Han Han and the Big Misunderstanding

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 19th, 2009

I saw on ESWN this Time magazine interview of Han Han, and since I have written before about him, I think it is worth a comment. It is also interesting because it illustrates the scary misunderstandings between East and West that Kaiser Kuo warned against recently. This is, in my opinion, the key passage:

…despite his youthful bravado, Han, who has published 14 books and anthologies, generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights. His calculated rebelliousness, says Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the unspoken compact his generation has forged with the ruling Communist Party: Leave us alone to have fun and we won’t challenge your right to run the country. "He is known for being a sharp critic of the government and the Establishment but he isn’t really," says Liu. Instead, she says, Han is a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. "The language in his novels and the narrative strategies are very easy to read," says Liu. "Basically it’s all the same book."

Before judging the literary value of the writer, Mrs. Liu makes a moral judgment of his rebelliousness: It is not intense enough to her taste, the issues he deals with are not sensitive enough. I think I’m not too far from the truth if I say that this summarizes the opinion of  a large part of the academic community, and by extension of mainstream Western opinion. You may have noted that Ms. Liu is an expert in literature, not in politics. But when it comes to Chinese politics, we ALL know better than them.

Hecaitou’s blog also posted the interview and we can see some Chinese discuss it among themselves. Allowing for the odd troll, it is a fairly balanced discussion, as expected from an intelligent Chinese forum when they don’t feel observed by Western eyes. Perhaps the 2 most significant comments, that give an idea of the atmosphere, are:

- Compared to those who were criminalized for speaking, Han Han has no courage. He only teases, doesn’t dare to speak about the system.

- You mean, he needs to be a martyr? To fight for your rights, even if it is just a bit, to obtain awareness of citizen dignity, all these are matters that require someone to capture them. To be able to speak from within and disintegrate this system, that is the real master.

A large part of the misunderstandings between East and West come from the unreasonable expectations we have of each other. In particular, Western opinion expects of Chinese public figures to fight heroically and even suicidally against their own government. The Chinese political system is so evil, the logic goes, that any public person worthy of our attention should be dedicated to fighting it.

Now, I am the first who thinks China needs political change and respect of human rights, and I greatly admire the courage of some dissidents. But real heroes should be voluntary, like Mother Theresa, and no amount of public pressure can ever create one. Even less foreign public pressure.

In case I have some naïf reader, it is just as well to inform you here that Western policies are as arbitrary and cruel in the international scene as the CCP’s are accused of being in China. And both are equally full of good intentions. Why don’t we apply the same standards with our own public figures?  Do we require of our writers to fight the system? Have they signed a compact to drive us into a consumerist slumber instead of protesting against injustice in the World?

We don’t do that. We act just like the Chinese, satisfying ourselves with he thought that “The World is unfair, but with a bit of patience and faith in the system, it will eventually become a better place”. Substitute “The World” with “China” and you have the mainstream Chinese thought.

“Hypocrisy”, I was going to write. But I don’t think it’s even that. It is simple closed-mindedness,  the inability to see things from the other side.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov

    This kind of closed-mindedness, hypocrisy or intentional or unintentional distortion(well, I don’t like this word, but I can’t find a better one) from the West is actually potentially able to do more damage to the democratization process of China then anything CCP hardliners can ever come up with. It does nothing but increase the hostilities of Chinese people toward the West and the system it advocated and actually serve to confirm some of CCP’s propaganda. CCP can simply point fingers and say:”See for yourself, they are liars, as I have told you before!” The West will end up driving more Chinese to the CCP side with their own propaganda.The media and some of the intellegentsia in the West really deserve a big “Thank you” from the CCP.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov

    I’ve thought this for a while now, but in all my reading, I have yet to come across someone-Chinese, American, or otherwise-state it outright, as you’ve done here. Especially the striking comparability of what China does within its borders to what America (not the West, entirely, but in many ways as representative of Western tradition) does outside its borders.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Nov

    It is not only an American problem, but more generally of all developed countries. Our Justice and the rigtheousness that we derive from it are only true internally (or internationally among rich countries), but we are all completely blind to injustice committed on the 3rd World. For example, selling weapons to drug dealers is all cool as long as it is not inside out bubbles/countries.

    America is the most obvious example because of its power but in essence we are all doing the same. Bombing a place is not the only way of being unjust. Forcing unfair trade deals can have an even more deadly effect.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Dec

    Whilst I do not agree with your anti-capitalist rhetoric, I must admit that I find the fetishisation of the martyrdom of others somewhat strange. Observe how many of the Russian authors who were trumpeted for their exposure of the dictatorship there in Soviet times are, in retrospect, over-hyped and nowadays increasingly forgotten.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Dec

    Hey I am NOT against capitalism, come on next thing you are going to be calling me a commie America-hater, LOL!!

    No, this has nothing at all to do with capitalism, really.

    It is simply about strong countries using their power to take advantage of weak countries. I am not a crazy alarmist, I think the sitation is slowly improving and the World is much better now than it was 50 or 100 years ago, and yes probably we are going in the right direction.

    But the Chinese can say exactly the same of their country internally, and there is nothing in our Foreign policicy that warrants our selfrighteousness and our idea of moral superiority to judge the Chinese. Our internal policies ARE clearly morally superior to the PRC’s, but our Foreign Policies are not. To be morally superior we need to be so in all fields, otherwise we are cheating ourselves.

    Not to get me wrong: we can, and we SHOULD criticize the CPC, but in the same way as we criticize Bush’s Amrica, for example: with a bit of tact, and not with a self-righteous, sacrifice demanding, unbearably patronizing discourse.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    My only objection is the expectation that others must sacrifice to free themselves, when at the moment this can only result in a negative outcome for anyone who follows such urgings.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. May

    “Do we require of our writers to fight the system? Have they signed a compact to drive us into a consumerist slumber instead of protesting against injustice in the World? ”

    Many people did and still do expect people with certain public standing (not necessarily or only writers) to take stands, fight the system, stand up for justice, rights, etc. There was a great deal of pressure on a figure like Michael Jordan to make any kind of comments about Nike, or work behind the scenes to do anything, when it started to be slaughtered on the national/international scene over its treatment of workers. The parallel was drawn with Muhammad Ali who refused to fight in to Vietnam war, “I Ain’t Got No Quarrel With The Viet Cong” morphing into the consumer/corporate world of the 90s “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

    Some people do expect/hope/require. And yes, many have signed a compact to drive us into consumerist slumber.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. May
    Julen Madariaga

    It is not exactly the same. Jordan was actually receiving millions of dollars from Nike, you could say his hands were indirectly dirty in the child labour scandal!

    Han Han, on the other hand, does not receive anything from the government, he is also a victim of the Chinese system. He has his magazine banned and many of the posts he does are erased. Not to mention that he could be earning money if magazines were allowed to posts his articles an an op-ed, or as a professional blogger like Yglesias, etc, in the States.

    How many famous American writers and journalists supported the Irak war, and how many of them were then condemned by the public/critics? Here is your answer: none. Even notorious hawks like Friedmann are still held in high esteem.

    [Reply to this comment]

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