Did Han Han seriously dis Barack Obama?

There was a minor flutter on the China-Twittersphere a day or two ago after Channel News Asia posted a video of a lengthy interview with Chinese uber-blogger/novelist/race-car driver/heartthrob Han Han. It’s worth watching the whole discussion, embedded below, which winds through a number of interesting topics including whether or not Chinese Internet users are pining for Twitter and Facebook (no), the impact of social media in China (easier hook-ups, among other things), and how Han Han manages to avoid falling afoul of the authorities.

The thing that got people tweeting, however, was a brief discussion of why Han Han declined an invitation for a dialogue with US President Barack Obama. Here’s the whole exchange, using the subtitles that Channel News Asia provided for Han Han’s remarks, and a little bit of annotation from me in brackets:

Q: Why did you turn down that invitation to have a dialogue session with Barack Obama?

A: First of all, I think some US Presidents, such as Bill Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush are not bad. When I was invited to have a dialogue with Barack Obama I was in Zhejiang, taking part in a car racing competition. If I were to go for this dialogue session, I would have had to wake up early, which I did not want to do. [Han Han adds, "I don't like getting up early."]

Q: You do admire Barack Obama. Don’t you see any value in perhaps getting up early and speaking with him?

A: It’s not worth it. He’s a man.

In fact, what Han Han said at the end was, “I don’t know. He’s a man.” (我不知道。他是男。) “It’s not worth it,” seems like a somewhat subjective approach to the subtitling, although perhaps still legit since, on the evidence, it clearly wasn’t worth it for Han Han to meet Obama. ”You stay classy, Han Han!”* was a typical sentiment from foreign Twitterers in response. And it does seem like kind of a dis. I mean, Barack Obama may be having his troubles back home, but he’s still POTUS and this guy is just some race-car-driver blogger, right? I mean, where does he get off?

I once referred to Han Han as representing “dissidence-lite” (see below), but I have a hard time giving him smack about that exchange. Whatever else Han Han may be, he is clearly a masterful communicator. As comes through in this interview, he’s also well aware of the line he walks in being a very public and influential critic of Chinese society and politics. Given the inherently sensitive nature of his gig, Han Han’s decision not to meet with Obama seems pretty understandable. He’s already incredibly famous, wealthy and influential. What’s the upside of a meeting with Obama for him? Warm fuzzies? A photo for his mantel?

Conversely, what’s the downside risk of a public meeting with the president? Among other things, increasing scrutiny from the authorities and possibly looking like an American pet to his fans in China, not all of whom may have the same admiration for recent American presidents that Han Han confessed in that exchange.

I speculate here, but it seems to me that he would have realized he had little to gain from saying publicly that meeting the president would have been risky for him and offered few benefits, so instead he gave an “in character” reply that tweaked foreigners but probably went down just fine with any of his fans who happened to see that interview (although perhaps less well with his wife, although one assumes she’s come to terms with his persona). He certainly appears to be thinking pretty carefully about his responses during that Q&A, and not just tossing off jerky remarks. Only Han Han himself knows for sure, and perhaps he just couldn’t be bothered to get up early to meet someone who wasn’t a hot chick draped across a race car. But it doesn’t really seem that way.

Now, if Rui Chenggang had said it…

Via Jeremy Goldkorn.


Back in April 2010, in the third installment of the then new Sinica podcast, we discussed and compared Ai Weiwei and Han Han (hence my “dissidence-lite” comment).

See also:

*If you don’t spot that as ironic, watch Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman.”

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2 Responses to Did Han Han seriously dis Barack Obama?

  1. “First of all, I think some US Presidents, such as Bill Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush are not bad.” Sarcasm? Well, looking from China, these three recent reps all may have some things going for them. Bush demanded gestures like setting free a few dissidents, at state visits and other occasions. The Chinese authorities respected him. That’s why Liu Xiaobo liked him, of course. Yes, it’s a great interview. Han Han speaks excellent Mandarin, and the subtitles are ok. The interviewer switches into Chinese in the middle, at least on the version I watched. The whole thing is good material for teaching Chinese.

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