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August 7, 2013

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Blood thirst online must be punished

Words carry consequences, and it is increasingly so in cyberspace.

Singer Wu Hongfei had a bitter taste of the consequences after she was locked up for making threats online to blow up two government agencies.

Wu, a Beijing-based pop band singer, was thrown into the detention house the second day after she declared online that she would blow up Beijing’s commission of housing and urban-rural development and a local neighborhood committee.

She didn’t explain her outburst, only cursed the two organizations for being populated by “jackasses.” Her post was displayed but then deleted after post-moderation by content monitors.

Her presumed rebuffs by these two agencies might well be the source of her rancorous yet innocuous tantrum. Despite her apparent ravings, she was first detained for allegedly threatening public safety, awaiting trial on that allegation.

Thanks to public sympathy, her punishment was commuted to detention, followed by administrative custody. She was released on August 8.

Asked how she felt about the outcome of her verbal indiscretion, Wu apologized for her improper remarks and said she didn’t realize her post would cause such trouble. In other words, the woman was breathtakingly naive in thinking that her rants were just venting some bile and threatened no one.

She said she didn’t suffer rough treatment in custody. The policemen were mostly nice to her.

So once she regained her freedom, Wu exhibited some light-hearted humor by telling reporters that one policeman who handled her case was handsome, and that another had the sense of humor to tell her that the composition of dynamite she had publicized online wouldn’t work.

Maybe Wu did have some reasons for lashing out at the government agencies, which a disaffected few would share. But making bomb threats is a typical act of folly and ignorance of some web users.

Their remarks may be inspired by what they perceive as a rightful impulse to rant for kicks, which are non-lethal. Still, they constitute seditious speech.

Wu’s humbling is not about curbing free speech, as some of her sympathizers believe. Free speech comes with obligations.

If someone simply vows to burn down a public building, it’s hard to tell if he or she is making an empty threat or is determined to act on it. So in their inability to ascertain the speaker’s true intentions, police cannot take his words too lightly.

Even in some Western nations, the supposed paradise of free speech, threatening to detonate dynamite in public place (or anywhere) is enough to land someone in jail, facing prosecution for possibly endangering public order and safety. There is clearly a red line between threats and free speech.

China’s weibo is already a titanic rumor mill, and has to be policed for some really disturbing canards. After being mindlessly relayed, they stir public fears and compromise communal good.

Irresponsible speakers

Now we are increasingly seeing irresponsible speakers like Wu indulge in their newfound freedom to air views as they please, without any regard for the greater good.

In Wu’s case, she said upon her release that she never meant anybody harm and is a “born doormat,” ready to take whatever others foist on her. She was like a “rabbit,” docile and meek, the Xiaoxiang Morning Post quoted her as saying on Monday.

But there are few hints of that demeanor. Judging from another inflammatory weibo post, she had the streak of a murderous wolf, however placid she appears.

In her diary, available online, she wrote that “I’ve decided. I’ll kill two people. One is the landlord. The older one or the younger one? No decision yet ... There’s another target. Have any idea who he is? Bingo, THAAAT’s right! Him! The guy you hate the most...”

All these ramblings about a plan to kill someone sound very deranged and almost saturated with the imaginary blood of her victims. And who in her right mind would post this rubbish for public consumption? Hasn’t it occurred to her that her diary entry is venomous, and would exact a toll on innocent children, were they to see it?

Her “killing plan” reminds me of Raskolnikoff, the cynical hero of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The difference is that Raskolnikoff, whose killing of a loan shark was an act of premeditated murder (his killing of a witness was collateral damage.), Wu’s rant was no more than a rush of passion. However, it is one inch from being counted as a crime again because she did not name specific targets.

I find it hard to associate someone self-avowedly cheerful and pliant with the unpleasant words she wrote.

What is it about the Internet that drives otherwise sensible people to become the antithesis of “nice rabbit” persona they claim to be?

It is said that the usual anonymity of the Internet induces a false sense of impunity, and that the Internet is where people let off steam by dissing others.

The question is, how do people go “bad” in the first place? What is the good of something that seems to induce outwardly nice people to seemingly change personality and junk all their sense of right and wrong?

Is the Internet some Niebelungen Ring that, once worn, will damn its lord to evil and depravity?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I do have more chilling evidence of the Internet’s seemingly dehumanizing effect.

Last Sunday at dinner I watched a TV news program with my wife and in-laws. It was about a Taiwanese man named Lin Kun-hui, who launched a hotline on the mainland to prevent suicides. Volunteers, some of whom had attempted suicides themselves, are recruited to talk callers into giving up their plans of taking their own lives.

It was reported that a girl whom Lin’s hotline helped was challenged by weibo users to go ahead, when she expressed a wish to kill herself. Some even called her a liar after seeing her still alive and twittering.

Curbing blood thirst

Although it was hot in the dining room, I felt a chill down my spine. What kind of creatures would rejoice in seeing a lost, desolate poor soul end her life, and even heartlessly encourage her to take it? Is there no decency or conscience in cyberspace?

Quite a few media outlets recently aired deep concerns about the widespread li qi, or the thirst for violence. This thirst probably is no more acute than on the Internet, where the likes of Wu are dallying with the limits of free speech.

I’m not a fan of policy to police the Internet, but I do hope something can be done to curtail the endless tide of hate speech, as well as false alarms of blasts, killings and all other pernicious rumors.

For this reason, I heartily applaud the Beijing police’s efforts to “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys” in the case of Wu.

Mild treatment, not heavy-handed, is called for to teach a lesson. If not, and given the extent of rumor-mongering pervading the blogosphere, more “chickens” will have to be killed to set examples.



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