From where I sit:That's the spirit

January 28, 2010

Twelve years ago, after failing in seven subjects at school, Han Han's father took him to the headmaster's office to complete the paperwork for dropouts. There he was asked by a sympathetic teacher how he would support himself. His answer was "publishing royalties".

Today he is the hugely popular author of more than ten books. He earned 1.7 million yuan (£154,370) in royalties in 2009 and was ranked the 18th richest author in China. Oh, and he is also a highly successful professional racing driver and a widely read blogger.

But Mr Han's story is not just about how to become a rich celebrity. As a young man born in the 1980s, he is saluted as the symbol of a citizenry actively engaged in public affairs and spoken of as a representative of the generation that is supposed to be the bedrock of China's future.

Three years after he started his blog, his audience has reached 242 million - one sixth of the national population.

As a middle-aged man born in the 1960s, I have been a fan of the blog since 2008. The first post I read was about the angry Chinese "netizens" promoting a boycott of Carrefour over claims that the French company supported the riot in China's Tibetan Autonomous Region on 14 March that year.

Mr Han argued that the movement reflected "how fragile and superficial our national pride is". With his trademark satirical style, he suggested a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Olympics, since a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, was the founder of the modern Games.

That is the sort of thing that has led Mr Han, a high school dropout, to be acclaimed as one of China's top public intellectuals who participate openly in public affairs and speak - provocatively - to power.

He refused membership of the China Writers Association and even turned down an invitation to meet President Obama during his visit to Shanghai because he believed it would be "boring". He questioned the official relief policy for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but donated 200,000 yuan to its victims and went there as a volunteer.

I recommend his blog to all my students - for fun and so that they may learn from his independent thinking and lovely writing style. One of my students handed in an excellent opinion assignment for my public affairs reporting course, and he admitted that he had been inspired by a recent comment by Mr Han.

When the Shanghai Municipal Government announced that it would spend 200 million yuan to replace 25,000 lamp posts, Mr Han did the maths and found that each post would cost 8,000 yuan. One wonders if they will be made of gold.

But when I discuss Mr Han with my colleagues, although we agree that he could represent the best part of what China has achieved in the past decade, we still feel sad that our higher education system fails to create more people of his spirit.

Ten years ago, he refused an offer to enrol at Peking University as an "exceptional case" because he was confident that "what I think, speak and do is much better than university students, even from Peking or Tsinghua University". Unfortunately, that is the truth.

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