What next for the KMT?

A calamitous performance in Saturday’s local elections confirmed 2014 as an annus horribilis for the Kuomintang (KMT) and its Chairman Ma Ying-jeou. The embattled Ma signaled on Tuesday that he is ready to give in to calls to relinquish his chairmanship of the party. Many of his lieutenants have already beaten him to the exit. Ma has just over a year remaining until he is constitutionally obliged to stand down as president and many colleagues and supporters are counting down the days until he leaves office, taking (they hope) his toxic approval ratings with him. Hamstrung by widespread opposition to economic policies that have not yielded promised results and predicated on rapprochement with China that has moved too far and too quickly for most Taiwanese, the prospects for Ma’s policy agenda are dim. The salient question for the remainder of Ma’s tenure is this: how much damage will he inflict on the KMT’s chances of rebounding in national elections scheduled for early 2016?

However, in their enthusiasm to rationalize their performance in the “9-in-1” elections – the first time that nine different elections at local levels were combined into a single voting day – Ma’s colleagues would do well to look beyond scapegoating the outgoing president. The fact is the KMT’s woes run deeper than the unpopular president. With its gerontocracy and princelings, the party has lost touch with the electorate, neglecting its changing demographics and preoccupations. The extent of their estrangement should have been clear in the spring, when two years of large-scale popular protests culminated in students occupying the legislature for three weeks. Inexplicably, the party that had once skillfully adapted from authoritarian rule to democratic competition failed to heed the warnings. Even as changes in Taiwanese society became increasingly obvious, the KMT clung to its traditional electoral playbook of using vastly superior financial resources to run negative campaigns and leveraging long nurtured local networks. Although these tactics have worked well in the past, they failed to connect with voters in a rapidly changing post-Sunflower era. This is particularly true of younger voters who are the most alienated of all thanks to stagnant wages, poor job prospects and rising property costs.

Continue reading here.

Taiwan’s election shock

It is normal practice for Taiwan, but it bears repeating. At a time when students and activists in Hong Kong are fighting for the right to some semblance of democratic competition, millions of Taiwanese participated in a democratic exercise unprecedented in scale on Saturday. The “nine-in-one” island-wide local elections that saw over 11,000 public offices up for grabs went off smoothly and without the merest hint of violence.

The only barricades and barbed wire on show in Taiwan on Saturday were outside Kuomintang headquarters, in anticipation of a backlash from the party’s own supporters. The last time the KMT performed so poorly – Lien Chan’s feeble third place in the 2000 presidential election – supporters surrounded the building demanding that heads roll. As the final results came in on a day of historic losses for the ruling party, President Ma Ying-jeou led top KMT figures in apologising.

Before the dust had settled on a mid-term massacre as humbling as the one suffered by US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party three weeks earlier, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and KMT secretary general Tseng Yung-chuan had fallen on their swords. Later, Ma said he would relinquish his position as KMT chairman. With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for just over a year’s time, KMT politicians and supporters are counting the days until the toxic Ma will be constitutionally obliged to stand down after his two terms as president.

The full piece is available here.

Taiwan’s elections

Taiwan will conduct a huge democratic exercise on Saturday 29, the 9-in-1 local elections for some 11000 public offices, including six special municipalities. Unfortunately I have been so busy with teaching and preparing to examine two PhD theses, that I ran out of time to write a piece before the elections take place. At least I managed to share some thoughts with Austin Ramzy for his report for the New York Times.

On the other hand, there is already such an abundance of excellent analysis from a variety of angles, that my missing .02 will not be noticed. As usual, the blogs of Michael Turton, Ben Goren and Michael Cole have pretty much everything covered. And the CPI blog that I edit has the views of more than a dozen Taiwan specialists (including heavy hitters like Shelley Rigger, Dafydd Fell and John Keane).

On Twitter, there are a number of people to look out for, including: @austinramzy @JMichaelCole1 @michaelturton @ehundman @bangaoren @michalthim @focustaiwan and @jonlsullivan. Polls close at 4pm in Taiwan (that’s 8am UK time) and counts will start coming soon thereafter, although actual results might not be known until late in the evening. You can follow the counts live here (Many thanks to Ben for sharing this link with me).

China Scholars Twitterati 100

Welcome to the China Scholars Twitterati 100, 2014 edition. The following annotated list is an expanded and all-new version of the inaugural list published here last year. My goal with the list this year is to bring attention to some of the scholarly experts active on Twitter who may be less well-known than superstars like @jwassers, @fravel and @LetaHong. Therefore the 2014 edition does not include anyone from last year. It’s nothing personal—and if you haven’t seen last year’s selection please do so.

To be included on the list, people had to be currently employed at a University in a research and/or teaching role (this excludes recovering academics, policy analysts at think tanks, and collectives) and to have academic publications on China (and/or Taiwan). Tweeting activity had to reach a certain threshold in terms of number of tweets and consistency/recency. Following me was NOT a criterion for inclusion on this list. This edition includes an expanded section for PhD students working on China—some of whom are extremely impressive intellectually, and active tweeters.

The list is not exhaustive, due to the fallibility of my search methods and obscure/missing/untraceable bios. The gender split is around 60:40 male/female. This might just be a reflection of who is on Twitter, but if you know of more women China scholars on Twitter (who have an academic position, are not employed primarily in a think tank, were not included on the list last year, have more than 100 tweets with ‘recent’ activity) let me know @jonlsullivan.

Stephen McDowall @TheRealMcDowall is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh, and a cultural historian of late-imperial China

Rya Butterfield @RyaButterfield is Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University, working on Chinese and western rhetoric and political theory.

Gerald Roche @GJosephRoche is an anthropologist at Uppsala University working on endangered languages in Tibet. He is the Editor of Asian Highlands Perspectives.

Mark Elliott @Mark_C_Elliott is Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History and Director of the Fairbank Center, at Harvard University. Expert on the Qing,

Sara Hsu @SaraHsuChina is Assistant Professor of Economics at SUNY, New Paltz and an expert on Chinese economic development.

Brian DeMare @BrianDeMare is an historian of modern China at Tulane University. His new book on Mao’s Cultural Army is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press

Winnie King  @DrWinnieKing is currently a teaching fellow at the University of Bristol, and specializes in Chinese political economy.

Bryan W. Van Norden  @BryanVanNorden is a Professor at Vassar College, specialising in Chinese religions and author of Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Ellen Wu @ellendwu is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University. Expert on experience and identity of Chinese/Asian Americans

Ryan Dunch @DunchinYEG is Professor of Chinese history at University of Alberta (more tweets focused on higher ed than China)

Peter Dutton @peter_dutton is Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, tweets on Chinese and Asian security.

Yanzhong Huang @YanzhongHuang is Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall. Expertise and tweets on Chinese health

Paula S. Harrell @psharrell3 is an historian specialising in China and Japan at Georgetown University

Willy Sier @WillySier is a researcher at the Institute for Social Science, University of Amsterdam. She specializes in contemporary migration issues in China.

Jocelyn Chatterton @Chatt236 is a Lecturer in Chinese history at SOAS specializing in Ming/Qing textiles and eunuchs.

David Brophy @Dave_Brophy is a Lecturer in History at Sydney University specialising in the social and political history of China’s northwest, especially Xinjiang

Ira Belkin @IraBelkin is Executive Director of the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU Law School. Expertise and tweets on rule of law & criminal justice in China

Karla Simon @KarlaWSimon is affiliated with the NYU US-Asia Law Institute and author of Civil Society in China (OUP)

Mike Gow @mikeygow is a postdoc at NYU Shanghai, researching and tweeting on the role of Higher Education in the Chinese development model

Dan Chen @dorischen is Assistant Professor at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Expertise in Chinese media and politics

Pär Cassel @ParCassel is Associate Professor in Chinese History at the University of Michigan. Expert on late imperial and modern China.

Anita Huang @HLaoshi is Assistant professor of Chinese & linguistics at Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama.

John Wagner Givens @JWagnerGivens is a Postdoc at the University of Louisville Center for Asian Democracy. Tweets on Chinese law, politics and society

Carla Nappi @CarlaNappi is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, and an expert on the history of science and medicine in the Ming-Qing

Enze Han @EnzeHan is Senior Lecturer  at SOAS and an expert on ethnic politics in China and China’s relations with Southeast Asia

Malcolm Davis @Dr_M_Davis is Assistant Professor at Bond University in Queensland. Research and tweets on China’s major power relations and military.

Hilde De Weerdt @hild_de is Professor of Chinese History at the University of Leiden, and a specialist in Chinese and comparative history and digital research methods

Amy Jane Barnes @AmyJaneBarnes is currently based at the School of Management, University of Leicester, with expertise in Chinese history and museum studies.

Carl Minzner @CarlMinzner is Professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham Law School and an expert on law and governance in China

Xiaoyu Pu @pu_xiaoyu is Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, specializing in China’s foreign relations and rising powers in IR

Anne Sytske Keijser @KeijserA is a Lecturer in the Chinese Studies Programme at Leiden University. Expertise in Chinese film & literature

Scott Kennedy @ScottIU is Director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business at Indiana University.

Chen Dingding @ChenDingding is Assistant Professor of Government at the University of Macau, with interests in Chinese foreign policy and security

Keith Dede @KeithDede is Associate Professor of Chinese at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon

John McNeil Scott @McNeilScott is Chaplain and researcher with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the LSE

Amy King @amysarahking is Lecturer in the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at ANU. Expert on China-Japan relations and Asia-Pacific security

David Tobin @ReasonablyRagin Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow with expertise and tweets on China and Japan relations and Asian security

Andrew Quintman @AndrewQuintman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and an authority on Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayan region

Gary Rawnsley @GDRaber is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and an expert on China and Taiwan’s public diplomacy

Matt Ferchen @MattFerchen is Associate Professor in IR at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Research on Chinese development & China-Latin America relations

Jennifer Hsu @jennifer_hsu Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on Chinese development

Thomas Jansen @Jansen_Lampeter is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at Trinity St David, University of Wales, specialising in early medieval China and Chinese religions

Zachary Scarlett @TheCrimsonEarth is Assistant professor of Chinese history at Butler University, Indiana, specialising in politics and culture and radical political movements

Robert Barnett @RobbieBarnett is Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. Expert on Tibet

Lily Wong @lilyw0817 is Assistant professor of Literature at American University, with interests in East Asian Cultural Studies film and media

Scott Simon @ssimon_chelsea is an anthropologist at the University of Ottawa specializing in the political ecology of Taiwan

Alison Marshall @Marshallalisonr is an historian at Brandon University, Canada. Researching Chinese Canadian history, gender and religion

Joanna Lewis @JoannaILewis is Associate Professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University. Expert on climate change and clean energy in China.

Stephen Morgan @SimaHui1 is Professor and Dean of Social Sciences at University of Nottingham, Ningbo campus. Business historian of China

Stéphane Corcuff @stephanecorcuff is Professor at Sciences-Po Lyon and Director of the Centre d’Etudes Français sur la Chine Contemporaine, based in Taiwan. Expert on Taiwanese politics and society.

Jack Qiu @jacklqiu is Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, working on the Chinese internet.

Jon Taylor @USTPoliSciProf is Professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Expertise in Chinese and U.S. public administration and policy

Miwa Hirono @MiwaYang is Lecturer in Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham researching China’s foreign relations and foreign policy behaviour.

Mark Feldman @MFeldman97 is Associate Professor in the School of Transnational Law at Peking University. Expertise in Chinese and Asian law

Hyun Shin @urbancommune is Associate Professor in Geography at the LSE, specialising in comparative urban studies and urbanization in China

Tong Lam @tong_lam is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto and an expert on Chinese visual culture and technology

Maggie Greene @mcgreenesd is Assistant Professor of History at Montana State with interests in modern Chinese history

Sam van Schaik @sam_vanschaik researches the history of Buddhism, Tibet and the Silk Road, and is a member of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project

Markus Eberhardt @MEDevEcon is Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Nottingham. Expertise and tweets in empirical development economics

Silvia Lindtner @yunnia is Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan researching cultures of technology production and use in China

Pradeep Taneja @kyakarraheho is based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, with interests in the politics and international relations of China and India.

Fan Yang @FanfanYang is Assistant Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland. She has particular interests in the media and visual culture in contemporary China

Marcella Szablewicz @MSzabs is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, New York, working on the Chinese Internet and Digital Media

Eric Shepherd @erictshepherd is Associate Professor of Chinese  and storyteller   at the University of South Florida.

Cameron Campbell @campbell_kang is Professor at UCLA currently based at HKUST. Expertise in population and the family in China

James Leibold @jleibold is Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, where he researches ethnic relations and ethnic policy in China, with particular interest in Xinjiang

Aynne Kokas @shotinshanghai is a Fellow in Chinese Media at the Baker Institute at Rice University

Carole McGranahan @CMcGranahan is Professor of Anthropology and historian of Tibet at the University of Colorado. Expert on Tibet and the Tibetan Diaspora

Paul Gillis @ProfGillis is Professor of Practice at the Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. He also runs the China Accounting Blog

Maggie Clinton @maggieclinton is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College with expertise on modern china

Kingsley Edney @KingsleyEdney is Lecturer in the Politics and International Relations of China at the University of Leeds.

Christian Schmidkonz @ChinaFFWD is Professor at Munich Business School, with interests in the economy of China and Taiwan

Christopher Twomey @ctwomey68 is Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, researching Sino-US relations and Asian security

Scott Galer @scottgaler is Associate Professor of Chinese at Brigham Young University, Idaho.

Randy Kluver @rkluver is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M. Media, digital and international communications with a China focus.

Cara Wallis @carawallis is Assistant Professor at Texas A&M, researching the social and cultural implications of new media technologies in China.

Corey Wallace @CoreyJWallace is a Lecturer at the University of Auckland, specialising in China- Japan relations and East Asian IR/security

Natasha Heller @nheller is Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions at UCLA. Expert in Chinese Buddhism and its interaction with the intellectual history of the Song, Yuan and Ming

John Ross @JohnRoss43 is Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University. Interests in China’s economy and

Scott Gregory @ScottGreg is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, working on late imperial Chinese literature

Katrien Jacobs @katrien_jacobs is Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Interests in media and sexual politics.

Eileen Chengyin Chow @chowleen is Visiting Associate Professor in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke, with interests in film, literature and Chinatowns

Vincent Leung @vshleung is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh and historian of Early China

Walter Hutchens @prof_hutchens  is Global Business Chair at the University of Redlands in California, with interests in China’s legal and financial systems

China Studies Grad Students

Nicole Talmacs @nikitalmacs  is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney, with a focus on Chinese cinema

Kacie Miura @kaciemiura  is a PhD student in Political Science at MIT studying China’s foreign policy

Chelsea Zi Wang @chelseazw is a PhD student at Columbia University researching information management in pre-modern China

Christian Straube @touminghua is a PhD student in Anthropology working on China in the African Copperbelt

Devin Fitzgerald @DevinFitzger is a Doctoral Student in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University

Polis Lo @thinkingpolis is a PhD Student at the University of Melbourne focusing on China and international affairs

Josepha Richard @GardensOfChina  is a PhD Student in the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield researching gardens in China

Eric T. Schluessel @EricTSchluessel is a Doctoral student in Chinese and Inner Asian history at Harvard University.

Robert W. Cole @RobtWCole is a PhD candidate in 20th century Chinese cultural-intellectual history at New York University

Pete Millwood @petemillwood is a PhD student in History at the LSE.

Greg Fenton @thegregfenton is a PhD student at University of Guelph working on Asian North American literary and cultural studies.

Jennifer Pan @jenjpan is a PhD student at Harvard and author with Gary King and Molly Roberts of papers in Science and the APSR on censorship on the Chinese internet.

Alessandro Rippa @AlessandroRippa is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Aberdeen University. Research on China, Xinjiang and Pakistan.

Michael Turton @michaelturton is a PhD candidate and teaches at Chang Gung University in Taiwan. He also runs the best English language blog on Taiwan, The View from Taiwan

Benjamin Coulson @benjcoulson is a PhD student at Newcastle Univeristy working on genealogies of China in the US imagination

Verity Robins @verity_robins is PhD Candidate at Oxford University working on Chinese politics & IR.

J B Bird @JBBird33 is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney. Working on North-West China, human rights and ethnic minorities

Julia Famularo @Julia_Famularo is ABD in History at Georgetown University. Researching Xinjiang, Tibet and human rights, Taiwan and identity

Geoffrey C. Chen @geoffreycchen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bath working on Chinese politics and environmental governance

Eric Hundman @ehundman is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, with interests in China and Taiwan.

30 (more) new books on my Contemporary China reading list

books

Its that time of year again: Crisp mornings, football on TV and a growing buzz on campus as more and more students return for class. Preparing syllabi, reading lists and otherwise getting geared up for a new semester’s classes is one of my favorite recurring tasks. In the autumn semester I teach a freshman module (c. 200 students), entitled Introduction to Contemporary China. It is a wonderful and challenging class: For one thing about half the students have rudimentary to zero previous exposure to teaching on China, while another half were born and raised in the country. The quest to get the pitch right, and to keep up with all the fantastic work being done in China Studies, requires a lot reading over the summer. My extended reading list this semester comprises about 350 titles, split evenly between books and journal articles. Online sources form a separate (long) list. Last year I listed 30 recent books. Those books are still very much in the rotation, indeed some are core assigned texts. Below I list a further 30 that I have newly added for this semester with links to Amazon and author Twitter handles where applicable. Most were published in the last year or two, with a couple of recently remembered golden oldies thrown in. The challenge with this freshman module, which covers a huge amount of ground from the economy and domestic politics to foreign relations and civil society, was to choose texts on the basis of excellence, accessibility, balance, recency and ‘pep’. Thoughts via Twitter @jonlsullivan.

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2013) by @jwassers with @mauracunningham

Intimate Politics: Marriage, the Market, and State Power in Southeastern China (Harvard 2006) by Sara Friedman

The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (Tauris, 2014) by @Bkerrychina

Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and the Politics of Labor in China (Princeton 2007) by Mary Gallagher

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (Knopf, 2014) by @hofrench. My review is here

China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard 2008) by Minxin Pei

The People’s Republic of Amnesia (Oxford, 2014) by @limlouisa

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine (Penguin, 2013) by Yang Jisheng

Gifts, Favours, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China (Cornell 1994) by Mayfair Yang

Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail (Stanford, 2009) by Cai Yongshun

Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and Governance (Stanford 2006) by @Dali_Yang

From Mao to Market: Rent Seeking, Local Protectionism, and Marketization in China (Cambridge 2009) by Andrew Wedeman

The Industrialization of Rural China (Oxford 2007) by Chris Bramall (Editor of @chinaquarterly)

Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Cambridge, 2013) by Daniela Stockmann

On China (Penguin, 2012) by Henry Kissinger

Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford, 2014) by @jessicacweiss

The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (Routledge 2011) by Dennis Blasko

A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America (Wiley 2007) by @RichardBushIII 

Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman Littlefield, 2013) by Shelley Rigger

Northeast Asia’s Stunted Regionalism: Bilateral Distrust in the Shadow of Globalization (Cambridge 2004) by Gilbert Rozman

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed, 2014) by @LetaHong

Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China (Oxford, 2014) by @jerometenk

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Random House, 2014) by @eosnos

Demystifying the Chinese Economy (Cambridge, 2011) by Justin Yifan Lin

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (Columbia, 2010) by Gardner Bovingdon

Tibet: A History (Yale, 2013) by @sam_vanschaik

This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Blogger (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Han Han. My review here

Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones (NYU, 2013) by @carawallis. My review here

By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World (Oxford, 2014) by @LizEconomy and @levi_m

Shadow of the Silk Road (Vintage, 2007) by Colin Thubron

Taiwan’s Identity Crisis

I have an essay in The National Interest today on the “disappearance” of Taiwan identity. In fact Taiwan identity hasn’t disappeared at all: it is a powerful latent force in Taiwanese politics that to some extent has been superseded by an economic cleavage into which it also feeds. It is a complicated situation, particularly for the DPP, and how the parties attend to it will have a big effect on their electoral chances and the extent to which the coming period will break from the Ma era. Michael Turton and Ben Goren have some thoughtful immediate reactions (including pointing out lacuna) to the piece.   

Han Han: This Generation

It is somewhat disconcerting to read a blogger’s work, post after post, covering a span of several years. Blog posts are usually written in response to something that has just happened and it is the immediacy that gives them a sense of urgency and purpose. It is unfair to hold a blogger, whose currency is on-the-spot reaction, to the test of time, where the perspective of hindsight often trumps timeliness. To Han’s credit, the posts collected in This Generation (a small proportion of the hundreds of posts Han made in the period) hold up remarkably well. Some of this is down to editorial and authorial selection—most of the pieces have been drawn from a collection published in Chinese (in Taipei) in 2010 (Qingchun). Although some famous pieces are absent (for instance critiques of Chen Kaige, Bai Ye and Robin Li), as a representation of Han’s blogging oeuvre, This Generation is a useful collection for readers in English, especially for those coming to Han for the first time. Organized chronologically, the collection gives a strong sense of Han’s preoccupations and his changing personality over time. Notably, as he discusses in Talking About Democracy (Dec 24 2011) it is a period in which he has become increasingly “realistic”, losing much of his previous idealism and refocusing his expectations and exhortations on the Chinese people as well as criticizing the Party-State.

Thanks to a generous helping of international media curiosity, Han’s story is fairly well-known in the west. Born to lower middle class parents in the-then semi-rural outskirts of Shanghai, he left school at 17 after winning a national essay competition with a piece on the Chinese character (杯中窥人). The paradox of a high school dropout with a precocious literary talent (and a chip on his shoulder) generated controversy and the all-important “buzz.” The decision to focus his efforts on writing paid spectacular dividends, with his first novel (三重门), a tale of teenage romance amid the pressures of Chinese high school life, becoming a bestseller. Born in 1982, Han has, according to the blurb and foreword, come to represent China’s post-80s reform era generation. His brand of individualism certainly struck a nerve as the only-child/economic boom generation came of age, both among those attracted by his urban iconoclasm and the discomfort of their parents’ generation who had known a vastly different China of political upheaval and economic hardship. The scolding didacticism of some of Han’s critics (famously including the literary critic Bai Ye (白烨)), was a very visible manifestation of China’s growing generation gap. The post-80s generation suffered sustained attacks in the Chinese media for much of the last decade, criticised for the rebelliousness, cynicism and self-centredness manifest in Han’s trenchant writings and impatience with older norms. The literary establishment snootily said that Han and his ilk were hooligans writing worthless pop-fiction—Han responded that the literary establishment was a piece of shit, and watched his popularity soar.

Han’s novels and since 2006 his blog, have generated an extraordinarily large audience, by most accounts in the hundreds of millions, leading to the international recognition that concretized his reputation still further. His blog writings are critical, sarcastic, straightforward, observant, patriotic, detached, self-deprecating and often funny. They generally take current events and observations as their stimuli and focus, which acts as a springboard for broader social commentary, including much critique of the party and state. Via his blog, Han has evolved from a popular author with the trappings of the young pop star or movie idol (偶像), to become a serious critical social commentator. Han has been able to sustain his open critique of the party-state because he plays the give-and-take game more adroitly than Ai Weiwei, for instance, whose criticism and mobilization efforts leave little room for manoeuvre. Han is candid about this. In the post Talking Freely Wine in Hand (May 7 2010), he compares the interview styles of Chinese and foreign journalists. Noting that foreign reporters’ questions are more direct he writes “to answer that question would exact too high a price, one that’s not worth paying, at least not now.” Ironically, he continues “I tend to be more expansive with Chinese journalists because they will self-censor and nothing that gets into the paper will be problematic”. From the vantage point of a western democracy where freedom of speech is taken for granted it is facile to criticize the compromises needed to work within the prevailing information order and dismiss it as self-censorship.

Although Han has had some posts taken down by the censors, what remains can be highly critical, even on what one would imagine to be ‘sensitive’ topics. In Letters from Strangers (April 4 2010) for instance, he writes: “the letters and visits office is the only resource for most people who have been treated unjustly [but] in a country where the judiciary has no independence how can you expect another branch of government to come to your defence? Petitioning for redress not only gets [people] nowhere, but actually amounts to putting their own names on the blacklist.” In Youth (May 28 2010), Han asks “why have our politicians been able to pump up their chests ion the world political stage? It is because of you, China’s cheap labour: you are China’s gambling chips, hostages to GDP.” In Just Testing (15 Jan 2000) he reports tongue-in-cheek that “Shanghai’s bulldozers are pressing forward with urban construction at the rate of practically one crushed person a day”.

Han often wraps his criticism in ‘rational patriotism’—a fundamental desire to improve the country—while frequently lampooning the ironies of Chinese nationalism. Throughout This Generation there are references to the paradox of nationalism in the context of China’s rise: the curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity, simultaneous complexes of superiority and inferiority. He writes in Market Day for Patriots (April 20 2008), just a few months before the spectacular Beijing Olympics would wow a global audience: “Why is our national self-respect so fragile and superficial?” He was writing on the occasion of protests against French supermarket chain, Carrefour, the unfortunate scapegoat for the patriotic fury that erupted when pro-Tibet activists disrupted the progress of the Olympic Torch as it passed through Paris. Why should the world’s great rising power, with a much vaunted 5000 year civilization, feel so defamed as to seek to punish the blameless purveyor of (mainly Chinese) food and goods? In Insults to China (Aug 11 2007) he identifies another symptom: “We Chinese people have very thin skins. We respond very poorly to any kind of unfavourable opinion.” The causes of popular nationalism are not deeply probed, but the irony of patriotic protests (specifically the anti-Japan feeling with which patriotism is worryingly becoming synonymous) is neatly encapsulated in the post Should We or Shouldn’t We? (Sept 19 2010). Around the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the pretext Imperial Japan concocted to invade Manchuria, Han recounts how he and his friends discussed whether or not to go onto the streets seeing that the government had allowed people to join the anti-Japan protests without consequence. In fact Han and his friends had no desire to protest against Japan, but simply felt: “Finally, in a nation where in many chat rooms it is impossible even to type the word demonstrate, we are free to demonstrate.”

Although Han has been a trenchant critic of the party-state, over time—dare I say, as he ages?—some of his arguments have become more ‘conventional’. The post Speaking of Revolution (Dec 23 2011) provides one such example. Here Han argues that the best time for a revolution in China is “when everyone knows to dim their headlights when they pass another car on the road. But a country like that doesn’t actually need a revolution at all. When the people’s personal calibre and education level reaches that point, everything will just happen automatically.” Wittingly or not, this argument invokes several tropes supporting the continuation of the status quo—Putting the onus on Chinese people to change (with the promise that everything will be ok if they do), rather than prompting the Party to reform. The need for the Chinese people to raise the level of their civilization (文明), suggesting that they are as yet insufficiently civilized to enjoy anything other than authoritarian rule, is an argument that stakeholders of the status quo including the Chinese Communist Party and the proponents of Asian Values and the alleged incompatibility of Confucian heritage and democracy, might put forward. This interpretation may be unfair, but Han’s pessimism towards the Chinese people has certainly increased over time. Instead of prompting questions about political change, he argues, “villagers’ resentment of authoritarian government and corruption [merely makes them ask] why can’t I or my family have what officials have?” Writing toward the end of the excessive Hu era, Han argued that narrow self-interest had come to define both the Party and the people, noting that “once a party reaches a certain scale it takes on the character of the people […] it can’t be thought of simply as a political party or a ruling elite. A lot of the time the Party’s shortcomings are the people’s shortcomings”.

Han’s fame and fortune have brought the curse of excessive adulation, envy and hatred. His activities have earned him a passionate and loyal following, and a comfortable lifestyle in a desirable city. He has also been attacked from various sides; conservatives affronted by his liberalism and ‘hot’ nationalists unwilling to listen to reason. Controversies follow him; rumours about ghost-written works refuse to go away. Han is an important figure in the study of contemporary Chinese society and the Chinese internet, but to sum up his views as manifest in This Generation, I would call it an ideology of reasonableness. It does not denigrate Han—not in a country that routinely jails people for their views—to say that his position on many issues is to advocate careful open-mindedness. This may sound like a recipe for platitudinizing, but it says much about the state of politics, society and public discourse in China that Han’s musings have gained such a following.