China's young conformist

A superstar blogger is less radical than he appears

January 02, 2013
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This Generation By Han Han, edited and translated by Allan H Barr (Simon and Schuster, £8.99)

Writer and race car driver Han Han has always known when to be direct, when to take a roundabout route to his point, and when to avoid it altogether. His blog—China’s most popular, with some half a billion visits—has, over the last five years, tackled China’s social ills and political shortcomings without colliding into the most sensitive topics. To preserve his huge domestic readership, not to mention his skin, he goes full throttle without veering off road.

This Generation, a selection of his blog posts which are best classified as political satire, takes us from before the 2008 Olympics to the end of 2011. Books of blogs (or “blooks”—no, really) are always enjoyable in their immediacy, and this one is funny and insightful.

Reading it, we relive the Chinese boycott of Carrefour after the kerfuffle over the Olympic torch in Paris, when pro-Tibet protestors interrupted the relay. Han Han ridicules such blind nationalism, noting that “from start to finish not a single French person has been involved.” Then there’s the firework that badly damaged China Central Television’s new headquarters (“pure comedy”), and the spate of knife attacks in kindergartens in 2010 (“a government that can’t even keep children from harm doesn’t deserve [its own security guards],” he writes). When a local official is exposed for taking 800,000 yuan (almost £80,000) in bribes over 13 years, Han Han praises him for restraint—“a mere 60,000 yuan a year!”

The book is also a peephole into that savvy, irreverent younger generation—known in China simply as the “post-80s”—to which the title refers. (Let’s qualify that as an educated, internet-using and largely urban younger generation before we get ourselves in a muddle.) Its members were born into this new, consumerist, accelerating China with no memory, and little understanding, of what came before Deng Xiaoping. They are often accused of selfishness and materialism, but can also be the most angrily patriotic. They are single children, facing rising prices and an unbalanced society. And huge numbers of them are online, talking to each other about it all.

Han Han is their spokesman. Like them, he has no time for authority and received wisdom. This hits home hardest in his criticism of China’s education system, which he thinks encourages fakery and blind conformism. Han Han dropped out of high school to write his first novel Triple Gate, a satirical take on school life that launched him as an untraditional literary celebrity. Indeed, he is downright rude about the literary mainstream. One of his controversial posts from 2006—which disappointingly doesn’t make the cut in this book—was titled “The ‘Literary Circle’ Is Bullshit, Don't Act Pretentious,’” after a literary critic dismissed post-80s authors as unqualified.

This mockery of his elders is most electric when it comes to the powers that be. Han Han berates a one-party system that can define what is proper—and legal—according to its own interests. Take this passage, sparked by higher education propaganda:

“Who has the power [to decide whether someone’s thought is correct]? It’s the people in power, of course… Everything that bolsters their interests and their power is, of course, correct, and everything not conducive to promoting their interests and enhancing their power is naturally incorrect. As soon as you have grasped that principle, you’ll never have to tie yourself into knots wondering what is right and what is wrong.”

It is no surprise that many of Han Han’s posts were censored within minutes of going up. His magazine Party—“Chorus of One” in Chinese—also fell foul of the apparatchiks, only producing one issue. But he was never blacklisted or blocked outright (some suggest that blocking Han Han’s blog would teach millions of his readers to climb the firewall). This is partly because he knows where the line is—criticising smalltime officials but never the high leadership, for example.

But it is at the end of the book, in three posts which sparked much discussion when they came out in quick succession last Christmas, that Han Han finds what he really wants to say. It may surprise you. In the first, he argues for reform but warns against revolution. Next, he says that Chinese people are not ready for democracy. In the last of these posts, “Pressing for Freedom,” he limits his scope, only demanding freedom for culture, literature and the press. If concessions are made, he promises, then he’ll “steer clear of the most sensitive issues in policy implementation.” He even distances himself from his old gung-ho revolutionary views, claiming a more realistic perspective and renouncing extreme idealism.

So don’t be fooled by the rants. Han Han is more careful and conservative than you think, and despite his taste for fast driving he is not going to take any risks. Nor is his generation.