Han Han and the democracy debate

One of my favorite journalists, Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor, has a report on some new and bound-to-be-controversial blog posts published on line over the weekend by author/race-car-driver Han Han. Apparently the essays are being denounced by many in the online community — for not being pro-democracy enough.

The essays are on three of the government’s least favorite subjects: “On Democracy,” “On Revolution,” and “On Wanting Freedom.”

The outspoken Mr. Han reaches more than a million followers and readers whenever he sounds off, which gives him a degree of leeway that the Chinese censors do not grant to everybody. And his popularity means that all of a sudden the sensitive subjects he broached have moved out of the shadows of intellectual or dissident websites into the glare of the Chinese Web’s most visited portals.

Han is all for increased freedom of expression. “I believe I can be a better writer, and I don’t want to wait until I am old,” he says.

But he is ambivalent about democracy in China because he doubts whether enough Chinese people have sufficient civic consciousness to make it work properly, and he is against a revolution because “the ultimate winner in a revolution must be a vicious, ruthless person.”

This is the old argument, is China ready for democracy now? It may seem disappointing that Han Han has, in effect, toed the party line, namely that China is not ready and that any dramatic change would only lead to something worse. BUT I can well see where he’s coming from. What, after all, can fill the void that would follow if the CCP were ousted from power in a fair election (if there could ever be such a thing in China)? It’s a fair question, and one the fenqing love to answer by pointing to Russia in 1991.

Han’s argument, as much as I hate to say it, aligns pretty well with my own observations when I lived in China, namely that the desire for democracy ranks pretty low on the wish list of most Chinese people, while fear of what change would bring ranks far higher. But both of those issues pale in comparison to what Chinese really worry about: inflation and feeding their families.

Ford’s thoughts pretty much echo my own — not that I don’t want to see democracy in China, but that I don’t see it as a viable option anytime soon, if ever:

[A]s I read Han’s essay on revolution, something chimed with what I had come across in a very different sort of document that I had been perusing earlier in the morning, the biennial “Comprehensive Social Conditions Survey” just out from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

That report listed the top 10 issues of current public concern in China, led by food price inflation (59.5 percent of respondents), health care availability and costs (42.1 percent) and the wealth gap (28 percent) ahead of a string of other bread-and-butter worries such as unemployment and housing prices.

It was a Chinese version of the famous note pinned to a board in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters when he was running against George Bush Sr., “It’s the economy, stupid!” And nowhere on the list was there any mention of restrictions on freedom of expression, or the lack of democracy (although official corruption angers 29.3 percent of the population, according to the survey.)

When I went to see Li Wei, one of the CASS researchers who had carried out the study, I asked him why this was. Had he not asked about political issues, or did people just not care about them?

He was frank. Initially, he said, he and his colleagues had planned to ask about Internet censorship and the lack of freedom of expression. “But when we tested our questions in preparation for the survey, we found that villagers did not know what we were talking about,” he recalled. “They thought they had complete freedom because they don’t talk about politics, so they don’t have any problems.”

Do we all get that — that the priority for most Chinese people is not abolishing censorship or implementing free elections? As much as some of us would like democracy to be top-of-mind for the Chinese people, it simply isn’t so. They have far more practical considerations to worry about. Censorship for most Chinese isn’t an issue at all, and democracy is the farthest thing from their minds. Of course, this isn’t the case with activists like Liu Xiaobo and his followers, but the numbers remind us of what really matters to the majority of Chinese right now, and it’s not the right to free, democratic elections. It’s going to take many, many Wukans to get us to that point, and I have to wonder whether we’ll ever see it in our lifetimes.

Han Han, for better or for worse, is speaking for the majority of Chinese, and, alas, for the government. For all the pollution and unfairness and blind activists under house arrest, the people of China don’t believe the nation is ready for radical change, like the imposition of democracy. Most simply couldn’t care less about it, while others, like Han Han, see inherent dangers in it. True or false, that’s just the way it is.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 115 Comments

Jason, I believe I’ve seen every one of Zhang’s films through Curse of the Golden Flower. I think that’s a pretty good basis from which to form an opinion, though as you point out, it isn’t complete, because I have not seen the two you mention.

However, A Simple Noodle Story is a remake of the American film, Blood Simple. I wasn’t all that interested in seeing it — I wasn’t as crazy about the original film as a lot of people were.

So I am not sure what point you’re trying to make. Basically I used to go out of my way to see his films; his work in recent years hasn’t interested me as much, so I’ve missed a few. But there definitely was a pretty big change in his style and themes with HERO and HOFD, and I’d put the Olympics ceremony as being similar in that the pageantry/visual grandeur was the overriding concern in that and in those two films.

I don’t know about Hawthorne Tree; maybe he’s gone back to making smaller, more human-scale films again, though Nanjing doesn’t sound that way…

January 2, 2012 @ 11:45 am | Comment

To Jason,
you certainly have complete disregard for the tenet that, when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. Now it seems your infatuation is with “as of late”. I’m glad we’ve narrowed down your difficulty with Lisa’s point down to 3 words out of her entire comment in #89. You people have an incredible ability to miss the forest for the trees.

3 years (the span of his 3 most recent movies) is certainly a bit more than “as of late”…until you consider it in the context of his career which spans 24 years and counting. I’ll leave you to grasp that context for yourself.

Ironically, it is during those 3 years spanning those 3 movies where people in general have developed an opinion of him selling out to the CCP. And that is what Lisa originally referred to. She was also careful to say that she didn’t necessarily vouch for that opinion, since she hadn’t seen those films. Sadly, I guess she wasn’t careful enough…

January 2, 2012 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

SK, just to set the record straight, I have seen the films that, along with the Olympics ceremony, are generally the ones cited by those who say Zhang has “sold out” to the CCP — the biggest offender is generally considered HERO, and yeah, it has a pretty disturbing message, IMO. I haven’t seen his most recent films. In truth he hasn’t made that many since 2006, three, I think and the opening ceremony, and I believe he’s also done some opera directing.

January 2, 2012 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

to Lisa and others:

Yes, I agree to a large extend that the CCP is not really letting the leash go, though from a longer view perspective a lot still have changed in China over the last 2 decade in terms of rights and access to information. local media’ have at least a limited degree of press freedom, Taiwan and Hong Kong’s television channals are often ran in parts or all of the country and they are much much less censored on various political subjects. The difficulty of actually bypassing the great fire wall is not really that high for anyone who actually wants to.

Meanwhile, riots far more violent than those of 1989 are not put down with similarly heavy hand, yes some people are still getting killed but it’s no longer tanks rolling over everyone standing in the way. to many extend the riots of today are even more dangerous to the CCP since they often represent a much larger base of their population than those of 1989, which is not completely a simple democracy thing, it also had many complicated factors involved that are often not looked into enough (including internal CCP conflicts, and great reduction of subsidies on the students etc..). Today’s riots are often by much more broader range of folks with a much broader applying agenda.

Most of these are not really the CCP letting up of course, but neccesary concessions, similarly, Taiwan’s own democrazation was not totally of a case where the KMT just decided to turn into a democracy, but it’s own internal power struggle and the simple neccesity of survival all played into the process. (Lee Teng Hui’s accesion into the Presidency was often seen as an accident, and espeically his ability to hold on to it for 12 wooping years was hardly pre-planned, there were many internal struggles within the KMT and in the end what enabled the DPP to win the Presidency in 2000 had probably moe to do with the KMT’s own conflict than the DPP’s appeal.

In the end, as many have pointed out it’s a chicken or egg question, and like most chicken and egg or question, the real answer is probably that they both happen at the same time. and pushing the envelope too fast on one end probably only end up achieving negative effects.

January 2, 2012 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

I think, or at least hope, in the end that the CCP’s most ideal path would be that sufficent internal power struggles leads to politicians seeking direct popular support to secure his / her own position. at which point democracy will start to happen in limited real forms, as well as more earnest reform on matters of rule of law to keep the popular support going. and eventually like what happened in Taiwan, gradual dissolution of the 1 party system and a small but viable opposition would cause a peaceful transfer into a real democracy, this was largely the path that Taiwan went.

Though it does help that the ROC’s consitution was already setup as a democratic state to begin with, that the authoritatian rule was only based on emergency martial law. so at least legally it was significantly easiser to transform. the PRC’s own consitutional setup would face more problems in this regard.

Also, the more dangerous bad path that this sort of development could end up in is similar to the case of russia, where a strongmen does win popular support but doesn’t actually go through with the popular agenda , though on the brigher side, China doesnt have enough Oil to really buy off the public like Putin did.

January 2, 2012 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

@RW – Agree on most/all points. It is unfortunate that there does not appear to be anyone who would serve as the kind of populist reformer in the top level of the CCP at the moment – Bo Xilai is the closest, but I think he may represent more the Yeltsin/Putin tendency. Obviously any such process of reform also risks a violent response.

January 2, 2012 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

No state is “ready” for democracy

January 3, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Comment


Bo Xilai’s son is going to get him in huge trouble if he tries to become any sort of populist. Many friends of his in London can still vividly remember his Bacchanalian lifestyle, totally out of wack with the Red Ascetism his father pushes. Given how much time top Chinese leaders devote to digging up dirt on each other, and how there are many media organs (domestic and western) which are not bound by the Central Propaganda Department anymore, it’s not a stretch to see a PR nightmare unfolding for Bo if he ever tries any funny business.


Agreed–the CCP doesn’t necessarily need a reformer who casts himself as a populist; they need a reformer who directly speaks to the lack of social trust between government and society and within society itself. Something has deeply frayed the fabric of China since 1949.

January 3, 2012 @ 2:51 am | Comment

@t_co – Point taken, but China’s leaders are also very adept at censorship. More to the point, Chinese people are very tolerant of their leader’s failings – Jiang’s infamous dalliance with Song Zuying did not seem to cost him much.

January 3, 2012 @ 4:07 am | Comment


Adept, yes, but only on issues that threaten them collectively. This issue only really affects one member of the ruling conclave. Second, romantic dalliances (Jiang/Song, Clinton/Lewinsky) do not have as strong a whiff of corruption as the obvious material excess (and affording Eton/Oxford tuition on a 15,000GBP/year salary) of Bo Jr.

January 3, 2012 @ 4:12 am | Comment

This is not to say that Bo is by any means guilty of anything; it’s just that given this rather obvious personal blemish, it will be very easy for the rest of the ruling elite to block an independent populist push from him.

January 3, 2012 @ 4:14 am | Comment

At least from what i’ve seen, Bo seem to lean more Putin than Lee Teng Hui, then again Lee was/is also controversial as hell in his own way. Though not in the same vein as Bo. Though yeah Bo is at least utilizing the populist method to try and stake himself going foward.

If you think about it though, that his oppenents would use his son against him is however still playing into the same game, that they’re also going for populist support directly. because this issue is pretty meh if it’s done behind closed door. most of the high CCP official is probably in the same wagon as Bo when it comes to that.

January 3, 2012 @ 9:49 am | Comment

[…] various topics that have been debated over the last weeks, but stick to the bigger ones: namely, Han Han, Wukan, crappy Chinese television, the coming culture wars between China and “the West,” […]

January 5, 2012 @ 4:12 pm | Pingback

Infiltration from the west into Chinese society is a full blown phenomena. Some of it as a consequence of the opening up and others the planned strategies of foreigners for the domination of China. You simply have to read the posts on this forum to observe this.

China would be committing suicide if it does not pay full attention to this most critical issue.

January 8, 2012 @ 5:38 am | Comment

Infiltration from the west into Chinese society is a full blown phenomena. Some of it as a consequence of the opening up and others the planned strategies of foreigners for the domination of China. You simply have to read the posts on this forum to observe this.

Yes, HR, you’ve got it right: all you have to do is look at these blog posts as proof that foreigners are plotting the domination off China.

Just out of curiosity, which posts are you referring to?

January 8, 2012 @ 6:22 am | Comment

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