A digital spat between mega-popular Chinese blogger Han Han and one of his chief critics reveals that in modern China, despite some state restrictions, the information revolution is changing the relationship between media, fame, power and popularity.
China has spent the past two months following a lively public debate between Han Han, the glamorous race-car driver, best-selling author and China's most popular blogger, and Fang Zhouzi, a popular science writer and outspoken campaigner against academic fraud. Fang has alleged that Han's work is mostly produced by a team of ghostwriters. Han denies the allegation, and last month took Fang to court for defamation.
The battle first broke out on the Weibo microblog, China's equivalent of Twitter, then quickly spread through the conventional media, drawing in celebrities, opinion leaders and entrepreneurs, before arriving at the nation's dinner tables. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that a civil war of ideas is taking place within China. One party desperately insists that Han Han is a fake writer, while the other party is relentless in trying to maintain the literary status of their idol.
It's still hard to tell who will prevail, but we can already say that the once unassailable Han Han has already lost some of his mighty aura.
As the representative figure of China's young generation of writers, Han Han, by far the country's most influential blogger, an excellent rally driver as well as the darling of the media, had an image built upon his credibility.
Ironically, Han has now been bitten by the power of the same digital information system that feeds his fame. The microblog is indeed a new social media that propagates the notion that “nothing is unquestionable.” In comparison with the traditional media, the social networks' biggest advantage is that it provides the mass of ordinary users with a platform where they can be heard and read. Instantly. The old internal debate among the elite has been superseded. The SNS (Social Networking Service) completely changes the symmetrical relation between the elite and the audience, the idols and the fans.
China is a nation that likes to create its gods. This used to happen through political power, like Mao Zedong, or through the power of conventional media. In both cases, the precondition was the asymmetrical possession of power; that is, the masses had no right to participate. The public could either consume the idols or be consumed by the idols, but they could not define or deconstruct the idols.
For the first time, social networking puts the idols, the fans, the elite and the audience on the same platform. Here, one can make gods; but the same public masses can also destroy their god. Nevertheless, the social networking platform now offers the public a most important weapon: to deny an idol his idolatry anytime they like.
The 'ultimate' idol
The Han vs. Fang row has evolved from initial questioning and counter-questioning into a farce of personal attacks. Some even liken it to a persecution similar to that of China's Cultural Revolution, though I personally regard this as nonsense. During the Cultural Revolution, the rebel parties' persecution of prominent figures in various fields was backed by the universally recognized “ultimate idol:” Mao. In the case of the Han-Fang battle, there's no such all-powerful idol behind either of them. If there were, it could only be the facts and truth.
The essence of social networking is people, real people. In this medium, rather than create a sense of mystery, an idol or a brand seeks to narrow its distance with the audience. It's now a time where marketing a person or a brand as a myth is out of the question. Since the mass of people have won back their own voice, they can now define or interpret their idols any way they wish. This is the transfer of power.
What kind of power is it? It's the right to define the value of an idol. In the traditional media era, an idol - together with relevant interested parties - determined his own value. Ordinary people in China had no say as to how much that symbol was worthy of esteem. Now, as long as an idol is willing to be involved in these new media, his or her value orientation is connected to his “realness.”
This contemporary idea of authenticity is based on openness, and on one's right to know others. Of course, this openness can be true or false. When an idol is presented to the public as a real person, he can no longer define himself, because he has surrendered many of his own rights to the audience. Since he can gain even more through this transfer, he also has to take on higher risk.
People who feel left behind in this transfer of power are the idols or brands who were produced in the traditional media era. Their acquisition of power was achieved in a context that was so different than the current system, which is driven by social networking.
Let's try to imagine what a “live tweet” Chinese interview of Nikita Khrushchev would be like. He would naturally be eager to tell the audience how many Russians are living in clean and warm apartments. The netizens in China might instead be more interested in asking the Soviet leader: “That shoe you were banging on the podium in the General Assembly…was it made in Wenzhou?”