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.