China’s Internet went into an uproar after an unwanted newborn was discovered flushed down a toilet in an eastern Chinese city. Netizens poured invective on the mother, but the rage has softened as more details have emerged of her particular plight.
“Human-flesh searches” — the term for mass acts of online Chinese vigilantism — fill the void left by the country’s censorship policies, dubious legal system and cronyism. Netizens share information about individuals suspected of shameful acts to eventually identify those responsible and bring about some loosely defined form of justice. Government officials accused of corruption are particularly valued prey, and those caught are ridiculed, ostracized or even prosecuted. But critics warn that tens of thousands of anonymous Web users spreading gossip, rumor and innuendo is merely mob justice for the 21st century — virtual tar and feathers without courts of appeal or the right to due process. Nevertheless, these campaigns are extraordinarily powerful, and even the whiff of corruption or impropriety is typically enough for jobs to be lost and lives ruined.