Yang Hengjun on Bloggers and Social Change in China

It testifies to the power of the Internet in China that a jack of all trades like Yang Hengjun (杨恒均) — expert on international affairs, writer of spy fiction and business executive — can carve out a role for himself as a one-man media powerhouse.

Yang has been online for five years, and seriously blogging for just three. But measured by unique IP visits to his various blog sites, he now averages 150,000 readers a day, writes David Bandurski, Research Associate at the China Media Project

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Yang, whose outspoken writing on public affairs has earned him the title “democracy huckster” among Chinese Web users, said in a public talk at Hong Kong University’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre on March 10 that the Internet has offered “grass roots writers” in China an unprecedented opportunity to make their voices heard.

“Based on my understanding of China’s political situation, I can guarantee that if the web did not exist I would not find a place to express what I wished to express,” Yang said. “The Internet offers much greater freedom.”

A former official in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the People’s Government of Hainan Province, Yang writes from personal experience — as an institutional insider and later as an outsider living overseas — to reflect on issues ranging from government corruption in China to the country’s long-term development.

His critical eye has not always made him popular at home.

In 2008, reader comments crowding in the wake of his blog posts branded him a “traitor” and a “running dog of the West” for speaking plainly about social and political problems in China.

Yang let the mean-spirited comments stand, and responded with a cool-headed post called, “Why I Criticize China?” (我为什么批评中国?):

I had wished to write some responses myself in the comment section to speak my mind and engage in discussion [with these “angry youth”], but taking a more careful look at the comments they had posted, I realized there was no way to respond. If you criticize some aspect of our society that is bad, they accuse you of not seeing the brighter side . . .

But why should I write about the brighter aspects, or even append a few self-critical remarks? If I do that, I’ll end up writing a government work report. All the media and propaganda resources at the disposal of the system are engaged in that sort of work — they don’t need my assistance.

Like angry youth today, when I heard things in my own youth critical of China and speaking against it, I would leap to the defense . . . But angry youth know only anger. They do not understand what it means to speak rationally. Such concepts as loving the Party, loving our society and loving socialism are for them red-hot dogmas branded onto their undeveloped minds, and causing them from a young age to believe that everything that seeps into their diapers is the truth.

Yang went on to explain how his experience as a researcher in the United States — where, improbably it seemed, he was invited by his hosts to criticize U.S. policies — taught him the value of constructive criticism of his own country:

That period of time was wonderful. As I participated in various research projects, my chief work consisted of seeking out loopholes in the projects themselves, of locating weaknesses and shortcomings in various American policies and strategies, and then offering my cutting remarks. It seemed almost inconceivable. For some time I had defended China on my own dime, and now Americans were paying me money to criticize and attack them.

. . . I suddenly thought clearly to myself, what am I, this angry youth, doing here? In my bones I was dissatisfied with America, and jealous of the fact that it is stronger and richer than China — and this is why I was an angry youth. Once I arrived in America, criticizing America seemed the best means at my disposal for standing up for China. But I had come gradually to know what I didn’t realize when I first arrived in America, that all of this criticism wasn’t defending China but rather assisting America to the benefit of Americans.

Yang said it took him years to begin thinking more critically about the Chinese system in which he served so long and so dutifully.

He tested into the international relations programme at Shanghai’s Fudan University in 1983, and began a career in foreign affairs immediately upon graduating in 1987.

“I was an upstanding state official. I was great at boot-licking, and so I rose rather quickly,” Yang said.

But when he crossed over from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in 1992, to take up a post ahead of the 1997 handover, he crossed into a world that seriously challenged his assumptions about China.

“By the time Hong Kong returned to the mainland, it was no longer possible for me to return to my old self,” he said. “I had already begun to think deeply about Hong Kong’s system of democracy and rule of law.”

Reflecting back on these experiences through posts like “Crossing the Bridge at Luohu” (魂断罗湖桥) is Yang’s way of communicating his ideas about the importance of rule of law and democracy in China to his readers. And this, he believes, is a crucial part of the process of discussion and action by which China must write its own future.

“Many people don’t really have a strong concept of democracy,” he said. “But we can’t wait for our leaders to hand it to us. We must push through into our own future.”