'Cyber cannibals' spreading fear in China

China's 'cyber cannibals' ruining lives
China's 'cyber cannibals' ruining lives

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China's 'cyber cannibals' ruining lives 03:47

Story highlights

  • Chinese online stalkers are using "Human Flesh Search" to target perceived wrong-doers
  • One admitted cyber cannibal told CNN he was part of a group that outed a so-called cat killer
  • Film maker Wang Jing has made a documentary about the phenomenon
  • Wang Jieyu says he is now afraid of being recognized and abused
Do you ever get the feeling you are being watched? Closed circuit cameras recording your movements, strange noises on the phone line, phone calls that suddenly stop, emails being monitored, and private computer files and Facebook being hacked into. Oh yes, secrecy is no secret in China. Privacy is anything but private.
As human rights activists, artists, dissidents, lawyers and journalists can attest to, if the long arm of the Chinese state wants to get you, it can.
But it isn't only the authorities that people in China need to fear -- they may want to be wary of each other. A neighbor, a boss, a former friend... anyone is a suspect, anyone can be a so-called "cyber cannibal."
These online stalkers unite in a virtual manhunt or so-called "Human Flesh Search" to target perceived wrong-doers. They scour the web -- blogs, forums, anywhere personal information can be found -- peering into the deepest corners of someone's life, literally eating their privacy, revealing all secrets to exact their brand of punishment.
One admitted cyber cannibal told CNN he was part of a group that outed a so-called cat killer, a woman who allegedly posted pictures of herself on the net, torturing the animals. Her case captured widespread media attention.
"This is the cat-abusing model. After being human flesh searched, she shunned media all together. She could no longer live a normal life...had to cut off from most social activities. She could no longer show up in public," he told us.
Wang Jieyu can tell you all about the cyber cannibals' devastating reach. The Beijing television director has had his life turned inside out. His phone number, personal photos, where he works and even the identity of his parents and friends, are now public knowledge.
He has been abused in the vilest language via email, he is harassed day and night with hateful phone calls.
Now this once confident, sharply dressed, successful young man is reduced to hiding, wearing a mask in public for fear of being recognized.
"My life has really been messed up in the past month," he said. "I received too many emails, they phone me at all hours, people abuse me... they use dirty words."
Opening his computer, he showed me page after page of abuse. Some of it is directed at his parents -- especially his mother who is targeted with crude sexual taunts.
Wang says it all started when he crossed a famous Chinese pop star, Shang Wenjie. He says he made a light-hearted jibe about Shang ona popular microblog -- a Chinese version of Twitter. Within hours the singer's fans went into a frenzy.
He doesn't accuse Shang of inciting the hatred, and her management has declined CNN's requests for comment. But Wang Jieyu's personal life has now gone viral.
"Every day, Shang's fans come and post nasty words from morning to night non-stop. My life and work was affected," he said.
Film maker Wang Jing has made a documentary about the phenomenon. He called it the "invisible killer," something he says taps into a deep-seated desire for vengeance, to get back at the world.
"I guess they are composed mainly of two kinds of people -- those who had tough luck with life themselves and thus hold grudges against others. They want to get even," he said.
The Human Flesh Search engine falls through the legal cracks in China. It is not outlawed, yet Chinese courts have described it as a dangerous phenomenon that undermines privacy laws.
Wang Jing says some are motivated by good, using it to uncover corruption and to highlight injustice. But he says too many others are out to destroy lives.
"It can easily go too far," he said. "If anyone wants to ruin another person's reputation he can simply make up things and ask others to 'human flesh search' for him. I know another case in which a boy searched for his ex-girlfriend after breaking up. After knowing her whereabouts, he went to find her and then killed her."
When we go out with Wang Jieyu he dons his mask. This is how he lives now, afraid of being recognized and abused, still paying the price, he says, for crossing the pop star's fans.
"I'm afraid that Shang Wenjie's fans might attack. They've attacked me twice now so I'm scared. So I wear a mask to prevent them from recognizing me."
But on the web there is nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of china's cyber cannibals.