I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not… I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want,” Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong martial arts star, once mused (see Brush Strokes column, page 17).
Chan’s comments triggered an enormous backlash in 2009 (Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s leading newspapers, used its front page to anoint him “a knave”.) But surprisingly, Chan now seems to have an unlikely supporter in Han Han, the race car driver, novelist and blogging supremo (see WiC71).
In his latest blog posts, titled On Democracy, On Revolution, and On Freedom, Han argued that China won’t be witnessing a Velvet Revolution – a reference to the former Czechoslovakia’s peaceful revolt in 1989 – and that democracy won’t appear in the world’s most populous country anytime soon.
“I do not believe that a Velvet Revolution can take place in China… The ultimate winner in a revolution must be a vicious, ruthless person,” Han warned.
Further he thought that real change would only come when society changed at large: “The issue is not to deal with the Communist Party this way or that. The Communist Party is just a name. The system is just a name. If you change the people, everything changes.”
In fact, the demand for democracy from the public is “not as urgent as the intellectuals imagine,” Han suggested. “They hate the powers-that-be and corruption mostly because they wish that they (or their own relatives) had been the beneficiaries instead; they don’t care about restricting or supervising the authorities; they pick up the vocabulary about democracy and freedom only when bad luck befalls them and they need to petition their causes. If the government pays them enough, they will be satisfied.”
Han also reckons that revolution is not the answer for greater freedom. Instead, activists should push for smaller, tangible reforms as a means to bring change.
“Perfect democracy will not appear in China. We can only go after one small thing at a time. There is no point in frustrating oneself by dreaming about democracy and freedom in our study rooms. Reform is the best answer,” he wrote.
The essay on revolution was timely (see next story on the Wukan incident). And needless to say, the posts sparked debate online, with many deriding Han, especially those who had thought him to be a stronger advocate for political change. “It’s a little bit like Obama getting supported by Fox News,” says Michael Anti, a liberal blogger.
Some suggested he was being paid by the state to discourage democracy in China. Others took it as personal betrayal. Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist who once said that Han had the makings of another Lu Xun (see WiC44), turned on Han, writing that he “lacks honest discourse and is too acquiescent. It’s biased and degraded, like he has surrendered voluntarily… It would be a good piece for Global Times to publish.”
Indeed, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run newspaper Global Times, was soon giving his endorsement to Han’s essay. “This is some real truth you rarely hear in China today!” he enthused.
Academic Xue Yong also complained that Han’s blog posts showed that the writer was not well-read. “I have told Han Han that he should study more… 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.”
Others argue that Han is just being realistic and that a desire for democracy ranks pretty low on the wish list of most ordinary Chinese. In a recent survey from think-tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, food price inflation (59.5% of respondents), health care availability (42.1%) and the wealth gap (28%) were the top concerns.
It is, however, a measure of Han’s influence that he managed to spur such a widespread debate over democracy and dissent from just 4,000 words of online comment. Even though he seems to have taken a more moderate position on political change than many of his erstwhile supporters in the dissident community had hoped for, Han’s blog post also addresses the benefits and pitfalls of revolutionary change – something almost entirely absent from the wider public discourse in recent years.
For those outside China, it should also offer further evidence of the complexity of the debate. Yes, those who take a more Orwellian view of China’s political circumstances have Christian Bale’s recent visit to a dissident in Shandong (with CNN in attendance, no less) to bolster their case. The Hollywood actor was manhandled away by local security personnel. But the fact that democracy and revolution could be so openly debated in the very same week suggests we should be wary of black and white verdicts on today’s China.
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