"In a way, this is like an ad hoc, ground-up rule of law."
As it smoldered, Yang Dacai (杨达才) smiled.
Then the chief of the Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau, Yang had been dispatched to the scene of an August bus fire that killed 36 people along a stretch of Yan'an (延安) highway in the central Chinese province.
Almost immediately, Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, trended pictures of the vehicle's charcoaled, blown-out frame; of emergency crews carrying the dead. Behind lengths of crime tape, arms tucked at the small of his back, stood Yang -- grinning at a motioning police officer.
This image juxtaposing tragedy against stereotyped government callousness quickly spread. Disgusted, and determined to ascertain the official's identity, self-appointed Internet sleuths conducted what is known as a human flesh search.
Translated directly from the Chinese renrou sousou yinqing (人肉搜搜引擎) and popularized by Chinese bulletin board services like Mop, Tianya and KDnet, flesh searches are grassroots, collaborative efforts to share information online.
Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau chief Yang Dacai became suddenly famous, with Web users rushing to caricature him.
Although the term sounds ghoulish, this sleuthing process involves the probing and posting of personal details in pursuit of romance, kinship, justice, or vindication. Citizens and officials alike are equally exposed to the deluge of home and email addresses, bank statements, or gaming handles. Yang, a man with expensive tastes, was no exception.
Despite Yang's supposedly-meager government pay, flesh searchers unearthed his penchant for designer watches, belts and eyeglasses. He was ultimately dismissed as bureau chief for these excesses, but Yang's dispassionate smugness in the face of a horrific accident surely did not help his cause.
"Flesh searchers feel like they are sharing information in a system that does not have a comprehensive or consistent rule of law," explained global tech sociologist, ethnographer and blogger Tricia Wang. "In a way, this is like an ad hoc, ground-up rule of law. It's thrown together, it's not very systematic, it can fall apart at any second -- but what's amazing is that there is no face-to-face contact and yet trust is able to form."
Wang specifically cited the infamous and disturbing kitten-killer case.
In 2006, a video of a woman stomping a kitten to death with the sharp point of her high heel appeared on a Mop forum. With no recourse to file a formal complaint, outraged Chinese took matters into their own hands and, through a flesh search, found the culprit: Wang Jiao from Heilongjiang province. The woman summarily lost her "iron rice bowl" (铁饭碗), a coveted government job that usually lasts to retirement and pays a lifetime pension.
"Not everyone is doing it as a response to some moral compass to the government, or for even a righteousness reason," said Tricia Wang. "We can instead see this as a more broad manifestation of a collective response to a society that's undergoing some major debates; the issues that people are flesh searching really reveal the things that China is going through."
Issues, as revealed with Yang and his watches, often involving government conduct and corruption.
The 2009 Deng Yujiao incident (邓玉娇事件) marks a prominent example. A young, female pedicurist from Hubei province, Deng was charged with murder after stabbing Party official Deng Guida (no relation) to death with a pedicure knife in a local hotel. Deng had indeed wielded that knife, but there was a twist: Deng had lashed out in self-defense after Deng and two other officials tried to force her to have sex with them.
Wu Gan, a citizen reporter known as the Butcher (超级低俗屠夫), was integral to what happened next. Relying in part on human flesh searches, he prepared a blog post detailing the night's events and the offenses of the officials involved.
As he explained to me via email, "The cultural significance of flesh searches is this: In an undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information. Information about [the activities of] public power is not transparent and operates in a black box, [but] citizens can get access to information through the Internet, exposing lies and the truth. It is a kind of asymmetrical means of protest [畸形的抗争手段], and in some ways has had good effects."
Wu Gan has over 30,000 followers on Twitter.
Though Deng was initially charged with murder and held without bail, she was ultimately released without penalty following an outpouring of online furor that began with Wu Gan's coverage. It's virtually certain that Deng's freedom is due in part to flesh searchers who sought camaraderie in justice and trust in a sometimes-untrustworthy governing system -- what author Rebecca MacKinnon called "cyber vigilantism."
Granted instances of successful adjudication, Wu Gan acknowledges that the breadth of these Internet investigations, even into something as benign as a girl's phone number, can take a considerable toll.
"Some innocent people have been hurt, [and] personal privacy has not been protected, especially when information is incorrect. This kind of thing only happens in deformed countries. Because there's no rule of law or democracy, the Internet becomes citizens' only means of redress," he wrote to me.
Just as memes behave as visual, viral critiques of societal status quo, flesh searches likewise notch the temperature of public discourse--particularly so on microblogs like Weibo.
"If you want to understand China right now, you should be paying attention to what its flesh searchers are doing," Wang said.
This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.