Has China’s most famous blogger finally been brought to heel? Han Han, writer, car racer, and China’s youth opinion leader, recently sealed a deal with massive Chinese Internet company Tencent and founded an e-journal, “One.”
This is Han Han’s third attempt at founding a journal. His first, “Party,” sold 1.5 million copies of its first issue, but Han Han suspended the project when no one would print a second issue. After a failed second attempt, Han Han’s team had nothing to do for a spell, even founding a band earlier this year. Polymath Han’s rationale: “Almost everyone can somewhat fiddle with a musical instrument.” But now that Tencent has provided an online platform, Han Han and his friends will be busy once again.
A new megaphone, but with a cost
But Han is making a compromise by cooperating with Tencent. For one, the content on “One” is significantly less threatening to censors than that found in “Party.” “One” resembles a Han Han-curated “Readers’ Digest,” where Han and his team select and share their favorite news and videos. By contrast, “Party” was a collection of essays—witty and sharp-tongued—from liberal celebrities which included the famous artist-dissident Ai Weiwei.
As the name suggests, “One” selects one piece of news, one video, and one essay for readers on weekdays, much the way Tea Leaf Nation handpicks stories in Chinese social media for its audience. But unlike TLN, ”One” makes only recommendations, and there is no commentary from Han Han or his team whatsoever. This limited approach seems more prone to help Tencent develop a new celebrity platform, and less helpful to Han Han as a public intellectual.
But the media-savvy Han Han has surely thought this through. If old-media books or magazines are difficult to slip by censors, will launching an online journal make it harder for the censors to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle? Only time will tell. Yet for a group of youth who once started “Party” together, “One” may very well make them feel fettered, even if it does survive.
Always a controversial figure
The new site is highly interactive. It displays a live stream of all Tencent Weibo tweets carrying the tag #Hello, Han Han#. Well-wishers and admirers have swarmed to the new site to pay tribute.
Very specific questions have been raised, too. What does Han Han think of the starting time of the English portion of China’s college entrance exam (gao kao)? (@玉敏) Can he make a point of discussing the retiring age in China? (@商亚夫) Does he think he’s a typical Shanghainese man? (@孙先生) A high school asked its students to sing the national anthem before taking the test–what does he think of this? (@贝乐) There are also Han Han detractors, who have brought no shortage of snarky comments to the nascent site.
Han Han never lacks online enemies. Earlier this year, Fang Zhouzi (@方舟子), a Chinese science writer famous for uncovering celebrities’ fraudulent academic credentials, claimed that Han Han had but been hiring a team, including his father, to write under his name for the past thirteen years. This war of words, its first salvos started almost six months ago, still smolders even now.
Fang wasn’t Han’s first enemy. At the end of last year, Han Han published three consecutive blog entries on revolution, democracy, and liberty respectively. In those posts, Han Han argued that while it is only a matter of time before China becomes democratic, the Middle Kingdom isn’t ready yet. To support his view, he described how catastrophe would ensue if Chinese were suddenly able to vote for their leader directly.
This “trilogy” soon went viral online. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the largely Party-line Global Times, praised these pieces, while vitriolic criticism poured in from other quarters. Former literary allies turned against Han Han, arguing against what they thought were invalid claims.
Han Han’s transformation and China’s hope
Han Han’s fame and controversy do not come out of the blue. In this author’s opinion, in an age where people self-censor even before the government need dirty its hands, Han Han has the guts to write exactly what he thinks. Many criticize him for an abundance of swear words and “obscene” analogies in his writing, yet these words seem to come straight from the hearts of those who can’t “rant” as prolifically and beautifully as Han can.
Han’s outspokenness surely constitutes a large part of his fame. As Han Han himself puts it, he rants about topics that normal people don’t dare rant about, or can’t rant about with commensurate eloquence.
But that approach to writing has recently been subverted by Han Han himself. He confesses in his blog that he wants to do more than just criticize from the sidelines—hence the “trilogy.”
Instead, Han Han writes, he is glad to be a so-called “stinky public intellectual” (臭公知). That is, his words may lack academic rigor, but they always spark discussion. For example, numerous bloggers, some also famous, have written about Taiwan, but none with the vividness of a recent Han Han blog entry (translated in part here) which caught fire in the mainland. And discussion about pieces like the “trilogy” is surely what China needs right now.
Writing on the similar “public intellectuals” today, Han Han concludes:
A friend of mine wrote a tweet about China’s food safety qua ‘public intellectual,’ and it got retweeted by a thousand microbloggers. He was ecstatic, and thought that ‘public intellectuals’ aren’t a big deal after all—he can do it too! This signals the transformation of our society. During this transformation, what we should do isn’t spitting on the ‘public intellectuals,’ but encouraging more people to become ‘public intellectuals.’
And it is precisely from the power of social media that we see hope.