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The Human Flesh Search Engine in China: a case-oriented approach to understanding online collective action

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posted on 17.07.2013, 14:07 authored by Li Gao
There has been a growing interest in online politics in China. The research mostly focuses on the role of the Internet in two areas, one is its creation of a public sphere and the challenges it poses to the existing communication and political system, and the other one is online censorship undertaken by Chinese authorities to reduce the scope of political discussion online and keep the domestic cyberspace from being merged with foreign cyberspace. However, some political uses of the Internet in China have tended to be overlooked. This thesis seeks to redress this lacuna in research by examining the political focus of a recent Internet phenomenon the Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE). This term might be more at home in pages of a horror novel but was originally applied by the Chinese media to refer to the practice of online searching for people or human hunting. While existing examinations have focused on breaches of individual privacy by these so called online vigilantes this study mainly focuses on the ability of HFSE to reveal norms transgressions by public officials and lead to their removal. As the politically-focused HFSE is part of the tendency of Chinese popular protest, it is necessary to explore how the HFSE differs from and is similar to those offline protests in China. A case-oriented approach is applied to the research on HFSE. More specifically, the first part of this research puts the understanding of HFSE in Chinese historical context, with the aim of exploring the common dynamics between HFSE and those historical examples of Chinese bottom-up collective action. Then in the second part, a comparison between HFSE and recent Chinese offline popular protests is conducted in order to establish the pattern of politically-focused HFSE. In the third part, based on the empirical cases, the research on HFSE continues with an exploration of HFSE s underlying causal mechanisms to answer a key question of this research: why did HFSE occur? The study implies that there are continuities with respect to the Chinese bottom-up collective action as HFSE and Chinese rural resistances as well as urban labour strikes in the twentieth century of China tend to show similar dynamics, which are determined by the power structure they are exposed to. Moreover, the internal process of politically-focused HFSE differs largely from that of recent Chinese offline popular protests, which indicates that HFSE does not have an offline equivalent, although some of its stages can be witnessed offline. Furthermore, HFSE s occurrence is brought about by a combination of online and offline factors, which are relevant to not only the Internet and Chinese cyberspace, but also the political system that has contributed to the growth of official corruption and low government credibility in China.



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Li Gao

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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