Notorious ‘public intellectual’ Han Han talks about his love-hate relationship with Shanghai and being one of Time magazine’s ‘most influential figures’

Dropping out of school at 16, Han Han is not well-educated in traditional Chinese values, but he is one of China’s most influential literary figures, publishing his own magazine and authoring the most popular blog in the country. According to, Han’s blog, hosted on the popular portal and forum (find it here, Chinese only), has the most clicks in the Chinese-speaking world. Starting in 2003, Han Han added “professional race car driver” to his ever-growing resume when he officially entered the pro circuit racing in a number of Chinese and international events. Han Han was named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential people this year in 2009.

No wonder Beijing University professor Zhang Ming claimed: “Han Han is more influential than all the Chinese professors added up.”

This hometown rebel doesn’t say “yes” to many interviews, so when he chooses a forum other than his blog to voice his opinions, you know it’s going to be good.

CNNGo: Can you sum up how you feel about Shanghai as a city today?

Han Han: I grew up in Shanghai in the suburbs, not in the city. Generally speaking, including Yong He Lou where we are having this interview now, from the outside, Shanghai is an OK city, but in terms of interior and culture, it’s still lacking.

CNNGo: Is this how you felt growing up?

Han Han: I didn’t know anything when I was growing up. I didn’t know anything when I was a teenager. But since I’ve been in this industry, I always thought culture has been quite lacking in Shanghai. Everything else is on track, Shanghai has nice hotels, nice roads and nice shops just like any other major metropolis. But they are a bit weak in other factors of culture.

CNNGo: Lacking in terms of what?

Han Han: It’s not lacking in terms of lagging behind. Shanghai was the cultural hub and origin of China 60 years ago. Whether it was literature, art, plays or films, nearly all leading cultural developments originated from Shanghai. But Shanghai nowadays has no respectable writer, no respectable director, no respectable artists, only rich people and high-rise buildings.

CNNGo: Something is missing apart from the growth in China?

Han Han: No. Culture works like this — as long as you don’t hinder it, culture will evolve/develop. It’s not that culture will develop only if you enhance it.

“To me, it’s the same if one person reads my blog or if one million people read my blog.”

— Han Han

CNNGo: Is Shanghai’s cultural evolution being limited in any way?

Han Han:I don’t think you need me to answer this question.

CNNGo: What can you say about the many emerging new talents in Shanghai nowadays?

Han Han: Maybe for those you interviewed and those with artistic aspirations, it is like that. But for the majority of people who are working, they don’t have much aspiration other than owning a house.

CNNGo: Why is your blog so popular and how do you think your blog has moved readers?

Han Han: I think you should ask those who pay attention to my blog. For me, I don’t write the blog for these people. It’s purely a forum for my own expression and opinions, if they like me, then it’s because of fate/destiny.

CNNGo: Why so many people though? Is it your opinions or your publicity from your books?

Han Han: Everything you mentioned matters.

CNNGo: Are you ever worried about offending the wrong people?

Han Han: No. To me, it’s the same if one person reads my blog or if one million people read my blog. I only write down what should be written, and after I’ve written it down, if the writing remains then it remains, if the government decides to censor it, then they can delete it. I don’t really care because I am still alive, I can keep writing.

CNNGo: Racing versus writing… which are you more passionate about?

Han Han: I’ll go racing if there is a competition, and I’ll write if there’s no competition. But these two things are the same to me, because as long as you sit me down on a chair, I can fight.

CNNGo: Describe Shanghai to the outsider.

Han Han: I’ve never thought about describing a city to a stranger, so I’ve never thought about how to describe a city.

CNNGo: What is distinct about Shanghai people?

Han Han: They speak Shanghainese. Human beings are all similar in this world, human natures are all similar, perhaps the way they express themselves through behaviors and habits and other external appearances are distinctive. But in reality, human beings are all similar, regardless of whether they are from the East or the West, so it’s hard for me to describe what makes Shanghai people special.

Also, even though human natures are similar, everyone in every city is different. It’s difficult for me to summarize the characters of the people in a particular city in one or two sentences. For example, you could say that Beijing people are generous, but I may not think this description is correct, so I can’t describe a city or its citizens. The people who live here will have their own thoughts and beliefs. Everything else you hear isn’t reliable.

CNNGo: You were one of Time magazine’s most influential people in Asia. Do you pay attention to this? Does it matter?

Han Han: I read about this news. Of course I am happy to know that others recognize me. But if you really talk about being influential, you should meet those in control of the society’s resources and the country’s assets. You cannot find them on any search engines, but they are truly the influential people behind the scenes. If they simply use their hands, you’d be dead. But I only hope that these people will put their influence to beneficial use for the betterment of the people, not to do bad deeds. As for us, we can only push for developments in other aspects of society. I think as a literati, this is all I could do.

When China is ranking the most important people in the world, other countries don’t really care, but when Time magazine does the ranking, we care a great deal. This means that our media needs to learn a lot from other large media organizations in the West.

But of course this is not to say our media is at fault, because media in other countries are not restricted/regulated. Media here is strictly controlled. However if you restrict the media too much, it will lose its credibility on the global stage, and it can never become a global media, and be recognized globally like Time magazine. I think it’s very unfortunate in this sense.

CNNGo: What would you like to say to the Chinese leaders about free media?

Han Han: My recommendation is very simple. It is just to grant more freedom to speech and media. As for the method, this is not for people like me to decide. I can only do so much for China right now. Otherwise, you will never see me again. (Laughs).

I think our government right now in terms of advocating, even in terms of news broadcasting, is like a company with a public relations office. In fact, a lot of things are not as bad as you think, but because of the restrictions on media and speech they all seem very bad. Sometimes the government really didn’t make any mistakes, but because of the censorship people think that’s because they’ve done something wrong.

The public right now is able to endure and digest news and people are eager to absorb more information. Also, they are able to distinguish right from wrong. But sometimes in order to protect particular interests, [the government] imposes restrictions on the media and speech. It is all for the protection of interests. But when history is evolving and when technology is advancing, and we observe all these in retrospect, I think they would all seem quite ridiculous.

CNNGo: What are your favorite places to hang out in Shanghai?

Han Han: I rarely go to bars. Places that I like to go to in Shanghai are mostly hotels. Because with girls you have to go to hotels. Where else can you go right? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Shanghai. I’ve always remained in Shanghai, I don’t like to go to other cities. I spent a few years in Beijing but still returned. Whether it’s because of my friends or my living habits, honestly speaking, I truly love this city because it has a lot of places that I can reminisce in. But I also think Shanghai could be better, that’s why I also hate this city.