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China's virtual vigilantes: Civic action or cyber mobs?

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"It is a tradition in China," says Yu Hai, a sociologist at Shanghai's Fudan University. "People here like to moralize. And since traditional media are government mouthpieces, the Internet has become a very convenient channel for ordinary people to vent their feelings."

They can do so pretty much however they like, not only because they can disguise their identities, but also because there is no privacy law in China yet. "There is no practicable, feasible, and concrete legal instrument" to regulate Internet use, says Li Xu, deputy head of Tsinghua University's Institute for Internet Behavior.

One man who found himself the quarry of a human flesh search, Wang Fei, is testing the law by bringing China's first suit against websites that he says carried defamatory statements about him.

Mr. Wang drew the ire of fellow Internauts after his wife committed suicide last year. Her diary, posted posthumously by her sister, voiced suspicions that Wang had an affair with a colleague. The blogosphere blamed Wang for his wife's death, and turned on him with a vengeance.

"You will fall into the endless darkness and abyss of misery hated by billions" read one post, labeling Wang a "beast" and "scum."

The virtual insults spilled over into real life. Someone painted "blood for blood" on Wang's front door, his lawyer said. He and his relatives were bombarded with furious telephone calls, and he was fired from his job at an advertising agency, along with his alleged mistress.

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