Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Deng Yujiao and China's internet mobs

Lauren Hilgers

Every once and awhile something unexpected seizes the attention of large swaths of internet users in China. Last summer, a cop killer in Shanghai, Yang Jia, attracted an outpouring of support form people online. A year ago, an adulterous husband was tracked down and harassed by an internet mob. Now, a young lady in Hubei Province has captured the spotlight after she stabbed a low-level official.

Deng Yujiao was approached by an official and his assistant in the hotel where she worked as a pedicurist. They offered her money for sex, and Deng refused. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the pair attempted to use force and Deng grabbed a pedicure knife. She stabbed them both, killing the official and wounding his assistant. She contacted the police, and local authorities attempted to cover up the situation, apparently unaware of the attention the case was generating online.

The officials in Hubei should have known better than to ignore the internet. Online mobs are not a new phenomenon in China. For the past few years, groups of internet users have hunted down individuals deemed to have acted immorally (a practice known as the "human flesh search engine"). More recently, a handful of internet campaigns have put those hunting skills to use on an increasing number of politically-sensitive issues. Online forums have helped to reveal corrupt local officials, challenge the claims of Chinese police and keep tabs on criminal cases.

Among the Chinese people I know, there is also no love for corrupt local authorities (a month or two ago, old photos of a corrupt official's execution were wildly popular after being posted on the internet). Pitting a young woman defending her honor against a licentious low-level official is bound to strike a chord. The story was picked up by the media and the online community vocally supported Deng--some even traveling to her hometown in Badong County to show their support. It didn't take long for the government to seal off the town (two Chinese journalists were roughed-up while reporting the story) and ban coverage of the controversy in state-run newspapers.

Chinese authorities have reacted to incidents like these more artfully in the recent past. In a case known as "elude the cat," bloggers challenged a claim, made by the public security bureau of a town in Yunnan province, that an inmate at a local prison had died of brain injuries, sustained while playing "elude the cat," a Chinese version of hide-and-seek. To avoid any unrest, local officials allowed a group of journalists and bloggers to take part in an investigation of the incident. It amounted to little more than a publicity stunt, but the Yunnan officials were paying attention and the furor over the case receded.

This is likely to be a model for dealing with internet movements in the future. China's leaders have been called on to use the internet to help "guide" public opinion. In a recent report published in the Chinese magazine Outlook Weekly, officials were warned that the internet can contribute to "mass incidents." The report encouraged local leaders to find ways to use the internet to their advantage--through online PR like web chats, media releases, and soliciting public opinion.

The courts, of course, also play a role. Responding to the uproar over the Deng Yujiao case, a spokesperson at the Supreme People's Court, Sun Jungong, promised that the courts would remain "rational." "The more the media pays attention to (the case), the more the court in charge of the case remains rational," he said. He explained that the final verdict would include "a combination of full consideration of the legal and social implications."

Following the doctrine of the "Three Supremes," an ideology pushed by the current head of China's Supreme People's Court, judges should take into account the party's cause and the people's interest as well as laws when deciding a case. In the face of the financial crisis, courts have been encouraged repeatedly to help maintain social stability. The SPC has even mandated an "early warning system" be put in place where courts inform the government when they encounter potentially inflammatory cases.

The attention that the Deng Yujiao case attracted appears to have had an impact. Released from the mental institution, Deng was convicted of using "excessive force," at a short trial on Tuesday. She was released, however, without punishment, given that she was acting in self-defense, had turned herself in promptly, and was suffering from a "certain level of mental disorder." The Badong County court seems to have found a compromise.

Some are celebrating the verdict as confirmation of the power of the internet in China. Its likely, however, that local officials will become more internet savvy as time goes on. This could mean more transparency, or, it could mean local officials will act more quickly in the future, cutting off online "mass incidents" before they attract too much attention.

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