare South China tiger -- it turned out to be a photo of a tiger cutout -- and a woman who groused in an anonymous video that the massive Sichuan earthquake was interfering with her online games.

Sometimes there are no winners. In December 2007, a woman named Jiang Yan committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of a building. In a blog found after she died, she blamed her husband’s affair.

Sympathetic people chased down Wang Fei, the husband, and publicized various intimate details of his life, leading crusaders to confront his parents, picket his office and even make death threats against him, prompting him to quit his advertising job. Given the number of people who have affairs, analysts said, the case raises serious questions about violence and abuse.

Wang continues to face harassment, suffers from insomnia and depression, and still receives notes to “pay back for your wife’s bloody death.”

In what appears to be the first such case in China, Wang decided to sue his tormentors. But his move also underscores the frustration of trying to do battle against the amorphous online community.

“We don’t know who they are, so there’s no way to sue them,” said Zhang Yanfeng, Wang’s lawyer. So he sued two Internet companies and a blogger for hosting discussions that he said constituted “Internet violence.”

Zhang concedes that human flesh search engines have their place, such as immediately after the Sichuan earthquake when they helped many people find their relatives.

But they also need to be checked, he added. “We don’t allow people to curse or beat others in the real world, to leave them naked and exposed, to strip them of their dignity,” he said. “So we shouldn’t let it happen online.”