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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Internet Mobs Impose a Stern Morality in China

SHANGHAI -- It began with an impassioned letter on one of China's most popular Internet bulletin boards from a husband denouncing a college student he suspected of having an affair with his wife. Immediately, hundreds joined in the attack.

"Let's use our keyboard and mouse in our hands as weapons," one person wrote, "to chop off the heads of these adulterers."

Within days, the hundreds had grown to thousands, then tens of thousands, with total strangers forming teams that hunted down the student, hounded him out of his university and caused his family to lock themselves inside their home.

It was just the latest example of a growing phenomenon the Chinese call Internet hunting, in which morality lessons are administered by online throngs and where anonymous web users come together to investigate others and mete out punishment for offenses real and imagined. In recent instances, people have scrutinized husbands suspected of cheating on their wives, fraud on Internet auction sites, the secret lives of celebrities and unsolved crimes.

While internet wars can crop up anywhere, these cases have set off alarms in China, where this sort of crowd behavior has led to violence in the past. Many draw disturbing parallels to the Cultural Revolution, whose 40th anniversary is this year, when mobs of students taunted and beat their professors. Mass denunciations and show trials became the order of the day for a decade.

In recent years, the government has gradually tightened controls on the internet, censoring popular search engines, like Google and Technorati; employing thousands of web police officers; and requiring that customers at Internet cafes provide identification. There has been talk by the government of registering all internet users, and many worry that a wave of online threats could serve as a pretext to impose new limits on users.

The affair of the cuckolded husband first came to public attention in mid-April, after the man discovered online correspondence between his wife and a college student who went by the web name Bronze Mustache. He posted the letter denouncing Bronze Mustache, and identifying him by his real name.

Impassioned people teamed up to uncover the student's address and telephone number, both of which were then posted online. Soon, people eager to denounce him showed up at his university and at his parents' house, forcing him to drop out of school and barricade himself with his family in their home.

"Our web site is a platform, not a court," said Zeng Liu, a webmaster for Tianya, the bulletin board. "If it's a personal attack on someone, we delete it, but it is very difficult, given that we have 10 million users."

Although concerned about online threats, advocates of free speech say that is no reason for the Chinese authorities to place further limits on the Internet.

"The Internet should be free, and I have always opposed the idea of registering users, because this is perhaps the only channel we have for free discussion," said Zhu Dake, a sociologist and cultural critic at Tongji University, in Shanghai. "On the other hand, the internet is being distorted. This creates a very difficult dilemma for us."