Popular blogger accused of fraud takes foe to court

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


When does a fraud-buster cross the line? And is questioning a popular blogger's bona fides tantamount to libel?

Those are just some of the questions that a Shanghai court will be asked in a case pitting the mainland's most popular blogger, Han Han, against Fang Shimin, a crusader against academic fraud who uses the pen name Fang Zhouzi. Putuo District Court said on a website on Friday that it had accepted the lawsuit.

Han, also a professional rally driver, is demanding an apology and 100,000 yuan (HK$123,000) in damages after self-proclaimed 'science cop' Fang claimed that his earlier works were ghostwritten. Han was named one of Time magazine's '100 most influential people in the world in 2010' and his Sina blog, started in 2006, has attracted 540 million visits.

Some internet users have accused Fang of conducting a Cultural Revolution-style smear campaign, while others have argued that he is entitled to question whether a public figure is a fraud rather than a literary prodigy.

Regardless of whom they support, many have questioned whether Fang's accusation goes beyond the boundaries of fair comment and constitutes libel.

Mainland microblogs have been buzzing since Han, 29, published three essays between December 23 and 26 outlining his views on revolution, democracy and freedom, advocating a more gradual change than many dissidents might have liked.

The essays caused quite a stir among his fans, academics and even the state-controlled media because Han had been widely viewed as a liberal intellectual and a bold critic of social problems, particularly after political pressure appeared to force the closure of The Party, a literary magazine he edited, after the publication of just one issue last summer.

Some liberals denounced Han as a traitor, sparking a debate about reform that attracted dozens of intellectuals and numerous internet users. Then, in January, internet user Mai Tian wrote an article titled 'Artificial Han Han' questioning Han's status as a public intellectual and accusing him of hiring ghostwriters, arguing that he would have been too busy to write blogs about social issues during the rally season.

Han responded by offering a 20 million yuan reward to anyone who could prove he had hired him or her as a ghostwriter.

It was only after Mai apologised to Han on January 18, admitting that he lacked sufficient evidence, that Fang picked up the baton, noting that Han had erased from his blog all articles dating from December 2006 to September 2007.

Fang posted 15 blog entries claiming that Han had hired ghostwriters, and challenged his knowledge of literature and history along with his writing skills, citing alleged inconsistencies in his work.

'I had no interest in Han, an entertainment celebrity, until Han reacted to others' questioning in an exasperated and desperate way that apparently showed it had hit the mark,' Fang said.

He claimed that Han was not the real author of his best-selling first novel, Triple Door, implying that it might have been written by Han's father. He later said he was sure it was ghostwritten, but was not sure by whom.

Fang also claimed that it was most unlikely that Han could have written two essays - 'Bookstore' and 'Seeing a Doctor' - when he was 14 because they read as though they were written by a middle-aged man and included descriptions of a time that Han would have been unfamiliar with.

Han replied by posting photos of more than 1,000 pages of manuscripts that he said he had written as a teenager.

'The manuscripts cannot prove he was the author,' said Fang, 44. 'It's unlikely that someone could write a full-length novel without many changes. And it looks more like transcribing.'

Fang said he hoped Han could respond directly to all the questions he had raised. 'So far I haven't seen sincerity in his responses'

Han told Tudou.com that he had done everything he could 'to present evidence, including the manuscripts, witnesses from high school and letters to my father, but Fang has already presumed I am guilty'.

'No one could convince him,' Han said. 'He was not questioning. He was simply trying to defame me out of hatred ... it's not academic questioning or literary critique.'

Han said the official notary department was verifying a stack of his manuscripts from between 1997 and 2000 to determine whether they were in his handwriting It might take a while, but they would be presented as evidence proving he was the author.

Fang said he was trying to dispel the myth of literary greatness and that he was worried that many teenagers may have been misled into following in the footsteps of the high-school drop-out.

Some internet users dubbed Fang's campaign a movement to topple Han and likened it to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, as has Han himself in justifying his lawsuit. But Fang's supporters argued that he was only exercising freedom of speech.

Han said he had always believed in and pursued freedom of speech, but reasonable questioning and libel were two different things.

'It's like you can say my bag is ugly and in bad taste, but you can't say I stole it,' Han said. 'You can say I write awfully and I am morally bad, but you can't say I copy or I have ghostwriters, because you have no evidence.'

Fang said fighting fraud in literature was more complex than battling it in academic research because he had to spend a lot of time finding many pieces of indirect evidence.

It was also more difficult to win people's recognition and support, he said.

Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said that if one accused another of hiring ghostwriters without concrete evidence it might constitute defamation.

'Celebrities also have a right to protect their reputation. They are different from government organisations or officials who are obliged to react to public questioning.'

Fang said he did not expect that he would have to go to court - something he has also avoided in a dozen previous cases - and said the lawsuit could be a tactic designed to tie him up and prevent him uncovering more evidence against Han.

'It's ironic that an ambassador of freedom tried to deprive me of my freedom of academic critique through a lawsuit,' Fang told Tudou.com. He said even if he lost the case, it would not prove he was wrong.

Han's wife declined an interview request on his behalf.