China’s virtual flesh eater

An AP article that appeared in the IHT Friday about China’s online vigilantes was vaguely reminiscent of the wave of reports here in Korea that followed the suicide of actress Choe Jin-sil. In both cases, the internet became a medium for netizens to go on the attack against individuals seen to have violated societies mores. Both involved suicide.

In yesterday’s society section of the online news site Sina.com was a story about a 14-year-old student whose hands had been so severely beaten by her teacher that she couldn’t pick up her chopsticks to eat dinner. The report noted the student had also been forced to do 200 squats by the same teacher for failing to finish a task she had been assigned.

When questioned by the reporter, the teacher initially acknowledged the beating, but then later retracted her statement, saying she had never hit a single child. I read that and wondered what went through her mind that compelled her to make such an abrupt turnabout. Could she be thinking of the young husband whose wife posted images of him and his mistress before plunging herself out of a 24 story building?

The husband in question became the focus of a Web site in China called “Ren Rou,” or human flesh. Visitors to the site can read about the underhanded deeds of unkowing culprits and then proceed to locate and bury these poor saps in an avalanche of online death threats, excrement and even physical abuse. A court recently fined the operator of the human flesh site the equivalent of $420 dollars. A slap on the wrist, if even that, with the court citing the husband’s low morals as a reason for the light penalty.

Reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think about China’s Cultural Revolution years, when gangs of young Mao devotees would roam the streets punishing anyone even remotely suspected or violating the Communist leader’s principles. All were fair game in an environment where settling scores became as important as maintaining moral standards.

Similar events happened here in Korea not long ago, when online rumors and attacks played a role in the suicide of actress Choe Jin-sil. Her death and the part that online forums played in it have driven the government here to push through laws holding portal operators repsonsible for the content that appears on their sites.

In both countries, the Internet has become a vehicle for enforcing a loosely defined but highly volatile set of principles through fear, shame and sometimes violence. It’s an apt title for a Web site that literally devours people whole.

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Home is where you tune in

On weekends I drive in to work, just to get away from the hour-long train ride that I do everyday. Streets in Seoul are heavenly on Saturday mornings, like smooth flowing rivers instead of the gnarled and twisted byways they become on weekdays. With the heat on to fight off the winter cold, I sail along listening to the one all-English language radio station that exists in the country. And I feel at home.

All right, it isn’t the only English broadcast. There’s AFN, the military station that caters to U.S. troops stationed here since the start of the Cold War. I used to listen to that, thinking how much that little slice of Americana must mean to young men and women who are otherwise alienated from their surroundings and “utterly bored,” as one GI recently told me. But it always made me feel more alienated. I’m neither Korean nor a GI, and I just couldn’t really relate to the Thanksgiving ads for turkey parties on base or the cheesy humor.

In some ways, AFN made me feel like I was somehow at the farthest reach of America’s empire, but that’s another story.

Last month South Korea launched TBS FM, the country’s “only all-English” radio station that plays a variety of culture, music and news programming. Granted, some of the programs are a bit rough around the edges, and the style can get borderline stupid. One host complained that she had to forego church to come to work. I cringed. Hourly news broadcasts are done with this terrible discoesque muzak in the background. “Today, dozens were killed (cue synthesizer)…”

But the station’s very existence makes me feel more a part of society, like somehow my presence here has been acknowledged and that it’s worth it to let me in on the conversation. Me and all the other stray Westerners that have landed on Korea’s shores and have yet to master the language.

But there’s the caveat, because actually the majority of foreigners living in Korea aren’t from the West. They’re workers from places like China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines. They’re foreign brides from Vietnam or illegal migrants from Thailand or Africa. Often these men and women go a lot farther in the Korean language than us ex-pats, but they remain on the fringes, seen as having nothing to offer but their toil. I don’t believe there’s a station here for them.

Still, the station has given me a new lease on my commute. Last night I listened to a listing of family friendly Christmas events going on around the city, something I was completely in the dark about until then. It’s that sense of directly addressing the needs and interests of a minority community, much like the role ethnic media plays in the U.S., and linking that community to the larger picture. It’s a bridge and a welcome addition to my daily life here in Korea.