Who’s Afraid of China’s Internet Vigilantes?

It isn’t just government censorship that is restricting free expression in China. It’s also the “human flesh searches.”

Comments: 66

  1. President Xi is turning China into a Big Brother state that makes Putin's Russia look benign by comparison. At the same time, China sends far more students to U.S. universities (over 350,000) than any other country. Why? Are these students aware of China's present course and looking to escape? Are they sympathetic to Xi's attitude and want to return home to contribute? Are they apolitical and don't care? I imagine there are thousands in each category. And I don't have an answer to why so many students are allowed to come here...and why they want to do so. I'm just asking the question.

  2. @bnyc Most of them probably want to improve their prospects at home, if they opt to go back to China - or to have the chance at a ticket out in case things get dicey. I went to University just before the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and I remember running into many Iranian students during my early college years. Many did not go home - they saw the handwriting on the wall and conveniently did not go back to Iran because they would most certainly have been hanged or shot when the regime changed - for the simple fact that they were gay, religiously tolerant, or politically moderate.

  3. @bnyc. Or are many of them being sent here to learn from our research and technological advances and take that information back to China, to our detriment?

  4. Doing some “back of the napkin” math, there’s probably around 75 million or so college age individuals in China. Taking 350,000 means are universities are getting the cream of the crop. Universities generally seek out smart and hardworking students, regardless of nationality, and given Chinas huge population, they have a lot to offer. As for why Chinese students want to come to the best university system in the world in a considerably wealthier and freer country? Who wouldn’t?

  5. Well, it seems some aspects of China are not so different that the West’s.

  6. Never mind clucking about what's going on in China, I would say a perfect example of "renrou sousuo" can be seen right here in the relentless efforts by his enemies, digging, digging relentlessly, to see what dirt they can find to damage or bring down Mr. Trump. Even when what they find is inaccurate or fabricated they spin it maliciously to do as much damage as they can. The internet everywhere is nobody's friend and it has been weaponized here on both sides of the political spectrum. Get ready for more of the same going foreword.

  7. The article was about China. This is a sad use of ‘whataboutism’ but I expected nothing less.

  8. @Ronald B. Duke You don't need to dig for dirt on Trump, you just need to watch what actually comes out of his mouth and his Twitter and how he treats people. Family separations at the border with no attempt at record keeping, for instance. None of this is fabricated or inaccurate or necessitates any kind of "digging." It comes directly from the man himself.

  9. @Bob Trump supporters are all for "whataboutism" (meaning deflection and misdirection), fed by misguided self pity, anger, and then rage: poor Mr. Trump, our unfairly attacked President. So sad... And what utter nonsense. Trump ran for President, and was elected. Sad for all concerned. Thanks for your post.

  10. The author is brave indeed. We Americans would like to believe we are so much more free than the Chinese. And no doubt we are more free. But how much more? I write my comments here without using my name. I know how crazy internet vigilantes can get and it is a simple matter to find me and harass me for any views I may state here. Indeed, it has already happened to me, hence the pseudonym. I praise the NYT again for running this series.

  11. This op-ed has many eerie parallels to the United States and to our own virtual lynch mobs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et cetera. Each passing year, the virtual lynch mobs on social media become more brazen and out-of-control. They delight in picking a random offender and then collectively destroying the person's life as much as possible. I've noticed that America's Generation Z cohort—in particular—seems highly susceptible to "blame-storming" and doxxing of any random person who does not share their beliefs on all topics. It seems everyone must agree with the online mob or risk being annihilated for thinking differently. Mob vigilantism is a frightening thing in any country, be it China or America.

  12. Who knew China and Facebook were so similar.

  13. By comparison, the trench warfare between liberal and Trumpian media (of all stripes) seems just like a disease attacking an otherwise healthy institution (the free press, including social media). One can understand that China requires a measure of central control, if only because of its size and diversity. But there must be other ways that don't impose public silence and suspicion on such a huge population. It can only weaken its spirit - its immune system' - and make the country vulnerable to unforeseen and potentially large-scale social problems.

  14. An obvious comparison can be made to the "neighborhood watch" committees intended to enforce ideological conformity and condemn behaviour that deviates from what authorities (or local enforcers) deem appropriate. It's all the more ironic when the posters have learned from their own experience of government that justice does not exist in their society, but that retribution does. Like their government, they can make accusations anonymously and impugn the reputations of those unable to defend themselves with baseless or unfounded charges. Vigilante justice, Chinese style.

  15. Yet Google wants to become the Big-Brother partner of China's ruling junta and help the despots find everyone seaching for true news from outside the country.

  16. I admire the writer's bravery in exposing the downside of renrou sousuo in the "workers' paradise" where the "government serves the people" and the "people are the bosses calling the shots". By publishing this article she is risking being renrou sousuod by the "patriotic" crowd. I salute Ms Audrey Jiajia Li.

  17. First I wondered how we'd managed to avoid doing this in the US. We seem to abuse social media in most every way possible. Then I wondered if we do, but don't see it this way. It isn't as extreme -- yet. But some of the public shaming we do see is acceptable only to those who agree with the attacks. How will we feel if it is turned against someone we don't believe deserves that? It is likely to happen. We should start thinking now about how to limit this in the US, before it rages out of control.

  18. @Mark Thomason It is, in fact, more extreme. We live in a world in which "enforced loyalty" to the American nation-state is so intense that people now deliberately forget our sins while focusing on the wrongdoings of others. The invasion of Iraq is no less a crime than the invasion of Poland. Iran hates us because we overthrew their democracy and installed a murderous dictator in its place, all for oil.

  19. @Mark Thomason The hills are alive with people like actor James Woods who have been shut out of Twitter for speaking freely like an American. @Jack really hates anyone not supporting hard-core progressive socialism.

  20. "Social media users labeled him Watch Uncle and he was eventually dismissed from his post." Ironically, a little web searching found that the author omits an important conclusion to that story: The man, Yang Dacai, "pleaded guilty to taking £26,000 in bribes." So this isn't a story about "zealous vigilantes on the internet", but a story about a corrupt public official whose own ostentation led to his exposure. China's 'Brother Wristwatch' Yang Dacai jailed for 14 years for corruption Official sparked outcry after being pictured smiling at scene of crash wearing watches deemed too costly for a public servant by Jonathan Kaiman 5 Sep 2013 The Guardian

  21. "... in the summer of 2017, when Yang Shuping, a University of Maryland student from China, delivered a graduation speech ..." To its credit, the University of Maryland defended Ms. Yang, saying, in part: "The University proudly supports Shuping's right to share her views and her unique perspectives and we commend her on lending her voice on this joyous occasion [of the university's commencement exercises]." Chinese Student in Maryland Is Criticized at Home for Praising U.S. by Mike Ives May 23, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/world/asia/chinese-student-fresh-air-yang-shuping.html

  22. Didn’t anyone notice that this situation is essentially the premise of the Black Mirror episode ‘Hated In the Nation’? I had no idea that show was that close to reality. Let’s hope China has a better ending.

  23. “privacy and freedom of speech are like two sides of a coin: Each is required for the other to thrive. “ Problem is both sides of this coin show concepts foreign to hierarchical, centrally controlled, “harmonious” China. Look elsewhere for your expressive freedoms to flourish, like the foreign West.

  24. We are already self-censoring to a huge degree in the US, since we discovered the exploitation of our privacy, by these greedy monopoly companies. It's terrible that China has gone so much further. Thank you for explaining this.

  25. Creepy. But not surprising: Homogenization of society (thus naturalized, quasi-“universal” consensus about who’s dirty) is implied by socialist thinking. Socialism has a homogenizing sense of being an individual. This is partly why being Chinese finds socialism especially appealing: Confucianism implies a homogenization of Han culture as what being Chinese is to be—or else. I say this as a scholar whose contacts with Chinese students was cut off when the high command cut access to Facebook and Google. Homogenized sociality finds itself in a frightening wilderness when faced with individuality. The few misfits in individualizing modernization of a society become amplified symbols of dangers that individuality as such poses to socialism, thus strengthening, through punitive order, the power of the high command (i.e., The Party and command-economic society) to define what being a good citizen is.

  26. I was not aware that the extent of restriction to free speech was this immense in China. This is downright toxic and my personal opinion is that any community should show zero tolerance towards such oppression. I think what Yang Shuping did in terms of creating visibility was commendable. If only there is a way to ensure that there aren't consequences faced by such people and their families for doing the right thing! I'd think other Chinese people (and in fact everyone) should make more noise on the internet until this issue gets addressed with the force it needs.

  27. I don’t see how this is much different than the kind of social media shaming that gets done here. Isn’t this one of the big factors that got Trump elected? That he said what he wanted and couldn’t be shamed by out of control Left Wing activists?

  28. How is this any different from any other country on this planet with easy access to the internet? As long as there is the internet, there will be trolls. Don’t forget we have plenty of extremists online and other parts of the world has had deadly riots due to rumors on Facebook. Judging by those standards I think what happens on China is rather tame.

  29. @Sean The difference is the Chinese government takes action based on these trolls.

  30. I've become increasingly alarmed by how many people I speak with that don't seem to recognize much difference between China and the U.S. Asked in which country they would rather live, they often don't have an easy answer. And while I suspect Trump and gun violence is high on they U.S. con list, this article highlights the definitive difference: freedom or lack thereof in speech and living. It's why even though I find much fault with the U.S., it's nowhere near the same inferno level as China's.

  31. The "human flesh search" also happened in Taiwan, inevitably in society with uncensored Internet access. This kind of behavior is ridiculous to most of us, but seem to be fun to some people. I believed it will also happen to the rest of the world in different way, means and intensity, based on human nature and curiosity.

  32. The basic problem with Americans is that they like to condemn other countries for not being "democratic" and then they complain as soon as other nations feature popular movements that they don't like. It is no surprise at all that Chinese who poorly represent their own nation would draw the condemnations of fellow Chinese. Unlike Americans, Chinese culture is not hard-coded to be instinctively hostile to government. They believe government is a fundamental force for good. That's why they don't have crazy gun laws and school shootings.

  33. @Joe I would suggest that "Tiananmen Square," Mao's Red Guards and censorship reflect the quality of China's government as a force for good.

  34. The freedom of speech/privacy conflict is a conundrum that can't be resolved except by government regulation. By now everyone should know where that ends up! The 1798 Sedition Act criminalized criticism of the government. A dozen citizens including several editors were prosecuted and jailed. In 1971 Richard Nixon famously tried to prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the Ellsberg Papers which led to the decision in the case of The United States v New York Times in which the Supreme Court emphatically rejected the government's claim that it had the power to restrain publication. So where do we go? Do we take the American route supporting the freedom of speech and press with attendant hurt feelings, apprehensions and other inconveniences? Or adopt the shibboleth that social vigilantes, gossipers, populists and nationalists are such existential threats that we must arm the government with the power of censorship and "prior restraint."

  35. @Sam The government of China is regulating not just social media but all media in China through propaganda and outright censorship. If you start with a corrupt government even if you have a law which is not outwardly corrupt, the administration of that law will be corrupt. The author pointed out that China lacks an independent legal system. Tort laws and in some cases criminal laws are needed. The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 was outwardly corrupt. It was passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams. This was a failure of Congress and the voters who elected that Congress and President.

  36. The comment denouncing the wealth of the young woman who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash make me wonder whether the Chinese Communist Party is sitting on a powder keg. After Chairman Mao's death, the leaders most identified with the extremes of the Cultural Revolution were labeled the "Gang of Four," and purged. Deng Xiao Ping led with the slogan: "Let foreign things serve China." The party allowed the transformation of a socialist economy with state owned industries and businesses to a mixed economy which is part capitalist with privately owned industries and businesses. Party leaders are reported to be major investors in private sector businesses. Having a mixed economy has led to a sustained high rate of economic growth since the mid-1980's. This has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and is truly an economic miracle. However, the capitalist side of a mixed economy has produced much greater disparities of wealth than were seen when the economy was more purely socialist. The official ideology of Chinese Communist Party remains Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. "The Little Red Book" a synopsis of quotes from Mao's speeches and books remains widely available. Will leftists use it to organize against the wealthy and other "capitalist-roaders." Ironically as an American, I thought the Chinese web critic should be proud her compatriot was going to view exotic animals. A wealthy American might be doing the same, but might be hunting exotic animals.

  37. Why is this even news? Is this not similar to doxxing? She even mentions that it is doxxing, albeit with Chinese characteristics. Why are people outraged by this? How is this oppression? China is a fundementally different culture than the West. Government is seen as necessary, and for the longest time, societal collectivism was and is still the norm. Yes, attacks on one's privacy are unethical, and even criminal. But one can live quite well by simply not attracting attention. Let's get off our high horses. China isn't begging anyone to love it, on the contrary, you are beholden to accepting them. If you don't? Well, who cares about you?

  38. Too bad the Chinese government can't be effectively shamed for it's treatment of the Uighurs.

  39. Between this and the Uighur "reeducation camps," the paranoid Chinese government won't rest easily until half their population is incarcerated. It turns out that George Orwell was off by 35 years.

  40. Renrou sousuo? In the West we call it Mob Rule. A rabble; an out of control collective composed of faceless humanity that has coalesced around a singular purpose. To dispose of something, someone, it either fears or deems an irritant. It is irrational, it is almost entirely emotional in its nature, and it is composed of all the worst characteristics in the human animal. It is the Beast come to life. Stay away from it if you can because you cannot deal directly with it. It can only burn itself out, and you along with it if you are not very careful. John~ American Net'Zen

  41. It’s important to remember that, while “Woke Twitter” users are the loudest and most vile, they are also a tiny small portion of the overall public and journalists make a gigantic mistake when they impute the Identity Politics of the most vocal onto the population writ large. Thus, caution is warranted in China as well.

  42. With the cultural revolution in its not too distant past, this kind of behavior is particularly disturbing. It may happen in other countries, but it is unlikely to be as organized and venomous as in China.

  43. The U.S. has vigilante human flesh hunts too, we call it group-stalking or "gang" stalking.

  44. Ms. Li chooses the three most egregious examples of online vigilantism and paints millions of Chinese internet users in a broad stroke, all the while miraculously blaming these illegal behaviors on the Chinese government.

  45. A few years ago, Chinese 'defenders' turned up very frequently on the comments section of all major news outlets, (NYT, FT, Economist, WP etc.) and would defend China ferociously any time any article in slightest bit negative was published. They were frequently called out by other readers as paid propagandists and shills. Russia did the same. I have noticed the Chinese have greatly drawn back on this type of activity. Possibly because they saw that in being 'called out' and engaging in nationalistic arguments they were having the opposite effect to what they were hoping ... i.e. promoting China's reputation. But I suspect the monitoring activity is still going on by the Chinese, and the counter-arguments are placed, but far more subtly. In my more paranoid moments, I wonder and suspect, whether they have hacked the NYT subscriber list to learn the real identities of those of us who criticise China.

  46. China is an evil regime, with no intention to ever play fair: I lived and worked in China with 3 different US NYSE companies and here is what happened: 1. Chinese "police" showed up and seized the computers and servers for D&B, and stole the intellectual property. Feel free to google this 2. Speaking of google, they were banned from China since they allow searches on terms like "Tibet" or "Human Rights" 3. A classmate was thrown in prison for 10 years for refusing to pay bribes ("taxes") to some low level communist official. Look up Jude Shao Oh and ask the 2 Canadian diplomats currently facing execution in China for some unknown crimes. We need to stop this evil regime now, while there is still time.

  47. The jarring thing I saw in this article was the idea that there was any sort of justice available in social media. The beast that bites at the ostentatious will bite at everyone. What's really scary is that the "standards" that a mob operates by are never really spelled out with any clarity, so everyone is at peril from the mob - even, and especially, the anonymous cowards in the mob.

  48. The search is only triggered when someone caused a public outcry among all walks of life. The public grudge against him and wants justice. Normally when comments are done anonymously, no one really digs into that deep to find their identity. Only back and forth tweets, but that’s it. No matter what you do online, footprints are always left there

  49. Dear Ms. Li What a beautiful worded piece. Our president would have the same thing in this country if he could. Hate speech is just the start. There are a lot of unkind people in both our countrys, people who are anrgy and take the hate they have for themself's and try to make their small dark lives seem larger. We can only detach with love.

  50. I just modified a server to block China. I also blocked Russia, Iran and North Korea. Why? Because of numerous attempts to break into my server and e-mail. Out of the bunch, China was the worse. There is one IP, from China, which was attempting a break in once per minute. Since doing this last week, my SPAM, and attacks, went from the thousands per day, to less than 50 per day. For a society that is supposed to not have access to the Internet, an d is "closed", they send out a lot of cyber attacks, hijack mail servers, take over servers and send loads of SPAM. So, if there is government "repression" it certainly is not stopping Chinese from trying to compromise servers outside of China. To be fair, the Russians were as bad as China, according to my logs. Blocking North Korea was easy; with its one internet facing subnet. So, why weep for China being a repressive society, when its people engage in computer crime. And, based upon this article other vices. Xi may clamp down, sooner, than later, to exact control before the masses turn o him.

  51. a corrupt government pushes corruption downward and includes everyone. cheating, lying, and bribery are necessary tools to negotiate everyday activities. China's leaders are incredibly corrupt and invasive. it sets a norm. it becomes a way of life. I have experienced this in many countries in the world where individuals are forced to play the game or pay a high price.

  52. @Nick Metrowsky Could you share your technique for "modifying a server." What does this mean for the average person who uses a phone or cable provider for service? Re: "So, why weep for China being a repressive society, when its people engage in computer crime." It is just a fraction of Chinese people that engage in this behavior. That said, the CCP and current leader Xi bring out the worst in Chinese chauvinism (just as Trump brings out the worst in American chauvinism), so ultranationalism and the behavior described in this article are real and serious problems. That said, the majority are innocent victims. It is important to distinguish between the Chinese people overall, and the CCP and supporters.

  53. @Nick Metrowsky "It's people" which you refer to are not the typical hacker, and instead part of PPC I suspect you never have been to China, thus offer a "fourth party" perspective.

  54. I've lived in China for a dozen years and taught over 4000 university students in five different cities. They range in age now from 21-32 years old. They are citizens of the internet, denizens of QQ, Weibo, WeChat, DuoYin, Kwai and other software. They each are a product of 16 years of an educational system that openly inculcates them with communal political and social values. Strangely enough, once they graduate and enter the working world and marry, they are still a table rasa, aware of the nonsense that they have been subjected to, but with little or no understanding of their 'selves' to replace it with. Their one hope is that once the are 'rich', they will be happy. In chasing wealth, they hate their jobs, marry to please parents, give birth and often divorce. Their generation suffers emotionally, suffering as deep and genuine as the hunger and poverty experienced by their grandparents, but without the faith in the collective that their grandparents often felt justified their sacrifice. Their children now are entering the same corrupt educational system, this time with parents who are aware of its folly. It is the rare young Chinese adult who does not merit compassion. Internet vigiliantes? I think not.

  55. What a shame, such a powerful country is China, at least in it's economic prowess. But insofar human rights are concerned, and freedom of expression to wake up it's people's potential for ingenuity, creativity and social intercourse, there seems zero tolerance. This happens in a country afraid of it's own shadow, trying to control it's subjects in a most despicable fashion, bullying them into submission.

  56. Sorry to give you the bad news, but it happens on the Internet and in "Politically Correct" and Religious colleges in the USA. A current example is at Harvard where a teacher who managed the legal defense of once very popular Movie Director is having his job threatened by "the culture police" mob of Harvard students. It will be painful for those protesters when they are accused of "cultural failures" 20 years down the road and find no one will assist them from the culture mob's attacks.

  57. I feel sympathy for intelligent, independent Chinese citizens trapped by the constricting social and political ideologies of that nation, which is an Orwellian nightmare of government surveillance and human rights abuse.

  58. @TFL I am not sympathetic,the government is made of the citizens from their own.There is something very bad in the blood of these intelligent,independent people.Did you ever see we had good time in our longtime history?

  59. Vigilantes, online or not, are not China-specific. They are everywhere throughout history. What's interesting about this article is the timing. Ms Li recently cast doubts on the plaintiff in the rape case against Qiangdong Liu, and got eviscerated online for her lack of logic in her defense of Qiangdong Liu, which seems to have prompted this article.

  60. The more things change, the more they stay the same. How could the Chinese kill 40 million of their own countrymen during the Great Leap Forward? Answer: The ignorance and safety of crowds. How could the Chinese people permit the Chinese Communist Government to imprison millions of Chinese citizens (Uyghurs) based solely on their ethnicity? Answer: The safety and ignorance of crowds. And, of course, the ultimate question: Who will remove dictator Xi from his position? Answer: A crowd.

  61. We have very similar problems in the West. Nonetheless we view every problem in China not as a similar human problem , but as a unique Chinese problem arising entirely from its own history, governance and culture. The way I think China is different from us is not in having problems, but in being able to solve them. 10 years from now this problem will be much worse in the West than in China. I don't think there will be much discussion then of how these problems arise from our own history, governance, etc.

  62. Of course, things are different here in the U.S.: " It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” — Mark Twain

  63. Even if everything Ms Li writes is true, it will not alter the fact that Chinese universities are the last ones offering refuge to Western scientists whose research is constrained by political correctness. The constraint doesn't only apply to obvious disciplines like genetics or climate modeling, but extends to fields like economics, astrophysics and statistics. Furthermore - the only internet boards on the PLANET where re-posting Brenton Tarrant's video and manifesto were permitted were Chinese. Most users wrote in support of Tarrant - comments which would have been instantly deleted as "hate speech" anywhere in the West. This is typical: “This is a rare act of resistance from a white man. We need to find a way to prolong this and encourage white men to apply for all kinds of honors for the gunman, including a Nobel peace prize.” If (relative) oppression of Chinese web users is the price to be paid for saving what used to be a Western absolute, FREE SPEECH, then I most certainly hope it continues.

  64. Could as well be America.

  65. Sad to say, but the way we are headed points to a fascist regime with little regard for human rights. This is why we need to protect our privacy and not give out our personal information freely to Social Media Websites. I know it sounds crazy, but look what is happening to our government right now!

  66. We have our own vigilantes in the US, not only targeting "offenders" of different stripes but also - especially - women. Any woman stepping out of line, or even just existing, can be harassed and threatened mercilessly. China has its own twist on this but it's not unique by any means.