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It is as a new father that Han Han finds his most critical voice, furious at food safety and child abuse issues that plague China. “Everything we do, we do for our children,” he writes in a 2012 post “The New Masters Have Arrived”. “These people are the new masters of the future. They’re here. The world is yours, and ours, but in the end it’s theirs.” It is the same sentiment expressed about his peers in the early 2000s, when he was just starting to write. And while he may now be the role model for a new cohort of troublemakers, some of his latter essays are tinged with a hint of nostalgia for his heyday, an era more permissive than the current Xi Jinping years.

In that regard, Han Han’s silence speaks volumes. The closest equivalent to him in China today is perhaps Jiang Yilei, a 29-year-old woman who records and live-streams video blogs under the name Papi Jiang. Her shtick is a fast delivery and digitally-altered high-pitched voice, making fun of everything from regional accents to dating woes. But while she touches on social issues, including gender equality and parental pressure, her topics are not political. Even so, she ran foul of the authorities last April, when China’s top censoring body chided her for her “vulgar language” and took down her videos temporarily. If she is Han Han’s successor, then the gadfly has lost its bite.

The final essay in the collection revisits a previous post and shares the same title — “This Generation” — but is written four years later, in 2012. (English publications of Han Han, it seems, are fated to be perpetually four years behind.) “When I debuted I was the rebel, defying my seniors,” he writes. Now China has new youth icons, and the conversation has changed. Yet Han Han, less relevant but still revered among those his age, is still hopeful for the transformative potential of his peers. “I’m convinced we’re supposed to bear witness to many things,” he closes. “I’m particularly looking forward to the social changes brought along by this generation once it amasses power.”

It is China’s youth who have led the vanguard of the nation’s progress, from 1919 to 1989. That legacy can be harder to identify today, given the chilling effect of Tiananmen and more individual priorities for many young people. But Han Han’s generation was the first to grow up in an outward-looking, post-Mao China, and they are shaping its future direction through their different politics and values, even while the country is in a period of political crackdown. We would be well-advised to understand them, and Han Han’s iconoclasm is a good place to start.

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