The essay that has Chinese talking: 'On Wanting Freedom'

A Chinese race-car-driver-turned-politico has unleashed a firestorm on the Web with a volley of edgy blogs over the weekend. 

Han Han, a Chinese race-car-driver-turned-political-polemicist who has become one of the country’s most popular bloggers, has unleashed a firestorm on the Web with a volley of edgy essays over the weekend. 

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.”

Ordinary people’s “quest for democracy and freedom is not as urgent as intellectuals imagine,” he argues, and one-person-one-vote elections “are not our most urgent need” because “the ultimate result would be victory for the Communist Party” – the only institution powerful enough to buy off all the voters, he says.

Instead, he advocates step-by-step reforms to strengthen the rule of law, education, and culture.

That’s an approach that the government claims as its own, and Han’s essays have drawn a fair bit of flak from other liberal commentators. “His stance is too close to that of the authorities,” sniffed dissident artist Ai Weiwei on his blog. “It’s like he has surrendered voluntarily.”

Han writes in a casual, immediate style that appeals to younger readers, but his gadfly commentaries are pretty lightweight and not always intellectually coherent and he often says things on his blog that he is lucky to get away with. (Ai Weiwei spent nearly three months jailed in solitary confinement this summer for criticizing the authorities.)

Still, as 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.”

“That is not to say that we think freedom of expression is unimportant,” he added quickly. “But it is not important enough to enough people in China to make it part of our survey.”

That is hardly the same thing as arguing, as Han appears to believe, that the Chinese people cannot be trusted with democracy until they are better educated and more civic minded. But it must offer the Chinese government a good deal of comfort.

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