Han Han flashes a boyish, disarming grin. A successful racing car driver with a posse of female fans and a clutch of sponsorship deals, he is pop-idol handsome, more than financially solvent and, apparently, unburdened by his fame. He has a lovely young wife and the sweetest of little daughters. Oh, and he’s also a best-selling novelist, and the world’s most popular blogger, admired for his use of wit and subtle allusion in a game of cat-and-mouse with China’s censors.
Given his wild popularity and varied accomplishments by the age of 29, I had imagined a surly and elliptical character, vanity mixed with arrogance, but the man sitting opposite me in Yi Shu Jia can ting (the Artists Restaurant) is quietly spoken, if thoroughly self-assured, with well thought-out ideas relayed in breezy, almost playful, language. At one point, explaining the deadening effect of Chinese education, he reaches for his wooden chopsticks. “The education system tries to create homogenous personalities, just like making chopsticks,” he says, squaring the said items upright against the tabletop. “For chopsticks to work properly, you have to make them all exactly the same length.”
Han’s writing career began almost 13 years ago when he dropped out of school in the suburban village outside Shanghai where he was brought up. His parents worked for the government: his mother as a welfare officer, and his father, a frustrated fiction writer whose pen name was Han Han, at the local party newspaper. Something must have rubbed off. Instead of studying, Han chose to write about his hatred of school and about young love. “It was almost exactly about my life at that time,” he says. The novel that resulted, Triple Door, went on to sell 2m copies, making Han instantly famous.
Though more novels have followed, mostly about girls and cars, Han’s life took a different turn when, in 2006, he started blogging about censorship, land grabs, corrupt party officials, poisonous factories and the poor left behind by China’s economic growth. His online diary quickly became the best-read blog in an internet-frenzied country: so far it has had more than half a billion visitors, making him China’s most famous blogger. So fanatical is his following that, according to a profile in the New Yorker last summer, when he opened a personal account on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he attracted three-quarters of a million followers – not bad considering the only thing he had typed was “Wei”, the word Chinese people use when answering the telephone.
We have arranged to meet in the grey south-western suburbs of Shanghai, in the Songjiang District where Han lives. He apologises for not meeting in the city, but he has to test-drive a car for a race that will take place the following week. His racing career began when he started buying sports cars with the money he earned from his novels. (After our lunch, his co-driver, Sun Qiang, drives me to Pudong airport at speeds that would not disgrace Lewis Hamilton.)
The restaurant, elaborately decorated with a mix of Chinese and faux western art, is newly opened. I am shown into a private room with a round table and squeaky red chairs, just minutes before Han and his wife, Lily, arrive. He is dressed in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, slim-fitting grey trousers and black boots. He has a mop of hair and a flickering smile. He places three mobile phones on the table. Only rarely does the trio sit silent. The restaurant is sparing with the heating, so Han keeps his leather jacket on throughout. While Lily steps outside to order food, I ask him to start by sketching out the limits of free speech in today’s China.
“Though we don’t have 100 per cent freedom in writing, we do have a better writing environment than many westerners imagine,” he says. His Chinese is delivered in a fluid, rhythmic style, with liberal use of repetition for emphasis: “We do have freedom of writing and we do have freedom of expression.” Then the punchline. “However, the government also has the freedom to delete what we have written.”
The first dish arrives, a cold, white paste that I can’t identify, and a large jug of orange juice. The dish is placed on the lazy Susan and we spin it around the table, each taking a portion. Han is saying that, in the pre-internet age, controversial material was simply not published. “Now you can write anything you want,” he says. “So long as you are not afraid.” As for what may offend the censors, it really depends on their mood. “If that person has had a good lunch today, maybe they’ll allow you more freedom. But if tomorrow they’re in a bad mood, or their love life is in a mess, they may impose more restrictions.”
Some more food arrives, spicy squid with willow mushrooms. I ask if he’s playing a game with the censors, testing what’s possible. “To me it’s not exactly a game,” he replies, adding that neither the government, nor even his readers, are his first thought. “You should not write for readers only. You should not bend yourself to their tastes,” he says, handing one of the buzzing phones to Lily, who takes the call outside.
Many nationalists have attacked Han for a lack of patriotism. Others have suggested he’s not radical enough. He uses ambiguity to evade critics and censors alike, though in February he threatened to sue someone who accused him of employing ghostwriters. “For any type of struggle, I think the most important thing, if you want to continue the struggle, is to protect yourself,” he says. This circumspect approach was illustrated in 2010, when the imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Han posted a blog consisting solely of a pair of quotation marks, the typographic equivalent of the empty chair placed at Oslo’s Nobel ceremony. The post drew 1.5m hits.
The food is coming thick and fast now. There are cubes of spicy beef with potatoes, and plump pink shrimp sautéed with green onion. After a while, the waitress brings in a salt-baked chicken, chopped Chinese-style – as if slaughtered with a machete on the plate. It is fabulous. As the food spins around the table, I venture a question about Bo Xilai, the rising political star suspended from the politburo, whose wife has been detained on suspicion of murdering a British businessman. Bo’s downfall is considered to be one of China’s biggest political crises since Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“For me, for many of us here, we don’t really know what has happened with Bo Xilai, because the government is not transparent and the only information we have is based on state media,” he says, eventually. “Nobody knows, not even his son.”
Of course, I haven’t a clue either. Yet it seems to me, I say, that Bo’s main offence was to take his populist policies direct to the people – outside of the normal party mechanism. “Bo Xilai took too high a profile,” he replies. “There was another leader in Chinese history who led a people’s movement and that person was Mao Zedong. He, too, skipped over the party organisation and talked directly to the people. In that way, he launched the Cultural Revolution.
“Many Chinese intellectuals don’t really like Bo Xilai. They don’t like his way of doing things and fear that, if he ever came to power, it would be more difficult for people to express themselves freely.” Han, however, advises against jumping to conclusions. “The most important thing to remember is that, while the government has issued notices on the reasons why Bo Xilai was suspended, or about what his wife [is alleged to have] done, we don’t really know the truth.”
A big hot pot of tofu and seafood arrives. I return to the less delicate topic of Han’s early writing. “Sometimes when the teacher asked us to write only one piece I would write two,” he says, explaining his urge to write from a young age.
Much of what he was taught was propaganda, he says. “We were taught anti-Japanese sentiment. We learned from the textbooks that the Communist party was great, that it defeated the Japanese. But when we grew up, we found out it was actually the Guomindang who fought the war against the Japanese,” he says, referring to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. “So then you feel the gap between the textbooks and the truth.”
I ask about three essays – “On Revolution”, “On Freedom” and “On Democracy” – written in a mock dialogue form that Han posted in December and which many of his followers regard as a departure. Some felt let down by what they felt was Han’s overly gradualist approach. The artist Ai Weiwei said the ideas were too orthodox. More troubling for some, the essays won praise from the state-backed media, evidently relieved that China’s bad boy of letters was preaching reform, not revolution.
“I was frequently asked questions by my readers about revolution,” he says, picking up one of the remaining pieces of chicken with his chopsticks. “Basically, they were asking if I would initiate revolution in China. But I think my readers perceive China in too simplistic a way.”
In one essay, he implied it was too easy to blame the Communist party for all China’s ills. The party, after all, officially has 80m members. “I don’t mean we cannot attack the party. Why can’t we attack it? But everybody thinks the evil of the nation is caused by an institution when, in reality, everybody is an accomplice,” he says. “In the near future, it’s impossible to change the institution. So we need to change the people. And if we can change the people, then the party will change.”
Yet more food appears, this time a large dish of creamy white soup with chicken and cabbage. The Chinese never knowingly under-order. “If the people really want something, then they can get what they want in 20 years at most,” he says. “If they still can’t get what they want in 20 years, it means they didn’t want it badly enough.”
He’s been criticised by some readers and intellectuals for suggesting Chinese people aren’t fit for democracy. “I never said anything like that,” he says, adding that he did comment once on the case last autumn of Yueyue, a two-year-old girl left bleeding on the ground while 18 passers-by ignored her. “Indifference and selfishness have become a part of the Chinese national character,” he says. It’s possible, he explains, that the passers-by really didn’t notice Yueyue, who later died. “I believe their explanation, because if you are not careful enough, you may indeed miss the girl lying on the ground.” His point is that, in an uncaring society, misfortune becomes invisible.
If some things make him despair, is he also inspired? I wonder what he thought of the villagers of Wukan who last year organised their own elections after protesting against what they said was the illegal seizure of land. “In Wukan’s case, I see the light on the road to China’s future democracy,” he says more emphatically than I had expected. “My view is we can have elections in some cities first. I wrote a blog called ‘Let Elections Start for Some People,’” he says, a clever reference to Deng Xiaoping’s famous aphorism, “Let some people get rich first.” “I don’t expect China to have a general election tomorrow, but I do think we can have elections in some developed cities as a test.”
These do not sound like the musings of the intellectual lightweight some have made him out to be. On the other hand, admirers have compared him to Lu Xun (1881-1936), one of China’s most famous essayists. “I don’t like Lu Xun,” Han shoots back, the equivalent of a cocky young British playwright saying he doesn’t much care for Shakespeare. Still, I press, the comparison to such a towering figure must be daunting. “I am just a racing car driver,” he replies, flashing that smile. “A lot of people are trying to project their hopes on me. Those who think I’m good believe I’m so good. Those who think I’m bad believe I’m really terrible.”
Is he really not perturbed by the weight of so much attention? “I’m not bothered,” he shrugs. I ask if he thinks he has become more grounded since the birth of his daughter 17 months ago. “If anything, I have become more radical. Now I have more desire to push forward political reforms in this country.” Because he wants a better place for his daughter? “I want her to stay in China,” he says, taking a little block of the honey toast that has suddenly appeared on the crowded lazy Susan. “But my country right now is not good enough. So, even though I am a weak individual, the only thing I can do is to try to help make the country that I dream of.”
That provides me with the simplest of last questions. What kind of country would he like his daughter to grow up in? There’s an uncharacteristic pause. “There’s one simple answer,” he says, finally. “When you come to China to interview me again, we shouldn’t need to talk about politics, we shouldn’t need to talk about freedom of expression. Because those things will be a given. Instead, we’ll just talk about football and food and music – and movies.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Yi Shu Jia can ting
188 Puhui Road, Songjiang District, Shanghai
Indian aster Rmb26
Spicy squid with willow mushrooms 68
Tofu with seafood 42
Braised rice with seafood 38
Sautéed shrimp with green onions 68
Beef cubes with potato 68
Saltbaked chicken 48
Baby cabbage in chicken soup 22
Honey toast 26
Jug of orange juice x2 116
Total (including tax and service) Rmb560 (£56)
Jonathan Fenby on the power of China’s youth
The younger generation of Chinese for whom Han Han can claim to speak, at least in part, is a greater agent for change in the last major country run by a Communist party than the pro-democracy dissent the regime persecutes so relentlessly. They are central agents in the process of social change that is as important as the country’s economic and political evolution.
From writing on China over the past two decades, I have seen materialism come to supplant both communism and Confucianism as the driving force for the country’s 277m inhabitants aged between 20 and 35. As a young woman said, infamously, in 2010 on the television dating show If You Are The One, “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”
Their spending patterns, hunger for new products and readiness to pay high prices, have made them a major driver of China’s economy, and their importance will increase as the government seeks to increase domestic consumption and reduce reliance on fixed-asset investment and exports. They are central to the residential property market which, in turn, is central to China’s growth story. A poll by China Youth Daily showed that owning a home was the most important aim in life for 38 per cent of young adults.
Browsing in the luxury goods stores that line the street of big cities is a preoccupation for many. Now that Chinese can travel freely abroad, purchases are left until they get out of the country to avoid domestic luxury taxes running from 30 to 50 per cent – the China Youth Daily poll reported that 21 per cent of those questioned put a premium on trips abroad.
The younger generation has never known a protracted economic downturn. With rising living standards have come increased expectations. If the Communist party and the government fail to provide this, it could translate into political discontent from a big social group whose middle-class members have been generally well looked after by the regime, and thus willing to trade expanded individual liberties for acceptance of one-party rule.
At the same time, the second generation of migrant workers, numbering tens of millions, is less ready to put up with the long working hours, poor factory conditions and lack of access to welfare services that their parents accepted as the price of entering the global labour stream.
On top of all this is a cloud of cynicism that has produced a trust deficit between the party and its people. This wider reality was reflected a couple of years ago by a six-year-old girl who, asked for her aim in life, replied that she wanted to “become a corrupt official. Corrupt officials have a lot of good stuff.”
Jonathan Fenby, China director of the research service Trusted Sources, has just published ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today’