The Disconnect Between Virtual and IRL: Han Han’s Dismissal of Online Protest

(If you’re already familiar with Han Han, feel free to jump ahead.)

Today, the Nobel Committee celebrated the Arab Spring by awarding a share of the Peace Prize to Tawakel Karman. Though Ms. Karman is certainly deserving of the award, it very well might have gone to any number of other individuals without argument; it could have also been awarded to the entire nations of Tunisia, Egypt, and others, ala Time’s “You” as Person of the Year, without much fuss as well (though cutting the check 200 million ways might be an administrative nightmare for Oslo).

Though Karman’s role as an inspiring leader in Yemen is indisputable, our elevation of people like her and Wael Ghonim and others as first among equals taps into something deeper than just a prize announcement: this is our desire for simple narratives of Great Men leading forth mass movements. Deviating from this storyline introduces (or, rather, accurately reflects) complexity and the possibility of the message being clouded or misrepresented—see the Occupy Wall Street protests as an example, with the mainstream media at wit’s end trying to figure out how to sell the story of varied, collective action.

Similarly, in recent years, those outside China have anointed a series of Great Democratic Hopes in China. In the run-up to last year’s Nobel Prize announcement, interest spiked in Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08. Then it was Ai Weiwei’s turn to get the hero treatment and coverage as the man leading masses of Chinese netizens toward the path to freedom.

Now revolution seems to rest in the hands of Han Han, he of the Evan Osnos New Yorker profile (behind a paywall, but well worth trekking down to your local library for): a renegade cultural icon, wise-ass blogger, and dogged reporter of government corruption. The voice of the Chinese youth is another way to put it. Though his name recognition here may still be on the low end, he’s more popular than Ai and Liu across the Chinese-speaking world and heralded at home as the next Lu Xun, one of China’s most important intellectuals and critics of the past century and so popular that he’s able to get away with writing just about whatever he wants–though especially hard-hitting posts often get deleted after the fact, but not after they’ve already been re-posted thousands of times over.

Which brings us to this recent interview he did with Channel News Asia (fast forward to 17:45):

Amid this mostly vapid interview suffused with social media buzzwords and one especially curious moment* where Han Han explains why he rejected an offer to meet with President Obama (see Will Moss of Imagethief for an insightful breakdown of Han Han’s answer), his dismissive comments on the illusory nature of online protest are seemingly shocking for those who expect Han Han to fit neatly into their preconceived notion of online freedom fighter:

People may think that blogs and microblogs have changed the world around them. But I think this has more to do with what an individual chooses to read. For example, after the high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou, I was reading all the accounts on microblogs. Subsequently, I kept checking downstairs, expecting hundreds of thousands of people to march in protest. But in reality, there was no one protesting. If you just focus on reading certain microblogs, you would imagine that the entire Chinese government and society had crumbled and that the country had sunk into anarchy. But then in retrospect, I realize that your sense of reality depends very much on whose opinion you follow on the Internet.** […] So the microblogs you track can define the world around you. And none of it is real. Perhaps we need to wait for an entire generation, like mine, to grow up in an environment where information is free and open. That is when we might see real change in the arts and in the media.

Once one gets over the fact that Han Han is not some sort of Chinese Havel (Will Moss so aptly describes Han Han as “dissident-lite”***) and that Chinese nationalism is a concept that you can’t assume anything about, there are some solid observations here. Indeed, general consensus and empirical studies show that China, like most of the rest of the world, uses its Internet first and foremost for entertainment. Though the Internet has successfully bred and been used to organize a number of successful on-the-ground protests (with the 2007 rally against a chemical plant in Xiamen being the most well-reported on and studied), for the most part, Han Han is right, it’s the venue for mostly armchair protesters who comment, re-post, and mock from the comfort of their home or Internet bar. As Guobin Yang indicates in his essential The Power of Internet in China, the dominant mode of many young Netizens is one of playfulness, satire, and mockery (see my previous post on using the passive voice to indicate dissent), even when it comes to activism and protest. They are often only speaking to each other, generating play and humorous memes online with their open derision of a media and government that tends to treat them like children. Especially now with the rising popularity of Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, dissent is often disconnected from the locality for which the injustice took place. Thus, in the case of the Wenzhou crash, hundreds of thousands of comments expressing outrage were merely that–expressions divorced from on the ground action. Thus, Han Han is correct in saying the online furor did not match the “anarchy” that he expected on the streets.

And yet, he has hope for the future. He acknowledges that his generation may not be the one to shrug off the shackles of the system they are currently forced to butt heads with. It’s a sentiment commonly echoed by Chinese internet scholars: Not yet. Rebecca MacKinnon, founder of Global Voices, wrote back in 2005:

At the same time, the Internet may also be enabling the development of “civil society” and public discourse around policy that could make a gradual evolution toward democracy more likely over the long run. Internet scholar Randolph Kluver argues that it is necessary to “put the impetus for change within China’s own cultural and political realities.” Rather than argue that the Internet will democratize China—which is an ideologically charged debate, impossible to prove, and depends on how one defines “democracy” in the first place—Kluver (2005b) chooses to advance the “less radical” and “less disruptive” argument that “new forms of civic discourse are emerging.”

Some Chinese bloggers have expressed the concern that an excessive focus by Western media on blogs as a vehicle for political dissent may be counterproductive, making the authorities more suspicious of the emergent new forms of online civic discourse than they might otherwise be. […]

Powerful socio-political change can be expected to emerge as a result of the millions of online conversations taking place daily on the Chinese Internet: conversations that manage to stay comfortably within the confines of censorship. With each passing day, these conversations do their quiet part to free the collective Chinese mind.

The idea is that the Internet in China, though not necessarily bringing the sweeping reforms and demands for free speech that activists might have hoped for, is still moving China forward in incremental steps. Han Han seems to suggest that to expect his generation to rise up is  unfair. At this stage, the very fact that a medium exists where citizens can express protest and not fear repercussion (the state can’t arrest all 100,000 people who vote in a Weibo poll) has altered the power dynamics between citizen and state. As MacKinnon elegantly states,

Despite a situation that looks rather dire and oppressive from the perspective of people who live in Western democracies, outsiders are surprised to discover that many Chinese bloggers rankle at the Western media’s focus on censorship of blogs, to the exclusion of many other—often much more subtle—positive accomplishments of the Chinese blogosphere.While not denying that censorship is an issue, many Chinese bloggers hold the view that the real story going on in the Chinese blogosphere is not one of oppressed victims who are waiting to be liberated. It is a story of tenacious optimists, slowly and patiently pushing back the boundaries, believing that in the end, history is on their side.

Indeed, no victims here and no need for a messiah. Han Han will be relieved to know he can safely go back to his racecar and not have to form the vanguard of a new protest movement.


*Ok, second bizarre moment: his smirking through an answer about how without social media, young people (read: him) would be forced to work harder to engage in casual sexual relations. One wonders what his wife thinks of his continued cultivation of his image as a misogynist playboy, or maybe it’s all a charade.

**Oh, the irony. We’re following your opinion Han Han! You’ve been telling us what to think and how the world looks like and to buy your products, how can you impugn people for listening to others online now? Also, mind as well mention for the mad SEO hits I’m going get: filter bubble and echo chamber. /joke

***Han Han’s response: “Ha, maybe because I do not weigh much physically. ‘Dissident’ is a dangerous word here. I’m different from a dissident because I accept the current constitution. I accept the power of the powers-that-be but I want to have my rights. I do not want a new charter or new constitution.” For the best understanding of where he stands, this quote from the Osnos’ nuanced New Yorker article sums him up pretty well:

Divining how far any individual can go in Chinese creative life is akin to carving a line in the sand at low tide in the dark; the political terrain shifts constantly. Han permits few illusions about his willingness to stay on the safe side of lines he can see. He has never made a move to take his activism from the Web to the street, and he opposes hastening multiparty elections. “The Party will win anyway, because they are rich and they can bribe people,” he said, adding, “Let culture be more vibrant and the media be more open.” Outsiders often confuse the demand for openness with the demand for democracy, but in domestic Chinese politics the difference is essential. Han also knows that his labored distinctions go only so far. “If they’re not happy, you’re out of luck,” he said.

Han says, “Ai’s criticism is more direct and he is more persistent on a single issue. For me, I criticize one thing, make them feel terrible, and if they ask me to stop talking about it, then I’ll criticize something else. We have a hundred things to talk about.”

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