Vigilantism

One of the most well known cases of web vigilantism in China occurred earlier this year when Jiang Nan jumped 24 floors to her death. Before she committed suicide, she wrote multiple blog entries describing the details of her husband’s affair. Chinese netizens, eager to see justice served, tracked down and publicized photos and personal information of her husband and his lover. Jiang Nan’s husband, Wang Fei, an advertising agency executive, suffered extensive invasion of his privacy and was subsequently fired from his job.  Ironically, this alarming example of a peer-surveillance state in action seems to have its roots in the exercise of free speech.

Despite the staggering changes toward modernization that have occurred, Chinese value systems have yet to modernize in line with the country’s evolving posture toward capitalism and its cooperation with the global economy. There are now an estimated 137 million Internet users in China, and the Internet has had a profound effect on the Chinese way of life and the predominantly traditional values it has embodied for over two thousand years. However, the explicit confrontation between distinctively Chinese values and the Western values of free expression and the free flow of information that drive the Internet has resulted in a dramatic conflict.

Web vigilantism is a common problem rife in all societies with access to the Internet, but is a particularly alarming phenomenon in East Asian countries, especially China. On social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms, destructive groups can publish sensitive information, from private matters to personal information. These groups often threaten forms of physical violence and send damaging statements about victims to employers and manipulate search engines to highlight those statements for business associates and clients to see.

Incidents of “web lynching” and the “human flesh/renrou search engine” 人肉搜索 in East Asian countries, most notably China, demonstrate the underpinnings of a larger social and cultural problem. Acts of vigilantism on the Internet have destroyed the reputations of victims, corroded their privacy, and impaired victims’ abilities to participate in online and offline activities. The benefits of the Internet have left their mark especially in the realm of economic and financial development, but social harm has resulted from the sudden explosion of traditional values operating on a mass scale. While Confucian principles have deeply shaped both the Chinese hypersocial environment and sense of justice, the Internet has enabled transcendence of traditional social roles and a cost-effective means to collective action. These factors have combined to contribute substantially to the trend of extreme Internet vigilantism, digital witch hunts some have dubbed the “New Red Guard.

The Chinese government’s “pro-morality” stance has not deterred vigilantes and may indeed have worsened the situation. At the same time, most of the government’s efforts to promote “social harmony” on the web lay in mass censoring and filtering mechanisms—efforts that mostly center around limiting the freedom of political speech. In protecting Chinese citizens from each other would it be better to implement a more benign approach by imposing checks through tradition and thought, or does the answer lay in restructuring social norms through the law? China’s unique history and social culture mean that traditional Western approaches may not work and could even worsen the situation.

Wang Fei recently won his suit against the blogger who released his wife’s diary online and the website that published his personal information. This verdict sets an important precedent for future online vigilante victim cases, but China’s current legal system is only able to help victims attain meager compensation on a case-by-case victim; Wang Fei’s total awards totaled less than $1,000USD.  While laws could be reformed to adequately address victim compensation, efforts to control Internet vigilantism in China should also reflect a commitment to reforming citizen behavior online. In order to structure an appropriate solution that minimizes attacks on individual citizens while promoting the use of renrou as a check on political corruption , Chinese legislative and political powers must understand the relationship between China’s hypersocial environment, Confucian and traditional values, and the Internet’s influence on group behavior.

3 Responses to “Two Sides, One Coin: Free Speech and Web Vigilantism in China”

  1. Eric F says:

    Aside from bumping up victim compensation, I’d be interested to see where policy governing this would come from. It seems that because the court system in China isn’t as independent as ours, the court’s opinion might not be able to establish the ‘litmus test’ or whatever legal standard for renrou.

  2. Michael C says:

    I can see this web vigilantism possibly going wrong. Perhaps somebody confuses some detail and ends up creating a firestorm of protest against the wrong person, who subsequently gets fired, etc. Although this may seem like the “right thing to do” in some cases, it’s best left to the courts to review the facts and decide what actions, if any, should be taken.

  3. Oliver G says:

    The thing here is that this phenomenon is not only happening in China but also in America. Probably not as widespread as in China but still happening. I think it comes more to the roots of our behavior as humans — in our instincts. In my opinion, discrimination, intolerance, hypocrisy, herd mentality and other human conditions which are present in all cultures, play a more important role than a local philosophical doctrine.