Political blogs in China: the case of Han Han by Jesper Schlæger, PhD Fellow Copenhagen University

12. Aug 2011

Blogs1 have become a way for people to express personal opinions online, and in China the “blogosphere” is turning into an arena for political debate. This stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese state media which, not surprisingly, usually present the officially acceptable version of social events. Self-censorship among journalists and editors is well-known, and consequently public debate does not really take place in the newspapers or on TV. In that context, the new media with their capability of user generated content provides opportunities for expression of beliefs and values that would previously have remained in the private sphere. To be sure, political blogs bring something new into the public sphere.

What is the role of political blogs in China?
This case study introduces the phenomenon of political blogs through one particular example, namely the blogger Han Han2. His blog has been the most debated political blog in China, and it serves as an extreme case which in the clearest possible way
brings out the new political dynamics. The blogpost printed below can serve as a basis for
discussing the role of political blogging in politics and more specifically if it can be used for
In the “blogosphere” one of the superstars is the mentioned blogger Han Han (韩寒) who was born in 1982. He is first and foremost an author and also a race car driver. He dropped out of high school to pursue a career as writer, and before he started blogging he had already gained fame through his books. His blog is called Twocold and can be found on the Sina-website in the Culture section. It is an extremely popular blog with more than 481 million visits (as of June 2011). The name of the blog refers to his name Han which means “cold”. As the sound is repeated in his name (Hán Hán) it sounds like cold pronounced twice – hence Twocold. Normally, for any single of his blog entries there will be around one million hits and 10-20,000 comments. It is possible for other blogs to present such numbers at special occasions but not for every posting, and so the blog has further
fuelled his celebrity status in China. Even so, he has chosen not to participate in public or media events apart from writing his own blog. Still, this does not stop the tabloid newspapers and magazines from writing about him much in the same way as about any pop-star. In addition to the blog, Han Han has opened his own web-shop, where he sells signed copies of his books. He also edited a magazine called Soloist Ensemble (独唱团) which was only published in one volume and then then authorities put so much pressure on him that the second volume was cancelled.

On the blog he debates many different things such as literature, movies, car racing, and the list continues. There is no topic too big or small to be discussed, but they have a thing in common namely that they somehow address social issues of China today. His initial debates were on the role of literature in society in which he launched fierce and sometimes personal attacks against other writers. In the last few years he has been commenting on just about each and every major social topic. His language resembles spoken language, and often it is ripe with imagery such as when he likens government buildings to prostitutes because of their instantly recognisable style. This brings up another reason for its popularity: There is a strong element of criticism of the political system in his writing.

Han Han’s blog makes political statements which go further than is usually accepted by the
authorities. He questions the fundamental principles of the Communist party-state, the legitimacy of their rule, and the role of citizens. The authorities have a hard time, because the number of followers makes it very difficult to shut his blog down. The fear is that it would create large protests, an unpleasant thing for a government which is generally very concerned with its public image. Han Han’s posts are sometimes initially posted with very critical content, and will hence be ordered removed. In spite of that, before the police orders the original post removed it has already been copied to several other locations and multiply in a way that makes it practically impossible for the censors to do anything about it.

Often, bloggers’ importance are measured by the number of visits or comments, and in Han Han’s case it is obvious that a lot of people regularly read his blog posts. Even so, as is well-known from user produced content websites, the quality of the comments is varying. Let us take the Shame on  Baidu blogpost as a concrete example. This blogpost has 10,127 responses (12 June 2011). The first comments read like this:
Sina Mobile User 2011-03-25 15:28:12:
Go Han Han!!!!!!
56606632 2011-03-25 15:28:19:
No. 1?
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
Political blogs in China: the case of Han Han
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
If Not Clean Don’t Disturb 2011-03-25 15:28:33:
Invasion of red fruit
Musangma Yeye 2011-03-25 15:28:42:
(A cartoon image of a rabbit)
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
So fast, wow!
Radius_Ukiyo 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:53:

The first many pages of comments continue in this vein with a number of people commenting on the feeling of being close to Han Han, simply because they post their comment shortly after the original posting. After some time a number of comments get more substantial in relation to the discussion, but the quality of the “debate in the public sphere” can be questioned. Nevertheless, the impact of the blog is only partly to be found in the comments on the blog itself. Equally important is that people read it and take up some of the points in other connections, e.g. on their own blogs. They are inspired by Han Han’s clear and easily understandable statements. Copying, posting links to his blog, using his phrases are all examples of ways his ideas are taken up by “netizens” and through them shape the public discourse. And this is important to notice, because government is to
an increasing extent using netizens’ opinions as a gauge on public opinion.
In conclusion, Han Han’s blog is an illustration of how the Internet has facilitated pluralism in society. This also includes a broadening of the scope and depth of political issues which can be discussed. Through the Internet, bloggers like Han Han gain a medium which can provide them with a very broad base of followers who can make it difficult for government to entirely shut them down. On the other hand, even though Han Han’s blog is often edited by authorities, it is not censored beforehand which means that some of his critical messages and ideas escape to cyberspace before the censors manage to react.
1 The term “blog” comes from web-log and refers to an online chronological publication of thoughts and web-links.
2 Biographical information based on: http://baike.baidu.com/view/5972.htm
Han Han’s blog: blog.sina.com.cn/twocold