Harnessing human search engines for government use


A humble government office building

Two journalists with the Economic Information Daily have been targeted by the “human flesh search engine,” a crowd-sourced technique that Chinese netizens use to dig up enough personal information to locate someone offline.

On February 18, the Xinhua-affiliated newspaper printed a story by reporters Wang Wenzhi and Xiao Bo about fancy a new government office building that was recently completed in Guannan County, Jiangsu Province. Someone unhappy with their reporting went online to urge local residents to “join together” and “eliminate” the journalists that had besmirched the county’s reputation.

Exposés of government extravagance turn up fairly often in the Chinese media, and Wang and Xiao themselves have written a number of stories about massive construction projects undertaken by local governments in economically depressed regions. What distinguishes the Guannan edifice from those buildings is that its construction was originally approved as a welfare project — a 62-million-yuan City Cultural Center that would benefit all of the county’s inhabitants.

In addition to a 8,000 square meter main building, the Center was supposed to feature a 3,000 seat stadium and a 400 meter rubberized athletic track. The 50,000 square meter structure that ended up being built at a cost of 120-million-yuan has no athletic or cultural facilities, yet it was still listed as one of the county’s major “welfare projects” at its fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2008. The building forms the centerpiece of a government office complex currently under construction at a further cost of 280 million yuan.

On February 20, the Oriental Morning Post printed a follow-up story that looked at the reactions of Internet users and the local government:

Over the last two days, Morning Post reporters tried several times to contact party and government offices in Guannan. The entire leadership was either “out at a meeting,” or their phones simply went unanswered. On the afternoon of the 18th, Meng Ye, deputy secretary of the Guannan Publicity Department, told the paper in a phone interview that media reports were erroneous: “We’re working with them right now.” Meng would not reveal which parts of the reports were in error, but simply said, “Just wait,” and hung up the phone.

Yesterday afternoon [Feb. 19], Guannan Publicity Department office director Liu Qin voiced the same sentiments, claiming that media reports had factual errors. “What’s so “luxurious” about our office building? Besides, our paperwork is all legal and we didn’t use the people’s money. And the project never claimed to be a ‘welfare project’.” Liu explained that although she wasn’t familiar with the specifics, she could speak for the Guannan authorities: “This is what the leadership has said.” She refused to disclose contact information for other agencies or individuals who were acquainted with the matter: “Come over in person and we’ll give you a good reception.” Then she hung up. Her mobile phone was subsequently unreachable.

The transformation of Guannan’s “welfare project” into a luxury office building for the government sparked considerable discussion online. Zhao Yong, a media commentator, said that the worst aspect of the situation was not the construction of the luxury office building, but how the government had trumpeted upgrades to its own office space as a “welfare project.” Zhao said that that Development and Reform Commission of Lianyungang, which approved the project, had failed in its duties. It should not, he said, “be able to wash its hands of the matter after signing off on it….such a large building wasn’t built overnight, so if higher authorities had shown even the least bit of interest in supervision, or played even a token role as custodians, the ‘City Culture Center’ wouldn’t have turned into luxury government offices.”

The Oriental Morning Post also found BBS posts calling for the two reporters to be tracked down and “eliminated” (干掉).

An op-ed that ran in the Peninsula Metropolis Daily tried to deduce who was behind the threats, and mused on the possibility that local governments and other interested parties could harness the “human flesh search engine” for their own ends.

Who wants to eliminate the reporters who exposed the luxury office building?

by Xu Linlin / PMD

A “welfare project” in Guannan, an economically-depressed county under the city of Lianyungang in northern Jiangsu Province, has become a luxury office building for the government. There was an uproar after the media exposed this transformation, and Internet users have blasted it as a pointless waste. But a number of local netizens on Baidu’s Guannan BBS board started pursuing a “human flesh search” for Wang Wenzhi and Xiao Bo, the two journalists who first revealed the story in the Economic Information Daily. Some netizens even called for the local people to “band together” to “eliminate” the reporters.

Previously, reports stated that the public was furious at the government’s use of a decoy tactic* to squander hard-earned taxpayer money, and they hoped that the government would make a clear, public explanation. Who would have expected that local netizens would turn around and whip up a storm by openly threatening to “eliminate” the reporters who wrote the article? Who were those people? Why did they have such hatred for the reporters who exposed the truth? As far as I can fathom, they fall into one of the following categories:

They could be local officials. More than 100 million yuan in public monies was poured into a bait-and-switch construction project. Even if the starting point was the “collective study” of the county government and party committee, public opinion is now exerting tremendous pressure on them, and some people will inevitably pay the price for it. Those people may think that they are better off slipping into the virtual world to threaten and intimidate reporters in the guise of ordinary netizens than sitting silently to await their fate.

A second possibility is that they are the government’s hired guns. Crisis PR is one of the major responsibilities of the main office or secretarial department at many government agencies. This becomes especially important when these agencies face the brunt of online public opinion. Hence we cannot ignore the possibility that scribes operating on the instructions of the leadership have infiltrated the ranks of netizens to distort and fabricate online public opinion, or even to assume the guise of a fighter or thug to exert psychological pressure on reporters in an attempt to frighten other media off the story.

A third possibility is that they are from the companies involved. Is the construction and furnishing of the “welfare project” turned luxury government office building all paid up? In the unlikely event that officials are held responsible by the government, if their successors decide to wipe the slate clean, doesn’t that spell doom for those companies? So their chief concern right now is most likely how best to calm online public opinion so as to get their hands on cold hard cash. To do this, they may have sent people onto the Internet to exculpate the government of its “crime.”

Does clamoring on the Internet for the public to “join together” to “eliminate” two reporters who exposed a “welfare project” count as “disseminating terrorist information,” something that could run afoul of relevant laws and regulations? Public security departments really ought to look into it, for they should not permit individuals to use despicable tactics to brazenly disrupt and obstruct the supervisory work of media and public opinion.

Note: The original has 明修栈道,暗渡陈仓, “Openly repair the gallery roads while sneaking through Chencang,” one of the Thirty-Six Stratagems.

Update (2009.02.28): For more thoughts on the ways that “human flesh search engines” can be misused, see Rebecca MacKinnon’s From Red Guards to Cyber-vigilantism to where next?.

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