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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: Continue reading

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