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Internet Users Turn Vigilante in China


China has seen a boom in the use of the Internet, with millions of web logs, or blogs, being posted in the country. But in some cases, the Internet has become a tool for online vigilantes, who electronically hound those they do not like.

A web log allegedly detailing a British man's sex life in Shanghai is the latest to provoke angry on-line vigilantes in China.

A psychology professor in Shanghai launched an Internet campaign calling on Chinese to "chase down the foreign scoundrel" and "kick him out of China".

It stirred up such a strong response among the country's Internet users that the blog was closed.

The Internet has allowed the freest exchange of ideas in China, a country with strict censorship rules. But in the past few years, the country has seen blogs and chat rooms used for massive personal attacks - with victims receiving thousands of threatening and insulting messages. Some Internet experts say this on-line vigilantism is a worrying trend, for fear it could get out of hand.

In one case, a husband appealed to Internet users to help him find the man he thought his wife was having an affair with. A college student was blamed, and even though he denied the accusation, was sent threatening letters and emails.

Xiao Qiang is the director of the China Internet Project at the University of California. He says foul language and knee-jerk reactions are common on China's Internet sites as users lack maturity and experience in respecting debate.

"The traditional political culture is that there is one absolute truth, and any dissent, anything else, is wrong and should be destroyed," said Xiao.

In another famous case, a television celebrity was forced to apologize following an online campaign after she posed half naked for a breast cancer awareness advertisement.

The trend has been compared to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when troops of Red Guards attacked people seen as not supporting the Communist Party and the country's leader, Mao Zedong.

China is not the only country to experience on-line vigilantism. In South Korea, people have been forced from their universities, their jobs and even their homes.

Jeremy Goldkorn, the creator of Chinese media blog danwei.org, says in China the vigilantes are mostly angry young men who make up a small portion of those on the Internet. For the most part, he says, blogs and chat rooms give millions of Chinese a chance to peacefully express themselves.

"I find the scene to be the most surprising part of the Chinese media as they are quite anarchic and there is a lot of freedom for people to write what they want uncensored," he said. "There never used to be three years ago so many channels for people to express themselves."

China has seen dramatic growth in the use of the Internet in the past few years, and more than 120 million Chinese regularly log on.

Experts caution improvements in communications technology like the mobile phone camera will make it easier to capture people's wrongdoings and post them online. They say this could lead to more cases of Internet vigilantism, not just in China, but worldwide.

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