Rush for blogger's magazine a cry for freedom
The debut of a long-awaited magazine by China's top blogger, Han Han sold out its first print run of 500,000 copies in two days.
Even as hundreds of thousands more were later rolling off the presses, fears were voiced that the pioneering issue of Duchangtuan - or 'Party' - could be a one-off wonder, with sceptics doubting that censors would allow a second edition from the best-selling author, social rebel and wildly popular blogger.
But one media expert had little doubt the second issue would hit the market on schedule in about two month's time.
Zhang Zhian, assistant dean in the Journalism School at Shanghai's Fudan University, was optimistic. 'I think it will come out. Why not? Every character will be censored.'
For some on the mainland, who look to Han Han for his outspoken and often iconoclastic and sardonic comments on the Chinese system, the magazine has been something of a disappointment. Hopes had been high of a publication that would break the mould.
That could explain why 500,000 copies sold out within two days of its July 6 launch. The first 22,000 copies to reach Beijing market sold out in 20 minutes.
This is nothing short of a miracle for the first issue of a magazine in the mainland's struggling book market and it was all down to one factor - the name of the editor.
Just 28, Han Han is a top-earning author with 10 books published, and a champion amateur racing car driver. He ranked second in a poll published by Time magazine in May of the 100 most influential people in the world. Time said Han, the son of a Shanghai newspaper editor, is widely seen as 'a torch-bearer for the generation born after the beginning of the country's opening to the outside world, a group the Chinese call the 'post-80s generation': apolitical, money- and status-obsessed children of the country's explosive economic boom'.
The success of his magazine is unprecedented.
Pre-publication sales hinted at the runaway popularity likely to await Han's magazine. More than 30,000 copies were ordered on the top two leading online bookstores Amazon.cn and Dangdang.com. 'No book has ever been like this, except some imported pop-literature books like Harry Potter,' said Zhang.
The publication of the magazine has been hailed as a victory for Han, since its launch had been repeatedly delayed because some of its bold contents had failed to pass checks by the authorities.
Han, meanwhile, kept a low profile about the publication, giving just one interview to Southern Metropolis Weekly, a news magazine in Guangdong. Asked which step during the censoring process was the most difficult, Han laughed and replied: 'Every step,' adding: 'It can't be explained in any detail ... or there won't be a second issue,' the magazine reported.
Controversy aside, a personal charm helped boost sales. 'Half of the magazine's success comes from Han himself,' said Pan Caifu, a prominent book commentator for The Beijing News. 'For the other half, we have to thank the [restrictions of] the motherland.'
Caifu said The Beijing News had got notice from the top censorship organisation, the Propaganda Ministry, to keep quiet about the magazine.
There has been much talk about censorship since Han announced in April last year that he would publish a youth intellectual magazine.
Southern Metropolis Weekly quoted an insider saying 70 per cent of the original content had disappeared from the first issue, though there was hope that some may resurface in the second issue. Those involved in the magazine were cautious - several writers who submitted stories declined to be interviewed, and an editor at a Shanghai newspaper working with Han on the editorial work said it was 'inconvenient' to talk.
Their caution is understandable. The magazine has a book code, not a magazine code. If Beijing is unhappy with it the next issue may never come out.
Book commentator Pan Caifu said the magazine's print run must have reached one million copies because the publishers had run at least two reprints. 'Many book wholesalers are building up a stock because no one is clear about the future of this magazine,' he said. If the magazine has no next issue then the first issue will become a collectors' item and can be sold at a much higher price.
On Pan's microblog - the mainland equivalent of Twitter, which is banned in the country - he invited internet users to draft promotional slogans for the magazine. 'Every copy is the last copy,' one said. Another suggestion was: 'Buy it, it might the last time to buy.'
Zhang believes that owning the magazine is a symbolic gesture. 'Inside the 500,000 buyers who rushed to buy 'Party' in the first two days are beating 500,000 warm hearts that shout out a message against censorship, refusing authority, longing for freedom, democracy, equality and human rights.'
Most chat on the internet focuses on comparing tips on where to buy the magazine and laments about how difficult it is to buy it. Discussions of the content are much fewer.
Zhang said that was because buying the magazine was more important than reading it. The action of buying signalled an opposition to the draconian policy limiting speech freedom of speech, and showed support too, for Han Han. 'It's sold so well because it's a magazine by citizen Han Han with an individual bent of mind, not simply writer Han Han,' Zhang said.
Han Han gained fame at a young age. In 2000 his novel about middle school campus life Triple Door was the best-seller of that year on the mainland. Triple Door has now sold more than 3 million legal copies while piracy is rampant, according to Han Han's longtime collaborator and publisher, Lu Jinbo.
Han started writing essays in his blog, located on the mainland's major internet portal website, sina.com, in November 2006. While some concern car racing, the majority focus on social justice. The blog has attracted 400 million hits, making Han the most popular blogger on the mainland.
A China Central Television reporter given the opportunity to ask US President Barack Obama questions at the G20 summit last year asked two questions, presenting the first as being 'on behalf of China' and the second 'on behalf of the world'. In his blog Han heckled: 'If he can ask a third question, who will it be on behalf of?'
Han answered that question on behalf of the reporter - logically it would not be Mars or the universe he said sardonically, but that of the paramount (Communist) Party.
The magazine is named 'Party' too, though Duchangtuan more literally means solo. So why is the English name 'Party?' Publisher Lu Jinbo joked that 'old comrades can't speak good English', perhaps a good thing since the 120-page magazine contains more than 30 pieces written in English.
Lu said though there were no advertisements in the first issue, and Han paid the contributors record-high magazine remunerations - 2,000 yuan per thousand characters while the usual standard on the mainland is 50 yuan per thousand characters - the profit generated by the magazine was still likely to be more than a million yuan, as it had broken many sales records.
To readers looking forward to reading criticism of social evils - as they were accustomed to reading in Han's blog posts - Han said in a blog posted on June 10 that the magazine would just be a work of literature and could not carry the expectations of people who wanted to change and improve society.