When looking for Chinese reactions to the anti-Japanese riots that took place in late September, it was probably not much of a surprise that the Western press turned to Han Han, the widely read Shanghai-based blogger. In characteristic form, Han gave a riff on the protests that obliquely criticized the government, while at the same time insulated himself from making a direct accusation: “As far as looting and destroying things, this must be punished by law, or else I might suspect that there was some official backing behind all this.”
For centuries, Chinese writers have been masters of the clever turn of phrase to avoid political trouble. In imperial times, points were often made through historical allegory: a reference to a ruined capital city might evoke a former dynasty thought to be more just than the current one. Even during the hardline Mao era, writers slipped in veiled barbs; a play about a sixteenth-century Ming Dynasty official who was punished for criticizing the emperor is often seen as the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution.
It would be tempting to say, Not anymore—not only because most people aren’t culturally literate enough to get historical allegories, but also because things have opened up in China. The Internet is usually credited with this new directness; despite the best efforts of thousands of censors and government-sponsored bloggers, the swirl of information makes it easier for people to voice opinions nationally that once might have been heard by just a handful of neighbors or by readers of a local newspaper. Add to this rising levels of education and standards of living and you have a population much more willing to speak its mind than in the past.
And yet as Han’s new book, This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) shows, these changes haven’t replaced the old ways entirely. A collection of some of his most interesting and politically relevant essays, it is filled with commentary poking fun at officials and nationalists. But Han is careful not to go too far and risk becoming a dissident. He’s a player in the reality of Chinese society today, and wants to remain one (though it’s worth pointing out that, contrary to what his US publishers claim, Han is not quite the most popular blogger in China). He can be outrageous and funny, but also carefully elliptical and shrewdly vague.
What makes Han different from critics of earlier eras is his use of ironic humor instead of historical allegory. Writers in the early twentieth century like Lu Xun explored this voice, but Han makes it his. Born in 1982, he dabbles in the modern forms of evasion: ennui, irony, boredom, and sarcasm. He’s witty and wry and when he’s on, he’s really on. A good example was a blog he wrote last year called “The Disconnected Nation” (also reprinted in The China Story, an illuminating collection of essays edited by the Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé about contemporary China, available in a free downloadable pdf).
It’s worth lingering a bit on this particular essay because it shows just how brilliant Han can be. In it, he discusses last year’s high-speed rail crash, in which forty people died after lightning is said to have disabled the signaling system and one train rear-ended another. In an ironic voice, Han explains how government officials think—Sure, mistakes were made, but look at all we’ve accomplished!
We built this, they think, and we built that. You don’t need to concern yourselves with what happened in the process or whose palms were greased—you got to enjoy it, didn’t you? It used to take a day and a night to get from Shanghai to Beijing, and now—so long as the train’s not struck by lightning—you can make the trip in five hours. Why aren’t you grateful? Why do you raise so many questions?
His other voice—that of the world-weary hipster telling everyone to chill out—works well with nationalists, whom he’s confronted on several occasions. In one post from 2008, he attacked people who called for a boycott of the French supermarket Carrefour after the Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris by supporters of Tibetan independence. “But I’m sure that if the French government were to loosen its restrictions on immigration from China to France, there would be plenty of takers,” he says in a characteristically snide but probably accurate aside.
Too often, however, Han seems to lack other arrows in his quiver. Some of the essays are tedious—he goes on and on in one essay about how people should have been allowed to donate old clothes to victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; the government had wanted only new clothes. It was a worthwhile criticism to make at the time, but hardly the most urgent part of the authorities’ mismanagement of the disaster; now, four years later, it seems obscure. His phlegmatism also dominates a 2010 post on an earlier round of protests about the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands—which were also the cause of the recent anti-Japanese riots. He said protesters should concern themselves first with whether they have a decent job or family “rather than worrying about something so remote.” It’s a fair point, one supposes, but sounds like the advice from an overly sensible, mortgaged-to-the-hilt middle-aged father rather than an edgy young blogger. Go home and play with your kids is actually more than that—it’s wrong. In a country where too few people concern themselves with big affairs, the answer should rather be to stay engaged while learning to think more critically and skeptically. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some critics claim in excruciating detail that his father—a frustrated author himself who once used the pen name Han Han—contributed to his son’s essays, or even wrote some of them outright.
Han’s exhausted, burned-out attitude is even less convincing when he discusses political reform. At the end of last year, he published three essays that caused a small uproar in China. Han advocated a go-slow attitude toward democracy, essentially saying Chinese people were not ready for it yet because they weren’t well-enough educated and behaved. The arguments were fair enough, but applicable to almost any country on the planet, especially, in this election season, the United States. The three essays have been interpreted (for example by the editor Chang Ping, whom I interviewed in January)as showing how many Chinese have given up hope for change and so resort to explaining why it shouldn’t happen. They certainly show how careful Han is not to overstep the golden rule of dissent in China: measured criticism is okay, but not advocacy of systemic change.
This also came out in his recent blog on the anti-Japan protests. Han’s denouncing of boycotts of Japanese goods and his phrasing about possibly suspecting official backing for the riots attracted some attention but seemed to lack his earlier fire. Protesters can take to the streets if they feel really strongly about it, he said, but be careful and don’t vandalize. That’s all very sensible but was pretty much the government line. Even his condemnation of the boycott was half-hearted and easily surpassed in wit and vigor by bloggers like Li Chengpeng, who pronounced himself a traitor for buying Japanese products—an insightful essay that went viral.
Why the heavy pen? The simplest explanation might be that Han has a good life —he races in car rallies and is part of a national advertising campaign to sell clothes for the online fashion retailer, Vancl. (“I am Vancl,” Han exclaims in the ad.) Overall, he doesn’t seem cut out for the lives of struggle and martyrdom chosen by the essayist Yu Jie or the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
It should be pointed out in Han’s favor that these two have largely been sidelined while Han is allowed to carry on. Yu went into exile earlier this year while Liu is serving an eleven-year prison sentence. Han chose not to go down this path. He wants to survive and even get ahead—to have a comfortable life, to marry, to have children, to race cars, and to sell clothes, but still be able to say something.
This problem isn’t limited to Han Han. In a recent essay in The New York Review, I talked about the celebrated Chinese novelist, Yu Hua. Yu also has to be cautious. In one book published domestically he carefully criticizes the government, while in a book published abroad he lets loose. Survival in China means knowing the boundaries and pushing but not breaking them.
Han’s problem is commitment. To remain vital, he has three choices: to refine his prose into something more lasting, to remain in the ring and be a more virile commentator, or to sit back a bit and enjoy the good life. Right now, it seems he’s trying the latter. While that might be disappointing to some, and perhaps makes for a less-than-spectacular book, can he be blamed?
Han Han’s This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) is edited and translated by Allan Barr and published by Simon & Schuster.