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Renrou Sousuo

Updated : Thursday 24 March 2011

So what is this "Renrou Sousuo", and how do you even pronounce it? Let’s start with the second question: you pronounce it “Ren Roo Soo Soo-oh”. The concept is very much in vogue in China, but for a lot of Chinese, it is making life extremely uncomfortable. Renrou literally means “human flesh”, while Sousuo is a search or chase. Renrou Sousuo therefore means the pursuit of human flesh. The Chinese use the term only in the internet context, to refer to any pursuit designed to identify a particular web user “in the flesh”, as it were, and strip away their anonymity.

Originally, Renrou Sousuo was the hidden face of justice on the internet in China. There were Chinese geeks lying in wait to curb abuses on the web, by blowing the cover of the authors of violent or trashy posts or video clips. Renrou Sousuo came into its own in the case of one particularly nasty video of a girl crushing a kitten with her heel: a posse of geeks managed to identify her and published her photo, her address and where she worked, as well as identifying the cameraman. The miscreants were held up to public opprobrium, dismissed from their company and lost everything down to their pension rights. In fact, it was uncannily like the spontaneous online campaign in the UK against the woman caught on CCTV dumping a cat in a wheelie bin.

This vigilante urge to "clean up the jungle" online is not just the preserve of the Chinese. A few years ago, some geeks in the United States created "Scooby Doos" after the famous detective dog, to track down and unmask trolls and other internet users guilty of harassing others online. The Scooby Doos set out to protect victims of internet abuses and sanction the "bad guys" as a way of safeguarding the credibility of the web. They didn’t last long, though, as the spirit of Renrou Sousuo apparently no longer lives on in the land of the free…

For some months now, Renrou Sousuo has been getting out of hand. There are geeks abusing the concept, lifting the anonymity of any blogger who is the slightest bit critical. All it takes is one post they don’t like, and they unmask the author’s true identity for the whole web to see. It’s enough to make internet users very afraid. Anonymity is an internet fundamental, and, especially in countries where censorship is rife, an important part of freedom of expression. Many Chinese internauts do not feel safe any more when stating their views online, and are scared they will no longer be able to share their opinions. Without the mask of anonymity, they are exposed to attacks from other internet users, or the Chinese authorities themselves. Others fear that Renrou Sousuo diehards will be tempted to exploit data obtained under cover of anonymity for gain or for commercial ends. The "pursuit of human flesh", supposedly a way of combating misuse of the internet, is itself falling prey to abuse.

When you think that the internet knows no frontiers (apart from language, that is), it can’t be long before the cult of Renrou Sousuo catches on in the West. Be afraid…..

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