December 29,2008

Human Flesh Search-China-Style Anti-corruption

By Ma Wenluo

A local government official has been brought to justice recently for malfeasance, not through any Chinese bureaucratic sleuthing, but because of the efforts of China’s active netizens. The "human flesh" search (the exact English translation from the Mandarin), a scouring of the net waves for data and, particularly, pictures of a target subject, originating from www.mop.com

, an entertainment website, is becoming the anti-corruption weapon of a public tired of seeing its public moneys wasted by petty bureaucrats.

Zhou Jiugeng, a director of the Real Estate Management Bureau of Jiangjing District, Nanjing, Jiangsu, a nicely rich province, has lost his job because of a photograph shown on the web. Two weeks ago, Zhou was photographed at a meeting he was attending and the happy snap was posted on the Internet. Also showing was a 150 yuan pack of smokes on his table. How, many netizens wondered, could Zhou afford such expensive cigarettes on his normal salary? Not long after, another netizen spotted a photo of Zhou, this time wearing a Vacheron Constantin watch, valued at over 100,000 yuan, and the fat was in the fire. Great pressure was exerted over the net, and the local government was forced to investigate and then remove him from his position for his extravagant use of public funds.

Encouraged, netizens have begun to examine more of such shots of government officials and found pictures of 15 county chiefs wearing expensive watches, prompting waves of indignant denials, but then, there are those pesky pictures. 

Lacking of a proper personal accounting system, it is hard for China’s disciplinary departments to uncover consumption by officials that is beyond their income level. Human flesh search, with the power of the net-abiding public behind it, is therefore becoming an anti-corruption weapon. The government is beginning to intervene in investigations following netizens?discoveries and remove officials or otherwise correct abuses.

The appalling "fake tiger" issue in 2007 encouraged netizens. Local officials declared again and again that photographs of the South China Tiger, thought to be extinct, by farmer Zhou Zhenglong were authentic, but savvy netizens just as often released new evidence to prove the photographs were fakes. Finally those who supported Zhou’s pictures were forced to admit they were fraudulent.

Then last month, Lin Jiaxiang, vice-director of the Shenzhen Bureau of Maritime Transport Administration, reportedly got drunk and molested a young woman, afterward denying the whole thing. Netizens posted his name, address, phone number and work place on the Internet and he soon lost his job.

And in Luoyang, an ancient capital in the middle of China, netizens disclosed at the beginning of December that 29 villas were being built very close to the ancient Longmen Grottoes, a world cultural heritage site. Two weeks later, the villas were demolished and 9 supervisory officials involved were punished for serious breach of duty.

This has drawn the government’s attention, and it has begun to realize the importance of the Internet. Like Barack Obama, who made the Internet a weapon to gain support from young people, some enlightened local government heads now are answering netizens?questions online and requiring local officials to solve or at least treat seriously problems raised by netizens. Some have even opened blogs on the Internet.

However, the anonymity of the Internet, indiscipline in human flesh search, and lack of legal restraint against online disinformation can lead to the dissemination of fake or questionable news. On December 18, the People’s Court of Chaoyang District, Beijing, declared its judgment over China’s "first human flesh search case." Jiangyan, wife of Wang Fei, a Beijng resident, had killed herself last year after accusing her husband in her blog of having an affair with a colleague, and her friend, Zhang Leyi, posted her diary on a website. With no further evidence, netizens jumped to blame her death on her husband and sought revenge on him. The court said that Zhang Leyi and the website had invaded Wang Fei’s right to privacy and reputation. The court meanwhile suggested that China’s Internet administration department reinforce proper supervision over netizens?online activities. Some netizens are dissatisfied at the court’s judgment and worry it may affect their freedom on the net, but some others say websites invading citizen’s legitimate interests should be more severely punished.

How to protect the legal rights of citizens including officials while using the Internet as a tool against corruption and immorality is a dilemma the government is going to have to come to terms with.

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