Alexander Nasr

Killer May Have Tracked Shenzhen Teenager Using Her Microblog Account

Web users must always remain aware that others are watching. (David Wertime/Tea Leaf Nation)

The murder of Shenzhen high school sophomore Lai Zengyutong, tragic on its own, has hit China’s blogosphere particularly close to home. The late Ms. Lai was an avid microblogger fond of broadcasting her photos and location online, a habit many Web users suspect may have allowed her killer to track her. Lai’s death elicited more than 100,000 online responses, with many urging social media users to exercise more caution when sharing the details of their daily lives online.

Like many young Chinese Web users, Lai chose not to use the optional privacy settings on her Sina Weibo social media blog, making her constant flow of messages and postings available to anyone on the Internet. In addition to sharing photos and posting about her social life, Lai would often broadcast her location via a link that any one of Weibo’s 400 million users could open.

Described by classmates as studious and well-liked, Lai appeared to be a typical young Chinese urbanite, many of whom experience a seemingly paradoxical combination of material comfort and extreme pressure from parents to achieve academically. This generation of “wired youth” views the Internet as a virtual escape from the weight of parental expectations, and social media is an important part of their lives.

Lai went missing after having dinner at a relative’s home in Shenzhen on January 12. Following her disappearance, scores of heart-rending messages were posted to her Weibo account urging her to return home in the hopes that she might read them on her cell phone, which she often used to post photos and messages. @–Mango小店铺 pleaded with the young girl to “hurry home, everyone is so worried about you. I hope you’re ok.”@温温温温志华 wrote, “If you see these messages, just tweet back right away.”

Her body was found by police on the evening of January 13 in a recycling depot. Her final posting — in reference to an upcoming exam — read, “Aaaah!! [Must] review, review, review!!” The post received almost 40,000 comments in four days. Pleas for the young girl to return home gave way to an outpouring of sympathy, as Weibo users turned her home page into a virtual vigil by posting thousands of candle emoticons. A follow-up post by the girl’s older sister, in which she thanked Weibo users for their love and concern, received an additional 72,000 replies, a number that continues to grow.

Lai’s death has also elicited a torrent of concern for the safety of Weibo microbloggers, particularly young women who might not understand the risks involved in posting personal content online. Although the investigation into her murder is ongoing, many Web users believe that Lai’s online behavior may have played a role in her tragic death. @lala_33 wrote, “Daily photo-posters, be more cautious. Don’t give the bad guys an opportunity!” Regarding the dangers of posting the details of one’s personal life online, @老和尚 mused: “The most dangerous thing is not knowing how to predict and assess risks.”

A quick look through Lai’s microblogging account gives a strong impression that she  enjoyed sharing her vivacity with others. While fear is a perhaps unwelcome antidote to teenage enthusiasm, a dose of caution is certainly in order for many of China’s young Web users.

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Alexander Nasr

Alexander Nasr studies International Relations with a focus on China. His interests include China-Central Asia relations, Chinese political discourse, and the effect that new media has on policy.