When footage of Baby 59’s rescue was released earlier this week in China, in absence of information about his mother, the reaction online was swift and harsh. “What kind of beasts can do such a thing?” posted one user on Sina Weibo, a domestic Twitter-like social-media service, referring to the child’s parents. In the court of public opinion, the young mother, as well as the father who reportedly refused to acknowledge her pregnancy, were quickly tried and found guilty. Wrote another Weibo user: “His parents should be put into prison and never be allowed to touch him again.”
The Internet serves as a crowd-sourcing tool for vigilante justice in China — where the normal judicial system cannot be counted on for dispensing fair results — and it does such an effective job that it’s often nicknamed the Human Flesh Search Engine. Although sensitive content is often censored, the online sphere is still the most open forum available to Chinese citizens, who rarely trust state-run media to deliver news that contradicts the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s version of truth. From discrediting corrupt local cadres and shaming jaywalkers to exposing two-timing spouses and launching online mobs on individuals who mistreat kittens, the Human Flesh Search Engine humiliates with stunning speed.
But in cases that stray into politics, such as a hit-and-run involving an official’s progeny, Chinese state censors soon move in, blocking keywords and discouraging further online discussion. The official dragnet can reach smothering proportions — at one time or another, the name of China’s new leader Xi Jinping and the car brand Ferrari were both deemed unacceptable search-words on Weibo.