Can you compare China’s human flesh searchers with Anonymous? Sociologist Tricia Wang discussed for Atlantic the background of China’s online warriors, looking for corrupt officials and other injustice. On 88 Bar Tricia’s Wang publishes part of the interview that was not yet published.
Tricia Wang (and questions by Jessi Levine):
But flesh searchers write some pretty crazy stuff – why do they do that?
You have to take the comments with a grain of salt. In many ways it is the same kind of commentary you find on 4chan boards and Youtube videos – these are people who don’t feel like they have an outlet other than the internet. All of us have multiple identities and like us, many flesh searchers exhibit one identity when they are flesh searching and another identity in another space whether it is offline or online. Often these identities are polar opposites of each other. But most importantly, the anonymous nature of HFS permits people to say things that they would never say IRL.
Are there any movements like Chinese Flesh Search?
We could try to see this as the Chinese version of Anonymous, but structurally it is very different from Anonymous. Anonymous is more organized and has a much more clear agenda. Anonymous’s issues also cross national boundaries whereas Human Flesh Searchers are concerned with uncovering cases inside China.
How does HFS reflect what Chinese society is going through?
Human Flesh Searchers don’t trust the system to adjudicate points of social transgression, so they take it up themselves to do it.
HFS also speaks to the changing moral landscape in China. For example, the cat killer in Hangzhou triggered questions about animal rights and protection. If this happened in the US the witness would’ve contacted the police or animal protection department and they would’ve contacted the relevant department and there would be documentation and follow up. But in a society that has only recently domesticated dogs and cats, the proper institutional oversight for domesticated animals has yet to emerge. So HFS is an ad hoc system that emerges to fulfill an institutional oversight gap.
What does this have to do with trust?
I’m fascinated by HFS because it shows the resilience of Chinese internet users to develop trust under the most difficult of circumstances. HFS exhibits the highest level of online group undertaking, which means that a lot of trust is required to accomplish a task. And despite censorship and frequently disappearing websites, people are able to accomplish HFS.
But at the same time it exhibits the low levels of trust in society – people remain anonymous because they fear the consequences of going public, which I answer in more detail in the next question.
A more transparent and accountable China will engender more citizen trust in the government. The intensity of HFS activity could be a proxy barometer for the level of social trust Chinese citizens have in their government. A more open China will not need to rely as much on flesh searchers, whereas a more closed China will rely more on flesh searchers.
Why do flesh searchers remain anonymous?
There are many different reasons. One of the primary reasons I look at in my work is trust. Many flesh searchers tell me that they don’t reveal their identity online because they fear retribution by the local police, government, or the people they are flesh searching. From their perspective, the risk of being public leaves them too vulnerable. Another reason could be due to pluralistic ignorance, where everyone agrees something is wrong but individuals are scared to speak up because they think they are the only one and group punishment. So instead of speaking up publicly, HFS speak up anonymously.
The China Weekly Hangout on Thursday will let you ask questions about China. And with some luck, you might actually get an answer. Register here, if you want to participate.
- Flesh searches, the online quest for justice – Tricia Wang (chinaspeakersbureau.info)
- Five most-read stories for October 2012 (chinaherald.net)
- What Is a ‘Human Flesh Search,’ and How Is It Changing China (theatlantic.com)
- Why China is heading for a crisis – Wang Jianmao (chinaherald.net)
- What did Barbie wrong in China? – Helen Wang (chinaspeakersbureau.info)