NYTimes on Hanhan: A Message Too Powerful to Stop

A Message Too Powerful to Stop


Until recently, it has been very hard in China to say in public that the government, which calls itself the People’s Republic of China, in fact is something quite different from the people of China. No medium would carry such a message. But now, with the slippery Internet, such messages do get out, and do spread. They get partly blocked, but not stopped.

This month, Han Han, aged 28, a master of Aesopian wit and probably China’s most widely read blogger, wrote this:

The world over, a country is like a woman and the government is like the man who possesses her. Some couples live happily and feel satisfied. Some get along smoothly. Some have tense relations, some see domestic violence. In some cases the woman can divorce the guy and marry someone else, and in other cases she’s not allowed to. But whatever the case, when you love a woman you shouldn’t have to crank “loving her man” into the bargain.

Han Han is somewhat different from the “dissidents” in China. He writes in elusive, acerbic terms — the “cool” language of younger people, who are his main readership — and gets away with statements that are at least as devastating as anything dissidents say. He differs, too, in the numbers of his readers. An intellectual dissident feels lucky if an Internet essay draws 20,000 hits. Han Han’s essays often get more than a million, as well as strings of comments in the tens of thousands. Since its inception in November 2006, Han Han’s blog has had 421 mllion visits. His huge following protects him, too, because China’s rulers can imagine the size of the rebellion that a shut-down of his blog might trigger.

On Sept. 18, the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China’s northeastern provinces in 1931, Han Han wrote a razor-sharp commentary on the protests against Japan that are taking place in China. On Sept. 8, a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels off barren rocks known as the Diaoyu Islands that are claimed as national territory by both China and Japan. Japanese officers arrested the Chinese boat captain and brought him to Japan, after which people took to the streets in many Chinese cities to defend China’s national pride and territorial integrity.

Anti-Japanese protests happen from time to time in China, and China’s rulers generally welcome them as ways to mobilize popular opinion behind the Communist Party leadership and to distract attention from domestic problems like corruption, inequality and environmental degradation. But such protests are a double-edged sword because they underscore the legitimacy of protest itself.

In Han Han’s view, the anti-Japan protesters of the past month have been used. His blog post addresses his fellow citizens this way:

There are three roles on China’s stage today: master, lackey, and dog. Most of us switch between two of the three. (Which two? Well, you can hardly expect yourself to be the master, can you?) Normally what the master wants from the lackeys is craven docility, but right now he needs some yipping dogs. No problem! Because in a dog’s mind, no matter how the master treats you, when an outsider shows up it’s your job to guard the homestead. …Deep inside, our leaders aren’t really angry. They just feel emasculated. And so, in their view, we are supposed to feel emasculated, too. But who ever took to the streets shouting “I’ve been emasculated!”? That only makes things worse. During times when the leaders’ face is intact, they smack us in the mouth; when they lose face, we’re supposed to earn it back for them. How do we take this?

Han Han then addresses the government, this way:

Don’t tell me that you and I are equally hurt by these “motherland” issues. … In our country the common people do not own one inch of the land; all the land, as you know, is rented from you. So from where I sit this issue resembles a tiff between my landlord and my neighbor over a tile that is lying on the ground. I know that the tile was blown off my landlord’s roof during a high wind, and also know that the landlord, who is afraid to fight the neighbor, has never dared to go fetch the tile. But what does that have to do with me, the tenant? Why should somebody with no land fight to get somebody else’s land back? Why should a tenant with no dignity fight for his landlord’s dignity? How much are people like that worth, per pound? How many would it take to add up to one pound?

At the end of his essays Han Han drops the allegorical mode and states plainly that “Protests against foreigners by people who are not allowed to protest at home are utterly worthless. They are nothing but a group dance.”

The authorities apparently do not dare to shut Han Han’s blog down. But they did erase this particular item, about 50 minutes after he posted it. Those 50 minutes, though, were enough to get it onto Chinese Twitter, where it was a hit all last week and from where it has spread around the world.

Perry Link is chairman of Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “Evening Chats in Beijing,” as well as co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers.”

Perry Link