Tag Archives: Han Han

Han Han and the “Suzhi” Argument

You may have missed it with the holidays, but Han Han celebrated with a trio of essays (“On Revolution”, “On Democracy”, and “On Freedom”) that got lots of people talking. Certainly, you should check out ESWN’s translations of all three essays; John Kennedy’s translations of various comments from Chinese thought leaders for Global Voices is also very worth a read. Finally, if you’re the podcast-listening sort, you can listen to me discussing these essays with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gady Epstein, and Edward Wong in the latest episode of the Sinica podcast.

Here, I want to ignore most of Han Han’s essay and focus on the germ of one particular argument that he uses which I find to be particularly unconvincing. But first, the obligatory disclaimers: I agree with Han Han in his general assertion that a violent revolution tomorrow would be a disaster for China. His arguments beyond that are harder for me to get on board with, but I want to discuss only one here and now, the suzhi [素质] argument.

Suzhi is a Chinese term that means roughly “quality” or “character” and often refers to people in specific or the characteristics of a type of person in general. In the context of discussions of democracy in China, the “suzhi argument” is essentially this: the Chinese people as a whole are not qualified for democracy; their suzhi level is not high enough, and thus any attempts at democracy would be unsuccessful.

All kinds of evidence has been trotted out in favor of this argument, which is espoused primarily by Chinese pro-government commentators. Most foreigners, even those who agree with the general sentiment about democracy in China, wouldn’t dream of advancing this argument for fear of being labeled racist. Such labels would not be entirely unfair, and in fact, even Chinese purveyors of this viewpoint have often met with a harsh blowback of angry public opinion. Jackie Chan learned this the hard way.

In any event, rather than talking about it in the abstract, let’s look at Han Han’s arguments about suzhi in particular. At the end of his first piece, “On Revolution”, Han Han writes:

Revolution and democracy are two terms. These two terms are completely different. A revolution gives no guarantee for democracy. We proved this already. History gave China an opportunity, and our current situation is the result of the choice of our forebears. Today, China is the least likely nation in the world to have a revolution. At the same time, China is the nation which needs reform the most in the world. If you insist on asking me about the best timing for revolution in China, I can only say that when Chinese car drivers know to turn off their high beam lights when they pass each other, we can safely proceed with the revolution.

Such a country does not need any revolution. When the civic quality [suzhi] and educational level of the citizens reach a certain standard, everything will happen naturally.

Later, in “On Democracy”, he writes:

The poorer the quality [suzhi] of the citizens, the lesser the importance of the intellectuals […] The quality [suzhi] of the citizens will not prevent democracy from arriving, but it can determine its [democracy’s] quality.

In “On Freedom”, the term suzhi does not appear at all.

It’s interesting that in his original essays, Han treats the “poor quality” of Chinese citizens as essentially a given, without offering a whole lot of evidence to back up that claim. Nor does he really support the assertion that a “poor quality” people make for a poor quality democracy.

Perhaps in response to challenges on this issue, after posting it, Han Han actually expanded on his second essay (“On Democracy”) in a paragraph that Soong didn’t translate, presumably because Han Han added it after Soong had already completed his translation and moved on ((that’s just a guess)). We can’t very well proceed without a translation of that section, though, so here you go:

Adding on an additional question, with regards to suzhi and democracy, people say to me: I’ve been to developed countries and beyond the appearance of suzhi on the surface, people’s natures are the same [as Chinese people’s], so only a good system can guarantee a high level of suzhi [for a country’s people].

I answer: I completely agree. But we’re talking about superficial suzhi. Don’t underestimate the importance of superficial suzhi just because the underlying nature of people is whatever it is. The quality of a democracy is determined by the superficial suzhi of its people. When someone turns off their high beams, it may appear that they’re courteous and respect social mores, but then in discussion with them [you may discover] they are weak, greedy, selfish, narrow-minded…so what about that? There’s no meaning in discussing suzhi and human nature together. Of course American and Chinese people have more or less the same essential natures, human nature is more or less the same the world over. So what we have here is a chicken-and-egg question: is it that first a nation’s people have a good suzhi and then comes the good system [of government], or does the system come first? There’s actually no doubt, at times when a good system can be made, it should be guaranteed to be made regardless of [the people’s] suzhi because a good [political] system is long-lasting, wide-spreading, and real, whereas suzhi is empty.

The problem is that during times when a good system can’t be created for whatever reasons, we can’t be waiting around for one to drop from the sky before we start working on anything else, otherwise even a good suzhi isn’t necessary [for democracy], it’s slow-moving and not necessarily effective. There are two ways that good systems and good democracy arise; one is where there is a day of commemoration ((i.e., democracy arrived swiftly and suddenly, likely after the overthrow of the previous system)) and the other is where there’s no specific day but it comes from the hard work of generations. I think we need to be a bit realistic, the reason the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Amendments are as good as they are is that their political parties and people implemented them. Our [Chinese] Constitution is also good, and our ruling Party has declared some things that were as good as the Declaration of Independence, but most of them weren’t implemented. They [Chinese leaders] won’t look at these declarations and reflect on their shortcomings, the cost of revolution is too high and it’s too uncontrollable, reform is slow and [easy to] delay, it really seems like [we’re in] a tight knot. But I still choose to believe in reform. Violent or nonviolent revolution [as ideas] can only serve as a bargaining chip in supervising reform, it can’t actually be put into practice.

I think Han Han is right in distinguishing suzhi here from human nature because what we’re really talking about is civic/social consciousness and education. That said, I think Han Han — and other less eloquent purveyors of the suzhi argument — are completely wrong.

Since Han Han made the comparison with America’s democracy, and since I’m at least somewhat familiar with American history, let’s take a moment to do something I often try to avoid on this site: compare the US and China. Since we’re talking about the emergence of an operational democratic system, though, we’ll have to compare the China of today with the US of the 1700s.

Immediately, this raises a number of issues, and many of you are no doubt thinking of things like the three-fifths compromise and wondering why China would want that sort of democracy. It’s a fair point, but I’ll argue that slavery is actually an example of how low suzhi doesn’t prevent a real democracy from being implemented. And while admittedly that led to horrible abuses and finally a catastrophic civil war, the fact that the American system of government has lasted and remained firmly grounded ((Though less so in recent years)) by the principles laid out in its founding documents is, I think, evidence that a people’s low level of suzhi is not a disqualifier for a democracy, nor is it a particularly accurate indicator of how that democracy will turn out in the long run.

And it must be said that by nearly every measurable metric I can think of, Chinese people are light-years ahead of eighteenth-century Americans. For example:

  1. Education: It’s difficult to find reliable national statistics for the 1700s, but by all accounts, most Americans at that time weren’t attending much school. A 1773 survey of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, for example, found that only 33% of their children received any education in the two years prior. Education in New England was more widespread, but nowhere near current levels in terms of either implementation or quality. In contrast, according to China’s Ministry of Education, 99% of Chinese children attend primary school and 80% attend both primary and secondary school. Of course, there are significant concerns about the quality of that education, but I think very few people would choose an 18th century American education over a modern Chinese one, especially given that a large part (in many cases, all) of 18th century education in the US was religious education.
  2. Literacy: Literacy rates in colonial America were surprisingly high, apparently: between 70% and 100%, although those numbers come just from New England and the overall number would almost certainly be lower. China’s current literacy rate is about 92%, which, although not comparable to the 21st century US, certainly compares equally or even favorably with literacy rates in colonial and early independent America. Again, it’s also worth mentioning that most American education at the time was religious; people learned to read so that they could read the Bible, not to stay informed on current events.
  3. Social Conscience: This is admittedly an extremely subjective thing to try to assess, but it’s difficult for me to believe that any people could rate below colonial Americans, who by and large believed it was okay to enslave other people, even after it became clear that moral concerns aside, this issue was causing a tremendous rift that threatened to (and nearly did) completely destroy American society. Chinese drivers may leave their high beams on at night — though the fact that Han Han is so convinced this is a Chinese characteristic is only proof he hasn’t spent much time driving at night in America — but it’s hard to believe that betrays a level of social conscience lower than that of Americans who were, at the moment their democracy emerged, engaged in enslaving a race of people (not to mention stealing from and massacring another race of people).

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, but I don’t think that many people in the 1700s would have been particularly optimistic about the nascent American democracy if they shared Han Han’s belief that its quality would be impacted by the suzhi of its people — a people that were by and large literate but poorly educated, preposterously religious, and dedicated to the belief that owning slaves was totally cool. Certainly, this picture of Americans at the turn of the 19th century makes the complaints most often levied against Chinese people’s suzhi — they spit in public, they can’t queue properly, they only care about watching TV — seem benign in comparison.

The history of other countries could likely provide counter-examples, but that’s not the point. I am not arguing that China could easily implement a democracy; rather, my point is just that the argument that China couldn’t implement democracy because its people still spit on the sidewalk or leave their high beams on at night is total horseshit.

That said, by way of epilogue, I’ll offer a few brief words on Han Han’s implication in his add-on paragraph that China is currently in a period when it’s not possible to implement democracy. He doesn’t really explain specifically why he believes that’s the case, but looking at American history again, there certainly would have been reasons to suggest the same thing about an independent America in the 1700s. The colonists, after all, wanted to challenge the most powerful military and economic power on earth. They ended up succeeding for reasons that might seem obvious in retrospect, but my guess is that many outside observers before the revolution began might have suggested that democracy was “impossible” for America at a time when England was so powerful militarily, especially since the economic losses they stood to suffer if they lost the colonies made it more or less a given that they would resist any efforts at independence quite…robustly.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of issues with any analogy involving the 18th century US and modern China. My point is simply that Han Han’s offhanded dismissal of the possibility of democracy in China perhaps deserves a bit more questioning than it has gotten.

Moreover, I hope we can all agree once and for all that the suzhi argument is a load of crap. If a bunch of uneducated slave-owning religious fundamentalists could take on the world’s greatest power and establish one of its longest-lasting (representative) democratic states, why is it so impossible that Chinese people could do the same thing?

(Whether or not they would is another question, perhaps for a future post. This one is already way, way too long.)

Han Han: “The Derailed Country”

The following is a guest translation by a Matt Schrader. It is supposedly an article that was posted to Han Han’s blog and then deleted. However, short of contacting him directly, which I have no way of doing, there’s no way to confirm that the article is in fact his. It’s also worth mentioning that articles are frequently passed off as being by Han Han as an attempt by other writers to draw more attention to the article in question.

On the other hand, articles are also frequently deleted from Han’s blog and when that happens, they quickly end up copied on other sites. Since in this case the original isn’t on Han’s blog, we’ll post the Chinese text in its entirety here. (There is no mouseover text below).

UPDATE: Based on information from a couple sources, I now believe it’s accurate to state that this is, in fact, an authentic Han Han piece.

Translation: “The Derailed Country”

You ask, why are they acting like a bunch of lunatics?

They think they’re the picture of restraint.

You ask, why can’t they tell black from white, fact from fiction?

They think they’re straight shooters, telling it like it is.

You ask, why are they running interference for murders?

They think they’ve thrown their friends under the bus. And they’re ashamed.

You ask, why all the cover-ups?

They think they’re letting it all hang out.

You ask, why are they so irretrievably corrupt?

They think they’re hardworking and plain-living.

You ask, why are they so infuriatingly arrogant?

They think they’re the picture of humility.

You feel like you’re the victim. So do they.

They think: “During the Qing Dynasty, no one had television. Now everyone has a television. Progress!”

They think: “We’re building you all this stuff, what do you care what happens in the process? Why should you care who it’s really for, so long as you get to use it? The train from Shanghai to Beijing used to take a whole day. Now you’re there in five hours (as long as there’s no lightning). Why aren’t you grateful? What’s with all the questions?

“Every now and then, there’s an accident. The top leaders all show how worried they are. We make someone available to answer journalists’ questions. First we say we’ll give the victims 170,000 kuai apiece. Then we say we’ll give them 500,000. We fire a buddy of ours. We’ve done all that, and you still want to nitpick? How could you all be so close-minded? You’re not thinking of the big picture! Why do you want us to apologize when we haven’t done anything wrong? It’s the price of development.

“Taking care of the bodies quickly is just the way we do things. The earlier we start signing things, the more we’ll have to pay out in the end. The later we sign, the smaller the damages. Our pals in the other departments—the ones who knock down all the houses—taught us that one. Burying the train car was a bonehead move, true, but the folks upstairs told us to do it. That’s how they think: if there’s something that could give you trouble, just bury it. Anyway, the real mistake was trying to dig such a huge hole in broad daylight. And not talking it over with the Propaganda Department beforehand. And not getting a handle on all the photographers at the site. We were busy, ok? If there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that when you need to bury something, make sure you think about how big it is, and make sure you keep the whole thing quiet. We underestimated all that.”

They think that, on the whole, it was a textbook rescue operation—well planned, promptly executed, and well managed. It’s a shame public opinion’s gotten a little out of hand, but they think, “That part’s not our responsibility. We don’t do public opinion.”

They’re thinking: “Look at the big picture: We had the Olympics, we canceled the agricultural tax, and you guys still won’t cut us a break. You’re always glomming on to these piddling little details. No can-do spirit. We could be more authoritarian than North Korea. We could make this place poorer than the Sudan. We could be more evil than the Khmer Rouge. Our army’s bigger than any of theirs, but we don’t do any of that. And not only are you not thankful, but you want us to apologize! As if we’ve done something wrong?”

Society has people of means, and those without. There’s people with power, and those that have none. And they all think they’re the victim. In a country where everyone’s the victim, where the classes have started to decouple from one another, where it’s every man for himself, in this huge country whose constituent parts slide forward on inertia alone—in this country, if there’s no further reform, even tiny decouplings make the derailings hard to put right.

The country’s not moving forward because a lot of them judge themselves as if Stalin and Mao were still alive. So they’ll always feel like the victim. They’ll always feel like they’re the enlightened ones, the impartial ones, the merciful ones, the humble ones, the put-upon ones. They think the technological drumbeat of historical progress is a dream of their own making.
The more you criticize him, the more he longs for autocracy. The more you gaomao him (piss him off), the more he misses Mao.

A friend in the state apparatus told me, “You’re all too greedy. Forty years ago, writers like you would’ve been shot. So you tell me, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

I said, “No, you’re all too greedy. Ninety years ago, that kind of thinking would have gotten you laughed out of the room. So you tell me: after all that, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

Who turned out the lights on Han Han?

For all the talk about Han Han being the voice of a generation and being too big to be silenced by the government, it sure seems like he’s been, well…silenced. There is no way to prove it’s the government silencing him, of course, but who else would it be?

First, there’s his magazine 独唱团, the first issue of which took over a year to get published and was met with fairly lackluster reviews ((See what I did there?)). But the second issue, which was meant to come out two months later, never appeared, for reasons that remain unclear. At this point, though, I don’t think anyone is expecting to see another issue of the magazine, ever.

Then there’s his blog. Once frequently updated, it has been remarkably quiet since his blog post on October 10 (the day Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize). The blog post didn’t say anything about Liu. In fact it didn’t say anything at all, it was simply titled October 10th, 2010 and the text read thusly:


Since then, he has updated just twice, but both updates were just brief remarks on the Shanghai fire, which the mainstream media was also reporting at the time (this was before the word came down from the “Ministry of Truth” to slow down reporting on the fire). He has not updated the blog once since then; it has now been over a month (although it’s possible he has attempted to update the blog but had his posts deleted; this is a theory being espoused by some commenters in the comments on his “latest” post).

In real life, he may not be faring much better. An acquaintance of mine in the media recently was attempting to contact Han Han for an interview, but after pursuing several different guanxi channels was finally told by Han Han’s agent that things were too “sensitive” and that Han Han was not accepting any interviews from foreigners, period.

So, has China’s most politically-inclined race car driver been muzzled by Zhongnanhai, or is something else going on? And while we’re talking about silence, Wang Keqin hasn’t updated his blog in over a month either. That could be a good sign though, as he occasionally disappears from the internet for a while and reappears later with a new, hugely important news story.


I promise this is the last time I will mention this project on the site in an begging-for-money way, but check out some info about our project in the Global Times and China Digital Times, and if you feel like it, make a donation!

Han Han on the Shanghai Fire

Likely, you’ve already heard about the terrible fire in Shanghai that claimed the lives of over fifty people, many of them retired schoolteachers. Shanghaiist has been covering the story thoroughly, and we suggest you check there for the latest updates. But even Han Han, (who has recently been refusing interviews and barely updating his blog, probably in part because his magazine has been reportedly shut down), has addressed this issue, making several posts about the fire. One is a collection of photos, the other talks about his experience watching the fire (which he happened to be close to) before getting into some of his thoughts on how it happened and how people should view it:

In this post, I won’t bother singing the praises of anyone, because you can see how the fire is being controlled, the heroic rescue efforts, the stabilized feelings of family members [of victims], the leaders’ consoling words, and the residents [who survived] weeping with joy, etc., on the evening news. I’m just thinking, I’m living in a city full of tall buildings like [that one]. It was 28 stories high, but the firemen’s water guns could only reach six or seven stories up. From where I stood, I saw one ladder that reached beyond the 20th floor, but most couldn’t reach 20. Helicopters were useless to rescue anyone and could only watch. Of course, this was a very remarkable fire, perhaps it’s true that regardless of the number of firefighters and helicopters, regardless of how high the ladders went, nothing could be done. But perhaps a few more people could have been saved. I think Shanghai has shown the tools it has to combat fires in high rises, and all I can say is that it’s not enough.

Additionally, this was a nice building, not one that looked old and beaten up. I really don’t understand what they were renovating on the outside, and all of the scaffolding and nets are flammable. If you gave me a lighter and told me to burn down a 28-storey building, that would be difficult, but with this particular building, you would just have to light the safety netting at the bottom; the outcome would be the same as what actually happened. The reasons for this disaster are poor fire prevention [standards] and the baffling renovations, but I expect the reason for the renovation was beautification, saving energy, [etc.] Residential buildings aren’t as good as office buildings and the fire safety equipment inside is not perfect; wouldn’t it be better to fully renovate the inside of the building [i.e., update the fire safety equipment, etc.] rather than beautify its outside?

Finally, I’ve discovered that before every important gathering, there are fireworks, but after every important meeting, there is a disastrous fire. After the Olympics, the CCTV Hotel burned; after the Expo, a big apartment building burned. The latter was worse; the media is now reporting that 12 people died [this number is old, the death toll is now above 50], but from what I saw, when the firefighters enter the building and finish their search tomorrow morning, that number will certainly rise. There are those who say that after a disaster, we should do our best to provide relief, to help the grieving, and shouldn’t go searching for answers or make statements [about the disaster], it’s not the right time for that. But if you don’t question things, it just becomes an act-of-God natural disaster, the officials seize the opportunity and harmonize the media, and in the end it becomes a way for them to congratulate themselves on their own success. This has already become a constant. You can’t take out your anger that there is no answer on those who are asking the questions. So, what is your question?

In Brief: Han Han on Criticism from Li Ao and Chen Wenqian

Han Han may be beloved (to some) on the Mainland and despised (by some) in the Party, but two of his harshest critics, Li Ao and Chen Wenqian, are from Taiwan. In general, he has declined to respond at all to their criticism, but in a recent interview, he finally spoke out.

We asked him: “When people praise you, how do you feel about it? When people belittle you, how do you mitigate that? Taiwan’s Chen Wenqian and Li Ao have been heavily critical of you, but you haven’t responded, what does that mean?

Han Han said: “In the past I fought many battles through my blog, but later I gave myself a rule: if the opponent is older than 70, under 20, or a woman, I will not respond. Li Ao and Chen Wenqian both fall under this rule. But I would like to say to Mr. Li Ao: if A and B have a disagreement, and then A and you have a disagreement, this doesn’t mean you have to go and side with B [on everything]. There is another kind of attitude, it’s called independence.

We asked him, “How can you be so blunt?” He said, “Aside from the girls and family members I like, seeing everything else as devoid of substance is OK.”

Not attacking children and old folks, that part makes sense. But refusing to respond to criticism from any woman? That’s just plain sexist. And sadly, this is far from the first time.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a young, famous, attractive race car driver/professional writer might come to have a skewed image of women. But that doesn’t make this attitude acceptable, or any less disappointing for those of us who enjoy his writing and social criticism on the occasions it doesn’t betray this bias.

Very possibly, Han Han’s lifestyle will allow him to look down on women and others in general for the foreseeable future. But one wonders to what extent his fans, as they age and mature, will begin to shy away. Moreover, one wonders to what extent his much-touted influence will wane as media elites and intellectuals continue to edge away from his positions, afraid of being associated with his increasingly-public misogyny.

There are few sharper tongues in China, and at his most poignant, he drives directly to the heart of this country’s most fatal flaws. It’s a shame he insists on blunting his own sword with these sexist, arrogant remarks.

Thanks to Isaac Mao (@isaac) for tweeting the quotation and thus calling it to our attention.

The 9.18 Protest: a Show of Force

Much like Tom Lasseter, I had never been to a protest in China before yesterday. Unlike him, though, I’m not a professional reporter, and I got to the scene late, so I was mostly confined to the outskirts with the Chinese media, some expelled protesters, and a few curious onlookers.

I happened to have a camera, and created this video. Nothing about it is particularly good from a videography point of view–virtually everything that could go wrong did at every stage of its production–and to top it all off I got the date wrong. Not the most auspicious start to our plans for adding video content to this site. But I’m going to post it anyway, because I think there are aspects of it you will find interesting.

(Here is a direct link to the video on Youtube. If you live in China, you will need a VPN or some kind of proxy to see it.)

It was especially idiotic of me to get the date wrong, considering that it wasn’t exactly an accident the protesters chose September 18th.

But, as Mr. Lasseter said, it wasn’t much of a protest. It was rainy, there weren’t many people there, and I don’t think Japan is going to leave the Diaoyu Islands or return the Chinese captain just because somebody baked a cake.

Han Han recently wrote a blog post on the subject that was quickly deleted in which he expresses his thoughts on the protest:

People without their own land fighting for someone else’s land; people who aren’t respected demanding that someone else should be respected…how much per kilogram do people like that cost?

But anyway, protesting [something like this] is safe, fun, and makes you look cool. The key is that after the protest is over, you can still work and study as usual, in fact it might even look good on your resume.


Anyway, none of that is important, what’s important is that if I was allowed to protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping today, I would gladly protest for the Diaoyu Islands or the Olympic Torch tomorrow. But it’s a paradox, because in a time when you could protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping, you wouldn’t have problems like the Diaoyu Islands or [people trying to snuff out] the Olympic Torch to protest about. Protests of external issues are meaningless to a people who can’t protest peacefully about domestic ones, it’s all just an act.

What was impressive was the show of control put on by the police, especially given that the protesters were there in support of the official government line. By the time we got there in the afternoon, police had cordoned off at least a one-block radius in every direction around the Japanese embassy. The streets to the north and east of the embassy, outside of the police tape, were lined with PSB officers, one standing every five feet or so for several blocks. There were easily a hundred of them, and obviously many more inside the police tape.

At the northern entrance to the cordoned-off area on Ritan Road, People’s Armed Police officers in green camouflage guarded the area, but most of the other police there were regular PSB officers, milling about and sometimes photographing or filming the crowds outside their lines. Police vehicles were entering and exiting the scene regularly.

By the time we got to the Western approach to the embassy, where a small crowd had gathered on the intersection of Xiushui St. and Xiushui North St., there were reportedly no protesters left inside the cordoned off area, just some Western reporters and a whole lot of police. It was a show of force, a demonstration of control.

The reporter you can hear in the video above was not the only one complaining bitterly about how the Chinese media wasn’t allowed in. After our camera was turned off, another reporter came up and asked how to get in. “Good luck,” the first reporter said, “they’re not letting anyone Chinese in.” “I’m from Taiwan,” the second reporter said, but he, too, stayed outside the lines. A team from another domestic media outlet circled the scene with us (coincidentally), filming down each street towards where the protesters had been, but were never allowed to pass through police lines.

As I spoke to the protester you hear in the video, one of his friends circled us, photographing me repeatedly. I have no idea why, but it underscored the mood amongst the crowd at the Western entrance — angry, suspicious, and mostly all armed with cameras.

The police, on the other hand, were calm. They directed people around the blocked off area, they stared, and they waited. After all, there were so many of them that nothing was going to happen. And there’s only so long one can spend filming police cars before it’s on to the next story.

Social Criticism in China

‘A warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in,’ said Abraham Cowley, a seventeenth-century English poet. In a sense, this can be used to describe the politics in China: for the conscious social critics, there is so much to criticize, so many corrupted leaders, unreasonable policies, false ideologies, anomalies and tragedies. China itself is a rich source of writing material. At the same time, however, social criticism in China is a profession of despair. You always confront unpleasant facts, and write many negative accounts. But be prepared to accept the fact that little would change, that change would take a long time, perhaps never.

In a similar spirit, a Chinese poet in the Qing Dynasty said, ‘The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets. When one writes of national calamities, one inevitably writes well.’ Leung Man Tao, a social critic from Hong Kong who writes for many influential mainland Chinese newspapers, had a modern interpretation of this poem in the Preface to his 2009 book Common Sense, a collection of his political commentaries about China:

If there is one thing which makes current affairs commentary immortal, it is that the things you criticize about happen again and again. Commentators carefully analyzed the reasons for mining accidents, and proposed rehabilitation and preventive measures. Often, the result is that mining accidents not only fail to disappear, but happen with increased frequency. If the purpose of commentary is to effect social change, then the unchanged reality is its greatest irony. Any social commentator with conscience would want to see its articles becoming obsolete. It is a sorrow if their articles continue to have relevance, except if the author’s ego is greater than that of an intellectual: The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets.

As one of the most critical writers of contemporary Chinese society, Han Han expresses similar feelings this month in his blog, which has not been updated for a while:

I discover that writing about China is a painful experience. No doubt, this country gives us a lot of materials to write about. But you will suddenly discover that after writing for a while, when a piece of news breaks out, you could not help but just write a sentence: ‘Please refer to my article dated XXX.’ Our leadership has changed from that group to this; our slogans and national achievements have changed from those to these; tragedy has befallen on this person instead of that one. Tragedies reoccur, just with different people. This is a painful experience for the writer. Writers hate repeating the same thing over and over again, as it demands a high level of writing skills. I really want to keep on writing, and do not want to be bored and paralyzed.

This week, the popular column of Chan Wan at the Hong Kong Economic Journal was discontinued. Chan is a leading intellectual in Hong Kong. It was reported that his column’s removal was due to his fierce criticisms on Hong Kong’s real estate developers, which, in Chan’s words, ‘control the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, obstructing the democratization of Hong Kong and, indirectly, that of mainland China.’

In an article this week on Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, Chan expresses a strong sense despair about the practice of social criticism in Hong Kong and China:

When the society is controlled by vested interests, and the masses become indifferent, political commentary just becomes a ‘thinking exercise’, or a kind of cultural activity. It has no real social functions, except for people to satisfy their curiosity and vent their anger. Our real hope lies in the irrational impulses of the masses when a critical threshold is reached. This reconstruction of the society from the ruins is called revolution. Under a suppressive environment, rational analysis and well-intended advice are limited to like-minded people, or risk being accused as ‘obstructing the usual way of things’ or anti-revolutionary if they are widely published. Therefore, I have decided a few years ago to stop commenting on mainland Chinese politics, except if it relates to Hong Kong. From China’s chaotic environment, you can foresee its ‘end-game’, just that it is meaningless to explicitly say it out. Knowing that you cannot control and stop this continuous deterioration towards the end-game, you know it is also time to set the end-game for your social criticism.

It isn’t only revolutionary crises that can effect social changes. Whatever the views of these critics about the future of China, their writings have helped the masses find their way. As always, social criticism requires consciousness, courage and perseverance, as Michael Walzer wrote ((Michael Walzer (2002), The Company of Critics, New York: Basic Books, p.239)):

The important thing is not to sink – and how else does one keep afloat except by criticizing what is going on in the surrounding waters? ‘Always, in every situation,’ wrote Martin Buber, ‘it is possible to do something.’ I would be inclined to say, almost always; criticism is never without reasons and warrants, but there may be terrible moments when it has no point […] So it behooves the critic to be ready and waiting, maintaining his independence, keeping in touch with common complaint, polishing his glass. He is like a commuter watching expectantly for a train (but there is no schedule).