Nina Baculinao: Talking about the Human Flesh Search Engine Phenomenon in the Flesh
This summer, I conversed online and offline with an eclectic panoply of persons in Beijing, including but not limited to the screenwriter of the provocative film Invisible Killer, an investigative journalist turned online activist, bloggers, students, and an Internet-savvy monk, whose candid discourse brought many insights into my master's thesis tentatively titled "Renrou sousuo: A Study of China's 'human flesh search engine' in the Internet Era." Through historical research and virtual ethnography, my M.A. thesis shall investigate the Chinese Internet phenomenon of the human flesh search engine, in relation to cultural instances of accusation, political scapegoating, and informal social justice, in modern Chinese history as well as a global context of increasing incidents of online vigilantism.
Since 2001, the human flesh search engine (人肉搜索) has become accepted new terminology in academic, journalistic and online circles for the relatively new and collaborative phenomenon of using the Internet as a tool to research individuals’ personal details and information. This is largely for the purpose of publicly exposing certain individuals for their perceived moral and social crime. The human flesh search engine has managed to mobilize, thanks mainly to the public sphere created by the Internet, which now has nearly 500 million users in China. The significance of the human flesh search engine is its grassroots ideational force that lies outside the control of China’s ruling Communist party. While it shares the party’s goal of justice and order, it is not susceptible to party control because it is not an official organization, but a movement of sentiments and an amorphous notion of social justice. Being a relatively new field of academic inquiry, the topic of China's human flesh search engine requires quite a magnitude of field research, original encounters with China-based players and secondary sources in Chinese.
It is one thing to observe the online dialogue and commentary from an Internet browser in New York. It is quite another to speak openly in Chinese about such issues offline with participants in the comfort of their own homes or most frequented local cafes. I had the opportunity to hear the acutely intelligent musings of the screenwriter behind Invisible Killer on the history of the human flesh search engine and personal privacy in a specific Chinese context. I also gained new perspectives from the investigative journalist turned online activist. Last year, through the large-scale aid of the human flesh search engine, he was able to help reunite a father with his six-year-old son after three years. He also spoke of the concomitant power and responsibilities the Internet grants Chinese journalists, for not only could they report change, they could now make change happen. He cited his own experience reporting on the dire condition of nutrition in rural schoolhouses, and the influx of 1,000,000 yuan of donations within one hour from 360 thousand sympathetic followers on his microblog. In the past, he had countered and criticized the government heavily for its oversights, but now he acknowledges the ability of the Internet and the human flesh search engine (which traditionally has a negative portrayal) to build a bridge and bring governmental attention and public support to worthy philanthropic projects.
I could not be happier with the helpful contacts, newly forged friendships, and hefty stack of Chinese-language materials that I have come away with this summer. I was also pleasantly surprised by the strong presence of the Columbia community in China. While I was in Beijing I regularly met up currents students, alumni and professors from Columbia—many of whom I had familiarized myself with in New York. As we shared our reasons for our presence in China this summer, I could not help but be astonished by the diversity and impact of our research and professional interests.
Thanks to the generous funding of the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Grant, I was able to begin my firsthand investigation of the Chinese Internet phenomenon of the human flesh search engine in its country of origin. I feel deeply indebted to the Weatherhead East Asian Institute for funding my summer research two years in a row, as well as deeply impressed by the institution's dedication to supporting students to follow their research passions wherever it may take them.
For more information on the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Grant, please contact Kim Palumbarit at firstname.lastname@example.org.