China: Only Talking About a Revolution

Race car driver, author and one of China's most popular bloggers, Han Han dropped a bomb this weekend with three new blog posts, respectively discussing the possibilities for revolution, democracy and freedom in China.

Unlike Chen Wei, who was just sentenced to nine years in prison for writing four essays, Han and his views on the reform vs. revolution debate and Chinese citizens’ ability to survive institutions such as freedom or democracy have, at least for the moment, brought discussion of a more open future China from the academic and ‘dissident’ spheres to the top of mainstream blog portals and all throughout microblog sites.

Between the three essays, Han frankly addresses questions that Chinese public intellectuals are often criticized for shying away from, but is himself now being accused of misrepresenting the many people in China who do advocate serious political change.

Roland Soong at EastSouthWestNorth has translated two of Han's essays, On Revolution, On Democracy with the third, ‘Wanting Freedom’, probably coming soonhere.

We're trying to keep up with the hundreds of responses from public intellectuals and netizens to Han's ‘gauntlet’, which we'll be adding below as we come across them. First up, Han's own father, Han Renjun, who at times seems to take on the role of Han Jr.'s spokesperson on Sina Weibo:


I called Han and asked why he chose grandiose and dangerous titles, ‘On Revolution’ and ‘On Democracy’. He said he wouldn't have been able to make his point in short posts and that only titles like these will bring people to start discussing these words that they're normally afraid to use, that a little contention is always a good thing. It makes sense to me, but certain scholars don't seem to get it, saying that instead of talking big about something, unlearned or uneducated people are better off keeping their mouths shut, that these subjects aren't fit for such shallowness. What a joke.


These people who don't see Han's point shouldn't be telling him to shut up just because he isn't educated or his analysis is weak or unprofessional. Even if he were being more superficial, there's no justification for saying he can't use words like these in titles of his posts. […] All Han's done is answer a few questions. If people are capable or interested enough, they can write a systemic discourse for the whole country to study.

Han Han: [T]he leader of the revolution is not going to be the good-natured, benevolent character that you imagine as you sit in front of your computer right now. Such a revolutionary leader is most likely going to be dictatorial, domineering, egotistical, presumptuous, venomous and incendiary. Yes, this sounds familiar but the Chinese people fall for this kind of style. This society is used to seeing the villains take charge and the good folks get slaughtered. The leaders who are preferred by the young culturati won't last a week.

Michael Anti:


There isn't much to say about Han Han's piece ‘On Revolution’ except that he needs to read more. When the Tangwai movement was calling for democracy in Taiwan in the 1980s, leaders and reformers in the Kuomingtang used similar arguments to reject democratization: People who don't respect public morality aren't fit to be discussing democracy, asking why people weren't angry, etc. Didn't it all just turn out to be hot air, when Taiwan democratized normally?

Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times:


Han Han has written several posts, with lines like “I do not believe that a Velvet Revolution can take place in China,” and that he thinks “the ultimate winner in a revolution must be a vicious, ruthless person,” which is why he supports “stronger reforms” for China. He also says that the Chinese Communist Party has 80 million members, and 300 million people belong to families in which someone has Party membership: “The Party is no longer just a political party or a class,” “When the party organization reaches a certain size, it becomes the people itself, and people form the system.” This is some real truth you rarely hear in China today!

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei:


I haven't seen any debate, but speaking strictly of his essays, the tone is too orthodox and his stance is too close to that of authorities. His writing lacks honest discourse and is too acquiescent, almost predicated on flattery. It's biased and degraded, like he's surrendered voluntarily…it'd be a good piece for Global Times to run.

Han's publisher, Lu Jinbo, who some suspect came up with the idea for the three posts as a promotional tactic:


I haven't been online for a few days, haven't seen any essays. But I will say first: In this sweet and fattening year-end holiday, Han Han has used around 4,000 characters in two essays to successfully start a major online discussion about politics and democracy. This in itself will go into the history books.

Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping, who interrupted her live-tweeting of Vaclav Havel's state funeral to share her thoughts:



There's only one thing I want to say: Revolutions usually erupt suddenly, they aren't scheduled and they can't be predicted. Which is why, at present, not even those who theorize about revolutions are able to preemptively distance themselves from others in some unforeseeable future scenario.

At the time, a lot of Czechs had housing, their own cars, so why did they have a revolution? The Velvet Revolution was a revolution in human dignity, both in people's existence and values. It's also a revolution which isn't even close to being over. Havel wasn't someone who excelled through life, you might even say he was a typical loser. But he was an eternal dissenter, afflicting the comfortable, a constant thorn in the sides of the complacent.

Academic Xue Yong:


I've told Han Han that he should study more, go to Harvard, not the sort of thing I encourage everyone to do. But if he's going to discuss things such as history and revolutions, he needs to have at least read some of the basics, otherwise he'll just end up making the same reckless deductions taught to him by the Communist Party. Where is it written that Asian societies can't experience revolutions? Japan, Korea and Taiwan are all modern democratic states, formed through multiple revolutions (though not only revolutions).

Chinese businessman and online personality Bei Zhicheng:




Democracy doesn't depend on a populace with high quality of character, it depends on people's instinctual greed, which determines that people will cast their vote for the politician which stands to work most in their interest. Which is why there's something wrong with you if you say there exists a place where people lack this instinct.

People always complain that those around them aren't interested in politics, that they only care about getting a raise or paying off their mortgage. Wrong. Your friends are just afraid. Wait until they have the freedom to choose, and see what happens when they're told that the 20,000 RMB they pay in taxes every year goes toward raising a bunch of useless officials, that 70% of the price of your house also goes toward raising them, and if you do this and that, you won't have to put up with this anymore.

These people who are always quick to say that Chinese people have poor quality of character, that rural residents don't know how to defend their interests, how are they different from the people who started calling the Wukan villagers irrational thugs the second unrest broke out?




Independent thought is a valuable trait, but it's not a reason to defend an illogical argument or not wanting to educate yourself. Can someone with just an elementary school level grasp of physics use independent thought to tell you whether or not the universe is finite? You would want to encourage him to study more, not exaggerate how much you love his independence of thought.

Leave the quality of character of Chinese people out of this, examples of low quality people in democratic systems are easy to find. The British aristocracy did away with the slave trade and racial segregation ages ago, but white Americans had a bloody civil war just because they didn't like the sight of black people and took a hundred years to finally eradicate racial segregation. Is that a reason not to implement democracy? No, rather it's that when you start avoiding defects like this you end up with the “three years of natural disasters.”

I think Han Han is a good writer. He's been able to maintain independence of thought without getting carried away with fans, and he's great at delivering criticism of social problems from the average person's point of view. But he truly does lack familiarity with sociological theory and easily gets in over his head in complex issues.


If you read through Han Han's third essay, you can see that he's a reformist. As a middle class father, it's understandable that he would be worried about the unrest and unpredictable result of a complete change in the political system. You could even put aside his logical inconsistencies. In fact, if the reforms he hopes for were to be realized, revolutionaries could probably even accept that. The only worry is that those in power wouldn't budge and would portray reformers as revolutionaries to the end.

Window on the South journalist Xiong Peiyun:



Han Han's essays aren't as bad as some critics have made them out to be, but they're also not strong enough to make him a savior. He's just a normal guy with independent thoughts. That a normal guy can become a popular idol in this country is a tragedy of this era, but it also shows that this tragic period is nearly over. In Han's essay on revolution, what I felt most were hopelessness, sincerity and responsibility. We do a lot of criticizing the government these days, but we've forgotten that building up society is equally important, possibly even more so.

Today, any person who points out that the emperor has no clothes on is a brave critic, but if the same person points out that the public might also not be wearing any clothes, well then he's just a spineless traitor. This train of thought is very frightening, and is exactly the way rulers see things. The most rational option, I've always felt, is to be thorough in criticizing both government and society. Only this way will we see lasting progress.

Media commentator Wuyue Sanren:



Han Han's fans’ attitude toward people who criticize Han serves precisely as additional support for Han's argument. The strange thing is, Han raises these issues to find some sort of a solution, but the many people who worship him are actually an obstacle to solving these kinds of problems. Like Han said: You're the people who never turn off their high beams when they drive.

After Han published his two essays, something strange occurred: those I consider to be the greatest of intellectuals are now all criticizing Han, whereas lower to mid-level intellectuals and commentators like myself stopped at disagreeing with certain parts of his argument but agreeing overall (Hu Xijin too, but then he is unclassifiable). I can't say who's right, but I think this is the current situation and the best footnote to Han's writings.



The greatest limit on the individual, which all human societies pursue, is to not infringe upon other people's freedom. Of all the means attempted in attaining this goal, democracy is currently the most effective method, and a constitutional government is the bulwark keeping democracy from turning into a tyranny of the majority. My personal understanding of the relationship between these three components is: constitutionalism is the basis for democracy, and democracy is the road to freedom, just so we're clear on that.

Han's latest essay, Wanting Freedom, is better than the first two. It makes both compromises and demands, threats, and proposes a quid pro quo relationship. My preference is for things like this which don't appear complete. Those students that year wanted to see change overnight, and in the end there was no space left for discussion. If you talk only of how things should be done and not of reasonable compromises, then you're either an idiot in politics or you have an ulterior motive.


Speaking for myself, I was happy to see how the resistance in Wukan was dealt with. I also want to see the Wukan villagers succeed, but everyone knows this is impossible. The cool part was the villagers’ organizing efforts and determination, and that in end they attained the best result currently possible, which now serves as a precedent for resolving other situations. If you read all three of Han's essays together, it does indeed seem that the light in the darkroom has been switched on.


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