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.