Saturday, March 13, 2010

Generacion Han Han: Heartthrob's Blog Challenges China's Leaders (NYT)

Great article in today's NYT about China's very own Yoani Sanchez and his Gen Y. His name is Han Han.

I first heard about Han Han back in October of last year when NPR profiled him, along with two other guerrilla bloggers, one from Mumbai, India and another from London, England.  For that story, go here: "Across Globe, Blogging Brings Change."  For the article in the NYT, read on or click here .

The NYT article is full of great quotes and anecdotes, but here's my favorite:
The Internet, he says, will eventually prod China toward greater openness. No army of censors can completely constrain free expression. "I think the government really regrets the Internet," he said, pausing for effect. "Originally, they thought it would be like the newspaper or the television - just another way to get their view out to the people. What they didn't realize is that people can type and talk back. This is giving them a really big headache."
WORLD: SATURDAY PROFILE

Heartthrob's Blog Challenges China's Leaders

"The government wants China to become a great cultural nation, but our leaders are so uncultured." Han Han

By ANDREW JACOBS, March 13, 2010

SHANGHAI.  IT'S not so easy being Han Han, the heartthrob race car driver and pop novelist who just happens to be China's most widely read blogger.

Traveling incognito is all but impossible. Local officials frequently vie for his endorsement of their latest architectural boondoggles. (He politely declines.) And love-lorn young women often approach him after races with letters bearing his name. (He says the women have been duped by impostors who have assumed his identity.)

But Mr. Han's most vexing challenge comes from a more formidable nemesis: the unseen censors who delete blog posts they deem objectionable and the publishing police who have held up the release of his new magazine, "A Chorus of Solos," a provocative collection of essays and photographs. "The government wants China to become a great cultural nation, but our leaders are so uncultured," he said with a shrug, offering his characteristic Cheshire-cat grin.

"If things continue like this, China will only be known for tea and pandas."

Since he began blogging in 2006, Mr. Han has been delivering increasingly caustic attacks on China's leadership and the policies he contends are creating misery for those unlucky enough to lack a powerful government post. With more than 300 million hits to his blog, he may be the most popular living writer in the world.

In a recent interview at his office in Shanghai, he described party officials as "useless" and prone to spouting nonsense, although he used more delicate language to dismiss their relevance. "Their lives are nothing like ours," he said. "The only thing they have in common with young people is that like us, they too have girlfriends in their 20s, although theirs are on the side."

Mr. Han has enjoyed widespread fame since he published his first novel at 19, but his popularity has ballooned in recent months through blog posts that seem to capture the zeitgeist of his peers, the so-called post-80s generation born after the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping.

Theirs is a generation of only children, the result of China's one-child policy, and one that has known only uninterrupted growth. Whether true or not, it is also a demographic with a reputation for being spoiled, impatient and less accepting of the storyline fed to them by government-run media.

If Mr. Han's tongue is sharp, he is careful to deliver his barbs through sarcasm and humorous anecdotes that obliquely take on corruption, censorship and everyday injusticeIn one recent post about redevelopment projects that often end in violence and forced evictions, he suggested that the government build public housing in the form of prisons. The benefits would be twofold, he explained: Tenants could make no claim on the apartments and those who make a fuss could simply be locked up in their homes.

His current gambit is a wryly subversive competition that will award $730 to the person who comes up with new lyrics to a song-and-dance routine that was broadcast last month during the reliably soporific Chinese New Year television gala.

The performance, staged by China's national broadcaster and viewed by an estimated 400 million people, featured merry members of the Uighur minority belting out praise for Communist Party policies.
These were not the policies that many Uighurs bemoan as oppressive - and which may or may not have provoked the deadly riots in the western region of Xinjiang last summer - but ones that supposedly reduced taxes, increased health benefits and according to the singing farmer Maimaiti, filled his donkey sack with cash.

ALTHOUGH his posts are sometimes "harmonized" - a popular euphemism for censorship -his blog, published by one of China's most popular Web portals, has so far been allowed to continue. Ran Yunfei, a writer and blogger in Sichuan Province, says that Mr. Han is partly insulated by his celebrity, but also by his avoidance of the most politically charged topics.

"He uses humor and wit to laugh at the injustices he sees," said Mr. Ran, whose own blog is blocked in China and available only to those with the technical means to hop over the Great Firewall. "Perhaps the reason he's tolerated is because he does not name names directly and he doesn't go after the heart of the problem, which is China's one-party dictatorship.

"His other trump card is his financial independence. With 14 books to his name and a successful career as a race car driver, he is not susceptible to pressures that constrain other critics, many of them academics or journalists whose jobs tend to evaporate when their public musings cross an invisible line.

But the government has lately found a way to pique him by holding up the release of his magazine. Mr. Han said the main objection appears to be an article that details the blacklisting of actors who have angered the authorities. Asked what he will do if his endeavor is thwarted, or if one day his blog is banned entirely, Mr. Han smiles and offers trademark sarcasm, delivered deadpan. "I'll just become a better driver," he said.

MR. Han has been reinventing himself since he dropped out of high school and promptly went on to become one of China's best known writers. His first novel, "Triple Door," plumbed the adolescent angst of those withering under the pressures of family and school. With two million copies in print, it is the best-selling book of the last 20 years.

The protagonists in that novel and several that followed were young men like himself, raised in small rural townships and disdaining authority, especially teachers, whom Mr. Han sometimes likens to prostitutes.

Growing up, Mr. Han says he was given wide latitude by his parents. His father was the front-page editor of a local party newspaper and his mother worked for a social service bureau helping the needy. "My mom gave me an appreciation for the underdog," he said.

His family's home was packed with literature, he said, and his father made sure to put the good stuff - books published before the Communist revolution - low enough for an 8-year-old to reach. "He put all the poorly written books published after the founding of the People's Republic of China high enough so I couldn't reach it," Mr. Han said.

When his anti-establishment writings began to affect his parents' state-run jobs, Mr. Han encouraged them to retire early, offering to support them financially.

Once viewed by critics as petulant and self-consciously rebellious, Mr. Han has moved beyond ad hominem attacks on poets, pop stars and fellow bloggers. These days his attention is largely drawn to society's deeper problems: a surge in nationalism; the lackluster quality of contemporary culture; and the albatross of sky-high real-estate prices that keep China's nascent middle-class in a constant state of anxiety.

He blames the high prices on local officials, who sell off land to the highest bidder in an effort to finance public works and pump up the double-digit economic growth figures that keep Beijing happy. High property values, he adds, also pay for all those dinners and fancy gifts that seem to be the birthright of officialdom.

The grim result is a country of young professionals so overworked and distracted by mortgage payments that they have no time to care about what ails China. "The government is happy to see prices go up, people are forced to buy property they can't afford and they end up living in fear." Then he smiles and adds, "It's a perfect situation, right?"

Despite the sarcasm and griping, Mr. Han is an optimist at heart. The Internet, he says, will eventually prod China toward greater openness. No army of censors can completely constrain free expression. "I think the government really regrets the Internet," he said, pausing for effect. "Originally, they thought it would be like the newspaper or the television - just another way to get their view out to the people. What they didn't realize is that people can type and talk back. This is giving them a really big headache."

Li Bibo contributed research.

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