Raymond Zhou’s X-Ray


Raymond Zhou (周黎明) is a well-known Chinese film critic, bilingual blogger and former China Daily columnist.

Zhou is the author of many popular books including The Seven Veils of Salome (莎乐美的七层纱) and Hollywood Politics and Economics (好莱坞启示录), as well as collections of Chinese film criticism.

Earlier this year, China Intercontinental Press published a collection of 99 columns from his time at the state-owned China Daily titled X-Ray: Examining the China Enigma.

Below is an extract about ‘human search flesh engines’, originally published in 2006.

Let’s stop lynching by public opinion

by Raymond Zhou

What is the difference between the masses and the mob?

For me, the former express their opinions rationally while the latter try to impose their judgment on others by means that are unacceptable in a civilized society.

Some outside China tend to see China’s netizens in rosy colors – as mostly young, educated and well-informed. I bet they haven’t surfed a typical Chinese Web forum. One is as likely to encounter fist-waving and vituperation as a sensible discussion, more so when it involves a hot topic. Something like the recent incident of a supposed adulterer hunted down by slogan-shouting throngs numbering in hundreds of thousands.

After a husband revealed online the details of his wife having an affair with a college student, thousands joined in the denunciation. Online sleuths later uncovered the true identity of the student, leading to calls of harassment and threats of various kinds, including “to chop off the heads of these adulterers, to pay for the sacrifice of the husband”. Very pompous language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

Did these people care whether or not the allegation was true? And if yes, did they have the right to act out their moral indignation in ways that were so obviously out of line with law and order?

Trial by virtual lynching has become the norm in China’s cyberspace. When a controversy erupts, the rational voice is usually drowned out in vociferous condemnation.

I’m not saying our netizens are always wrong. As a matter of fact, they have a strong sense of justice – so strong that they see the world in only black and white. There’s no room for shades of gray.

I don’t like it even when their attacks hit the right target, for example, people who abuse animals or corrupt officials who try to cover up their actions. Justice by mob rule will not lead to more fairness and lawfulness. It will beget more twisted minds and more violence, virtual or real.

So, it doesn’t matter whether or not the college student committed adultery. That is clearly a moral issue and the “moral court” of public opinion does not have the right to sentence him to expulsion from school or confinement to his house, let alone the harassing of his teachers and family members.

People need to know the line between expressing opinions and executing a legal verdict. The latter must be conducted with due process. While it is a good thing that ordinary people can participate in exposing the seamy sides of our society, over-enthusiasm may lead to witch-hunting. We are not entitled to be prosecutor, investigator, jury and judge all in one.

Some might blame all this on China’s “lack of freedom of speech,” but the irony is, the Internet generation has unprecedented access to information and education. They are the most attuned to Western lifestyles.

Yet, they – or more accurately many of them – exhibit characteristics commonly associated with the Red Guards. Worse yet, incidents like the hunting down of the adulterer were reportedly manipulated by Internet firms that need more eyeballs to make money. If that’s true, it’s truly the worst of both worlds – negative energy set in motion by commercial interests.

Online “flaming” wars exist everywhere, facilitated by anonymity. But in China they may have a self-propelling force that sweeps thousands, sometimes millions, into a frenzy. It is nearly impossible, even for the most respected scholars, to give voice to dissension.

Thinking of it, this does have something to do with our culture. For thousands of years, we have not really cultivated enough space for different voices. They are cast away as “wrong” and often ostracized. We need to realize that, even if obviously wrong, as long as they make good arguments, they serve the purpose of contributing to a well-balanced society. Harmony does not necessitate we speak as one.

Maybe the Web mob is a vociferous minority. Sometimes, I doubt it. But it can ruin the prospects of rational discourse. I’m not suggesting it be silenced – it should not. But it should be made aware that there is a sensible alternative to expressing oneself using a mouse and keyboard to stage a public lynching.

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