Human Flesh Search in China: The Realization of a Virtual World


"Wanted" : A Wanted Poster on the Internet

In recent years, a phenomenon known as “human flesh search” (Ren Rou Sou Suo) has become a heated debate topic in China. It differs from traditional search engines, which are based on existing online information, in that it involves a process by which an online community mobilizes to track down specific individuals or facts, in which every participant contributes the information he/she knows or finds out. Based on a format that translates as “one asks, thousands answer” or “one issue, thousands explore,” it usually starts from an event which violates public morality, disclosed by someone online, and followed by thousands of “netizens[1](internet citizens) mobilizing to dig out the details or the truth of the event and the related individual.
On one hand, this phenomenon reflects the increasing public participation in China and people’s pursuit of justice in a field where laws may fail. On the other hand, the uncontrollable impact of the mass behavior sometimes brings disaster to the individuals in the events as well. The issues of privacy vs. public opinion, and regulation vs. freedom of speech on the internet aroused by the human flesh search have been discussed intensively throughout Chinese newspapers, TV and online media. People are increasingly realizing that the internet is no longer a virtual world completely separated from the real world, but rather an aspect of reality, and they will suffer the impact of their online behavior in the real world.

''Human flesh search" is the literal translation of the Chinese phrase "Ren Rou Sou Suo," which firstly appeared around 2001 as the name of an interactive section in mop.com, a well-known online community in China. In that section, people could ask or answer any questions that they were interested in. To promote participation, mop.com also invented a virtual currency as an incentive. Anyone who needed help could go there and set a reward in "mop currency" for the answer. "Human flesh search" soon became a popular phrase on websites in China.


Human flesh search has become so popular in China that Google even designed a special pagededicated to human flesh search on April 1 this year.

What Is Behind Human Flesh Search

Long accustomed to one-way delivery of information, Chinese people found a new platform for public participation in Web2.0 in recent years. According to the 22nd report by CNNIC (China Internet Network Infomation Center) released in July 2008, the population of netizens in China reached 253 million by the end of June 2008, becoming the largest in the world. The growth of netizens and their dynamic participation online became a force that is shaping the life of Chinese people today. On the other hand, according to the same report, more than 2/3 of the netizens in China are people in their 30s or younger; 39% have a high school education, and only 15.3% are at a university level or above. The composition of the netizens in China means that they are curious, impulsive, energetic, eager to participate and express themselves, with a strong sense of justice, but at the same time not mature enough to analyze, often tending to be more destructive than constructive.

The lack of sophisticated laws contributes to the popularity of human flesh search. It was reflected in both the failures of laws to protect the victims and to give the justice that people wanted. China's long history has emphasized community and neighborhood, and need for privacyhas only begun to be recognized in recent years. The laws on the protection of privacy are not mature enough. On the other hand, there are still a lot of areas where the existing laws fail to play a role, such as moral issues or the supervision on government. The internet became a platform for people to exercize social norms and pursue justice on their own.

Many people also believe that the real drive behind the events of human flesh search lies in the economic interests of websites. In pursuit pf sensationalism, the websites not only arranged the posts for human flesh search at the top of their websites, some even went to the extreme of making up human flesh search events. Motivated by the same desire to attract the readers, traditional media such as newspapers and magazines also join in to spread news of the events enthusiastically, and make them social events in the end.

What Is the Future of Human Flesh Search?

In China, the internet used to be a platform that offered people the pleasure of anonymity. However, with the development of participation online, the internet is more and more like an extension of real world.

A Legal Dilemma
On August 25 this year, some members of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress proposed to restrain human flesh search with laws in a draft amendment of the Criminal Law. Some lawsuits against human flesh search also appeared. However, the legal measures on human flesh search still face several practical problems at present:ra

  1. The definition of privacy is unclear. It is difficult to define which actions in spreading information are violations of privacy, especially online, where the source of information is generally difficult to trace.
  2. It is difficult to trace the person who is responsible for the actions. All of the actions are conducted anonymously. It is difficult to identify the accused even if there is a specific accused.
  3. The harm done to the victims is committed by mass behavior, making it is difficult to decide who should be held responsible for it. The most obvious target should be the websites involved, but while there is no clear definition of privacy, the restrictions on websites will definitely raise the controversial issue of censorship.

A Commercial Potential
In the age of information, finding needed information quickly and efficiently has become the primary requirement of users. Many people have realized the commercial potential in interactive search engines by which people don’t need to go through pages after pages to look for the answers, but can get the answers directly. Human-powered search engines have become a new trend and business model. The best-known example among Chinese internet companies is chacha.com, where people can ask questions online or through mobile and get answers in SMS or on the web, a few minutes after chacha’s more than 35,000 part-time employees research the answers online. Since the launching of mobile service in January to September, chacha has had more than 1 million users and answered more than 27 million questions.


In view of legal challenges and the temptation of business potential, many big websites in China have already tried to explore a new development direction of human flesh search. The pioneer of human flesh search, mop.com, has already hired part-time employees for human flesh search and tried to guide the human flesh search in the direction of a regulated business. Human flesh search, with great potential, is at a turning point.

Some Representitive Cases of Human Flesh Search

The Kitten Case – A Triumph of Human Flesh Search
Tong Xu Case – Justice or Blinded Lynch Mobs?
The Fake Tiger Case – Supervision of Public on Government

Reports on Human Flesh Search in different media

Human Flesh Search on mop.com, the most influencial human flesh search website

[1] According to the definition of CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Centre), netizen refers to those who have visited internet within half a year and above the age of 6.