The Human Flesh Searching Chinese explained in Jessi Levine’s Tea Leaf Nation/The Atlantic article

Image from Tea Leaf Nation: Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau chief Yang Dacai became suddenly famous, with netizens rushing to caricature him.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed along with citizen reporter, Tufu Wugan aka “The Butcher”,  in Jessi Levine’s What a “Human Flesh Search” Is, And How It’s Changing China.

As the sociologist interviewed for Jessi’s article, we talked  a lot about the social and cultural context of Human Flesh Searching. Since Jessi could only grab a few bites from me, I thought it would be good to post some of the other questions that we discussed as a supplement to Jessi’s great article.

What is human flesh search 人肉搜索?

HFS is an accumulative, collaborative, online search process where people work together anonymously in a grassroots fashion to piece together information on people. The process unfolds outside of institutional structures and is often an attempt to carry out what a functioning legal system usually does – set moral codes, identify law breakers, and bring justice to those who were wronged.

Structurally, HFS exhibits qualities of Reed’s Law: “The Value of a Network Increases Dramatically When People Form Subgroups for Collaborations and Sharing.” And then these subgroups start working together to share information and it becomes exponentially more powerful. More from Wikipedia on HFS.

Do human flesh searches have anything in common with memes? Just like memes, they appear to be fueled by images and netizen expression. What do you think? 

The collaborative architecture of HFS is a lot like memes. It’s hard to pinpoint the origins, both are anonymous, the identity of individuals are not important, and the collective effort is more important than an individual’s contribution. And in China, memes and HFS are tied closely together; memes are the popular culture face of HFS efforts. Often times memes emerge from HFS cases. A good example of My Dad is Li Gang which was first a HFS case and then evolved into a meme when it entered popular discourse.

Who are the flesh searchers? 

Not even the people who rely on HFS know flesh searchers’ identities. The ones I’ve spoken to are everyday white collar males. They hold office jobs and many times have a lot of time on their hands. But many flesh searchers are suspected to be government civil servants.

What are people flesh searching?

Vincent Capone has documented 3 reasons that are useful categories to group flesh searching: netizen vs corruption, netizen vs animal cruelty, human flesh nationalism.

Why are people flesh searching?

There are many different reasons. Rebecca McKinnon has said that Human Flesh Searchers are idealistic. Whenever you have leaderless group activity, you’re going to see a wide range of intentions and actions. Some flesh searches do turn out to be more harmful than helpful and they often end up looking like vigilante behavior. So I agree with Mckinnon to the extent that only some flesh searchers are idealistic.

Not all flesh searchers are doing it for moral righteousness. Moral righteousness implies that they are answering to some higher form of theological belief whether it be a religious god or government. Many searchers are answering to an internal moral compass. Some of them have a very clear goal in mind that is attainable – expose information that is hidden. Many of the people I spoke to didn’t exhibit wild expectations about the outcome of their contribution to Human Flesh Searching. They simply wanted to contribute to their society, to make it better, and they happen to have the skills to help with a case they came across online. Sure, if you want to call that moral righouteouness or idealism, then ok, but I believe it reflects the enormous desire for citizens to participate  in society. In many ways flesh searchers are creating an ad-hoc legal system because they are not satisfied with the existing system. How do you create a ground up civil society when the government discourages it? Well, one of those ways is to do it in the safety of a group anonymously.

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.