Time Magazine’s short listing of Han Han as potential “Most Influential Person of the Year” sparks controversy, raises questions

Popular Chinese writer, blogger, and race car driver Han Han has been short listed as one of the possible candidates for the top 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Right now there are 200 people on the list, and internet users are free to vote for, “leaders, artists, innovators and icons who you think merit spots on this year's list”.

Han Han’s nomination has caused controversy, and a backlash from many nationalistic voices. In my view, most of the nationalistic attacks against Han lack merit, and he is not at all out of place on such a list. However, although there’s nothing wrong about shining the spotlight on Han Han, it does leave arguably more influential people to languish in relative obscurity.

In the Shanghai Daily editorial “Han Han is not a Hero of Our Times”, Ni Tao opines that Han was chosen merely because he’s a “government critic”. Ni believes that Time magazine is out of date and doesn’t realize how much freedom of speech there is on the Chinese Internet these days, on websites like the state-sponsored “Strong Nation Forum” (强国论坛) for example. Furthermore, Ni argues that Time could have focused on people who are fighting real battles, not virtual ones. A woman who recently self-immolated in protest at a forced demolition −Tang Fuzhen – should be the focus of Time’s survey, he says.

A more vociferous attack on Han Han, Time magazine, and the “Western media” in general comes from (….wait for it…) the Global Times! Chen Chenchen asserts that Han’s influence with his fan base is still rather limited, when compared with China’s large population, most of which is still not online. But more to the point, Chen argues that the magazine is simply looking for a “rebellious dropout”, and that:

You won't find everyday representatives of Chinese virtue in Time's survey. Consider, for example, the mother from Central China's Hubei Province, who walked 10 kilometers a day for several months trying to improve the health of her liver so she could donate a portion of it to her ailing son. Though her story has touched the nation, she is nowhere to be found among the magazine's nominees.

Chen further demands that the “Western media should get to know ordinary Chinese to really understand China's merit and tradition. Merely searching online won't give them a complete picture of modern China.”

All of this debate brings up a few important points:

1) Contrary to Chen’s assertions, Time did profile “ordinary” people who represent Chinese virtue: the “Chinese Worker” was collectively chosen as the runner-up to the “Person of the Year” in 2009. Time said that Chinese workers were the main people who deserve the credit for ensuring that the Chinese economy was able to continue growing at eight percent in the midst of the economic crisis. Workers were not only given credit as a whole, but were profiled as individuals. Therefore, to assert that Time, not to mention the proverbial monolithic “Western Media”, has a bias against reporting about regular people is hardly credible in this case.

2) Both Ni and Chen, to some extent, think that the nomination is politically motivated because Han Han is often bold in his opposition to certain aspects of the government. And yet one may counter with the obvious question of: so what? If one browses the list, one can see many “opposition figures”, like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. Also, when nominating an influential member of government, whether Barack Obama or Bo Xilai, it’s only common journalistic norms that would call for at least nominating a worthy person from the opposition, or at least a person who might have diverging views, in China’s case.

3) Other political and social satirists are also on the list, like John Stewart and Conan O’Brien. Other icons are also on the list, such as Cristiano Rolanldo and Lady Gaga. That Han Han – a satirist and cultural icon − is on the list is hardly out of the ordinary practice.

4) Both Ni and Chen mention that populist Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and China’s main financial manager Vice-Premier Wang Qishan are on the list, but both fail to mention that dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo is also there. One can only doubt Ni’s claims about an increased space for freedom of speech when, presumably, his paper wouldn’t allow him to publish the name of a person who was imprisoned for eleven years for merely writing essays.

5) Although the Time list is diverse, its goal is not to measure if someone’s opinions are inherently correct, or whether the person produces ascetically pleasing art. The list certainly doesn’t try to determine whether a person is a “hero” – it’s trying to assess influence. As Xujun Eberline points out:
While I do view Han Han as "a hero of our times," such a view is subjective and not a basis for meaningful argument. The commentary’s author, however, confuses the more measurable concept of "influential" with the largely subjective notion of "heroic," and his criticism of Time's "wrong" choice might have stemmed from another typical communist principle of "one standard for all.
In general, whatever else one wants to say about Han Han, one has to admit that he has one of the largest on-line followings of any author in the world. His audience is young, educated, and tech savvy – precisely the type of audience that one wants to cultivate in terms of influence. Furthermore, authors like Han Han are pushing the boundaries on the scope of public discourse, while also sometimes writing about important social and labour issues. When Han writes about a social justice issue, he has the power and sway to shift the narrative away from the way the government would wish it to be spun.

However, besides Chinese government officials on the on hand, and independent writers and dissidents on the other hand, there’s another group of people who are very influential and didn’t make the list: independent scholars and writers working “within the system”. In this category, we see independent scholars such as Yu Jianrong, whose pioneering and insightful research on petitioning, social disturbances and labour issues is without compare. Yu recently called for an end to the “reform through labour” system, in which Chinese citizens can be thrown into “reform through labour” prison camps at the arbitrary will of the police, without judicial due process. Another person deserving of more international recognition is the writer Yang Jisheng, who wrote the definitive account of the disastrous famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (墓碑), and wrote the gripping Bob Woodward-like account of Beijing power politics in the era of "Reform and Opening" (中国改革年代的政治斗争).

Why don’t these writers and intellectuals who try to maintain their independence and integrity while also working within the system have more international fame? It’s hard to say, and maybe it’s simply because they are not the sexy “rebels” that the Western media would like to portray, as Ni might argue. More likely, however, it’s because, in order to stay “within the system”, they deliberately try to keep a low profile and  have no choice but to write in the cautious and euphemistic Party-speak rhetoric that is like a foreign language, even when translated into English. Also, while western audiences have little difficulty in understanding a person who boldly risks their career and safety in speaking out against an authoritarian regime, it’s a bit harder to understand the risks that those within the system are taking by trying to remain independent. It’s a bit of a sad reality that many of the most positive changes in Chinese society today go unnoticed, partially because the people involved don’t want to attract a lot of attention. This leaves us with the prominent actions of government officials, and their most identifiable critics.

In any case, lists like Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” are meant to spark debate, and that’s what they’ve done.
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