Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn

China’s famous human flesh searches, an online witch hunt, often go after people for all the wrong reasons. Internet watcher Jeremy Goldkorn recalls China’s first hunt, in 1995, after Zhu Ling, a Fudan university student, was murdered. Most likely the wrong person was identified as the murderer, he tells ABC in Australia.


JEREMY GOLDKORN: …I mean from what we know, there’s no hard evidence. The police have said because of the recent return of public attention to this case, they took the rather unusual step of making a public announcement via the internet, on Weibo, the social media site, saying that the case had not been tampered with politically and that they simply were not able to find the criminal proof that anyone had committed the crime.

But the problem is, of course, it’s China, so when the police deny that there’s anything wrong nobody believes them because (inaudible) doesn’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to dealing with cases like this. There’s always the suspicion that the rich and the powerful are getting away with murder.

STEPHEN MCDONELL: Now this case has also thrown up an example of what’s known in China as the ‘human flesh search engine’ concept, whereby you sort of out people on the internet. You put their private details up on the internet and somehow this pressures them to act in a certain way.

It does seem a little removed from the case, and actually quite an unjust thing to do, wouldn’t you say?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Yeah. I mean, the moral questions thrown up by this kind of online vigilantism, or online activism – I think they’re quite a few.

One has to compare it with the Boston bombings recently, where you had the social media, the social website Reddit pursuing what in China would be called a ‘human flesh search engine’, in which they outed a guy who I think later turned out to have committed suicide – and this was before his parents had found out he was missing – and they accused him of being one of the bombers.

STEPHEN MCDONELL: China doesn’t have a monopoly with this problem, then?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Yeah that’s what I’m saying. This is a problem of modernity and of the internet and of the digital age, and it’s not just a Chinese phenomenon.

I think it may be worse here because the government and public institutions have less credibility. The police have less credibility. There’s a lot of mutual distrust in society. A lot of people feel powerless in their day to day lives in China, and there are more people and more internet users than anywhere else. So I think certainly there’s more of it here, and it’s more intense, and the questions it throws up are often even more difficult to answer than, say, the Boston bomber episode.

But I do think it’s a universal problem now.

More in ABC.

Jeremy Goldkorn is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch, or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Online witch hunts you see also on an international level, for example when country’s try to identify hackers from other countries. The China Weekly Hangout discussed ‘who is hacking who?’ during its session on February 28, 2013, with security consultant Mathew Hoover and TechInAsia reporter Charlie Custer. Moderation by Fons Tuinstra of the China Speakers Bureau.

Coming Thursday the China Weekly Hangout will discuss “what do Chinese tourists want”. You can read our announcement here, or register for participation here. We have already a full house, but if you want to discuss specific challenges for your country, do raise your hand.

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