Twitter over-reacted by suspending the account of a British journalist who Tweeted the email address of an NBC executive, but here in China, Kaifu Lee – nothing less than an Internet hero in these parts – has taken misuse of microblogging to a whole new level.

Lee, the former boss of Microsoft and Google in China and now head of Innovation Works, posted the contact details and “criminal record” of American swim coach John Leonard on Sina Weibo – the nearest thing China has to Twitter – for all 15 million of his followers to see, according to Tweets from a Hong Kong-based China news reporter. He encouraged his followers to bombard Leonard with messages demanding an apology.

Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, had publicly implied that 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen used performance-enhancing drugs to help her set a swimming world record at the Olympic Games in London. In his apparently revenge-intending response, Lee also posted evidence of Leonard’s “criminal record,” which amounts to little more than speeding tickets, according to a Tweet by China Internet watcher Bill Bishop.

Lee later deleted his post and explained that he didn’t want to create a negative impression of China.

[Update: Let me make it clear that I am in no way defending Leonard, whose comments were unfair and needlessly provocative.]

While he seems to have quickly realized his error, it would be crazy to suggest that Lee didn’t know the fire with which he was playing. China has a long tradition of online lynch mobs that band together to enact vigilante justice on whomever they deem worthy of punishment. Past targets include a drunk-driver who turned out the be the son of a bureaucrat, a girl who posted a video of herself complaining about the media attention the victims of the Sichuan earthquake were getting (the girl was later taken into police protection because of death threats), and a nurse who was caught on video stomping a cat to death. Revenge at the hands of online lynch mobs in China is often swift and severe. Lee – a leading authority on Chinese Internet and one of the most influential businessmen in the country – would know that as well as anyone else.

Update: As well as potentially inciting vigilante justice, Lee is – deliberately or not – stoking the tensions of ongoing rivalry between China and the US, a “them” vs “us” mentality that is in a heightened state, not only because of the competition for the most medals at the Olympics, but also because of the shift eastward of global economic dominance. These are two countries insecure about their positions at the top of the international hierarchy, and many of their citizens will only too readily jump at the chance to bash the other.

In the US, the “China scare” has been a feature of political advertising, while in China anti-US sentiment has abounded since 1999, when the superpower bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what it says was an accident. (Few Chinese believed that line.) That change in public opinion against the US was highlighted in a recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life”, which focused on Americans living in China.

While Lee never explicitly framed this as a “US vs China” issue, he didn’t need to. His followers would be more than capable of making the connection themselves. See: dog-whistling.

I’ve reached out to Kaifu Lee for comment and will update this post accordingly if I hear back from him.

Update: Kaifu Lee has responded. He writes:

This morning, I read John Leonard’s unfair accusations about Ye Shiwen and felt outraged. So I found his public contact information, and sent him an email message asking him to apologize. Then, I wrote a Weibo post, asking other netizens to send fact-based and civilized emails to him as well. I also attached his other contact information in this post.
 
I apologize for the inappropriateness of my actions, and any inconveniences this may have caused John. At the same time, I sincerely hope that John would also consider an apology to Ye Shiwen.