China's star blogger treads fine line

HONG KONG, July 23, 2010 (AFP) - China's most popular blogger recalls being baffled when a publisher told him he could not run an article because it mentioned a person ordering a dish of lamb.

"I did not get it. What's wrong with eating lamb?" Han Han says.

The publisher explained that by ordering lamb, the diner could be someone who did not eat pork.

And that could imply he was a Muslim -- a particularly sensitive subject in China following deadly ethnic unrest in Xinjiang last year that pitted mostly Muslim Uighurs against the nation's dominant Han group.

The 27-year-old high school drop-out and champion amateur race-car driver said he was frustrated that self-censorship by mainland publishers was often more stringent than the authorities themselves.

"I wish there was a law saying clearly what can be done and what can't be. I wish we could lay all the issues on the table and discuss frankly about them."

Han, famous for his witty, scathing critiques of China's corrupt officials and social issues, has achieved phenomenal fame in the country's tightly monitored cyberspace.

He has accumulated more than 300 million hits on his blog, making it the most popular in China -- and probably the world.

A top-earning author with a dozen titles under his belt, Han was named by TIME magazine as among the world's 100 most influential people, grouping him alongside US President Barack Obama and pop star Lady Gaga.

He said he had also recently rejected an invitation to promote a commercial product on his blog with the reward of 10,000 yuan (1,500 US dollars) for each word he writes -- with no word limit.

"Some people are beneficiaries of a flawed judicial system. Some are beneficiaries of a chaotic society. I just happen to have benefited from telling the truth," he recently told reporters at the Hong Kong Book Fair.

Han conceded that technological advances have played a vital role in his success.
"In the Internet era, once an article is posted online, there is nothing one can do to deny its existence," Han said, referring to the fact that his readers always managed to copy contentious articles from his blog to their own sites -- before they were taken down by China's Internet police.

Before the launch of his popular literature-themed magazine "Party" this month, Han said he spent time and money consulting different publishers in the futile hope of preserving the articles in their original form.

"It is about making compromise all the time," he said. "I still had to follow the rules because I wanted the magazine to be a legal publication."

All 500,000 copies of the bi-monthly's first issue, which included articles by other writers, sold out just four days after its release, government newspaper China Daily reported, smashing sales records.

For many, Han is the unofficial voice for China's "Post 80s", a generation born into the country's economic boom who are typically regarded as spoilt as the single child in the family, apolitical, rebellious and status-obsessed.

Han shot to fame in 2000 after he published "The Triple Gate", a novel based on his own experience as a school drop-out in Shanghai that mocked China's rigid education system.

He has criticised China's "underground Internet commentators" --  hired by the government to skew public opinion by posting comments online favourable to the authorities.

The blogger also likes to ridicule officials' conservative and outmoded approach to handling crises.

"Sometimes, the incident itself was not a big deal. But it was blown up by the government officials themselves," he said.

After a man stabbed 32 people -- mostly small children -- at a kindergarten in eastern China in April, he wrote: "By controlling the media, prohibiting hospital visits, diverting attention, the (local) government managed to re-direct people's anger towards the killer to the government itself."

Despite his bravado, some critics have pointed out that Han has always been careful not to challenge the one-party rule of the Communist Party.

Han himself admits that he abides by the rigid -- if unwritten -- rules to ensure that his voice continues to be heard.

Asked about his views on the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, he changed subject.

"I fell in love with this girl in the mainland a few days ago," he said.

"She's worried that if I said anything anti-government, I won't be allowed back to China."