Grandpa Wen and the Human Flesh Search Engine

Premier Wen Jiabao, affectionately known as Grandpa Wen, is the caring, cuddly and human face of the Chinese Communist leadership. Whenever there is a national catastrophe Wen soon appears with a wreath in his hands and a tear in his eye to comfort those in mourning. But after the recent high-speed train crash in Wenzhou it took Wen five days to put in an appearance, despite massive public outrage over the incident. So what took so long? Wen’s excuse was that he had been ill and unable to leave his bed.

Fair enough, you might think; at 69 years old it’s not unreasonable to assume he might not be as fit and healthy as he once was. But something was odd about this; simply put, Chinese leaders NEVER admit to any kind of weakness. As it turns out, people’s initial skepticism was correct. Photos soon started to appear on the internet of Wen greeting foreign dignitaries and enjoying banquets, all taken in the last few days.

So where did these photos come from and who was brave enough to post them? No one is exactly sure, but one answer maybe a rising internet phenomenon in China; the Human Flesh Search Engine.

It might sound like some giant pornography database, but the Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE) is in fact an online collaboration of Chinese netizens who trawl the internet for information in support of moral crusades and to issue their own brand of vigilante justice. It’s emergence has been the subject of academic papers and it has already been used to expose personal details of animal abusers, reunite a homeless man with his family and even reveal evidence of police corruption.

Despite drawing condemnation from the Supreme People’s Court, the Human Flesh Search Engine has until now steered clear of directly attacking the higher reaches of the Communist Party; so has Wen become it’s first government victim? Whilst this incident certainly bares hallmarks of the HFSE, it’s difficult to say for sure. What is certain is that this marks a shift in online activism in China. Wen maybe on his way out of the Party leadership, retiring in 2012, but never before have Chinese netizens attacked such a high ranking member of the CCP in such a direct manner. Coupled with the recent on-air criticism by a CCTV News anchor of the pace of development in China, it is clear that cracks are starting to appear in the Chinese government’s control of the media and internet, which might just give activists in China that little bit of wiggle room they need.

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