Boyd Tonkin: Han Han shows us China in top gear – but does he really want to change it?

The Week in Books

Choke on that gearstick, Jeremy Clarkson. The planet's most successful petrolhead writer doesn't mess around with cheesy TV shows for ageing adolescents. He wins races - lots of them - as a national rally-driving champion and poster-boy (quite literally) for his team. His novels sell by the truckload and his sensational blog has attracted (at the last count) nearly 600 million views.

Even worse for our own whingeing motormouth, this rival has fast become a seminal influence on the rising generation in tomorrow's superpower. So, even for the automobile-averse, how Han Han thinks and what Han Han writes matters infinitely more than a thousand series of Top Gear.

His story astonishes. Born outside Shanghai in 1982, Han started writing in earnest aged 15 and dodged university to make his living in literature. In 2000, the prodigy's double-million selling novel Three Doors secured his role as a key voice for China's restless, change-hungry young people. Income from books then helped him launch his career as a rally driver, with luxury-brand endorsements powdering extra stardust over this icon of the Chinese Dream. A serial winner, he has cut down on racing but still competes around 15 times a year.

In 2006, Han started a blog for the Sina portal. Over the next half-decade, it grew into a passionately-followed mouthpiece for the hope, ambition, fury and frustration of young China. Han can sound funny, cocky, ironic, rude, silly, provocative - but also oddly opaque and elusive. Collected in book form as Qing Chun ("Youth"), the blogs sold 1.5 million in 2010. Now, in a sassy and pacey translation from Allan H Barr, a version - which includes some later essays - has appeared in English as This Generation (Simon & Schuster, £8.99). It's a thrilling, if disorienting, ride.

In one light, our glamorous champ can often look like a fearless dissident, speaking truth to power. China's internet censors routinely take down his posts - about which he openly complains. When jailed author Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel peace prize (unmentionable in the official media), Han's blog consisted of precisely this: " ". The wordless verdict got 28,000 comments.

His blogs flay corruption and repression. Mischievous mockery sometimes darkens into truly Swiftian satire. A trip to Queensland to race prompts one of several absolute gems, glittering with savage irony. Han pretends to find Australia backward compared to China and notes that, whereas the wimpy Aussies worry about rally cars felling kangaroos, in go-ahead China "hitting and killing people is no big deal". A train crashes and the media cover up; a state thug slays a village protestor; a friend patronises a brothel that has failed to pay the cops protection money and so lands in jail: the misdeeds of the state draw his witty, deadly scorn.

Han speaks up against censorship, for free expression. He affirms that "the less you try to control culture, the more it is going to flourish". He raises a bold voice for accountability and the rule of law. Yet he rejects revolution against the state as "neither possible nor necessary" - and shuns multi-party democracy. For him, a free-for all would result in a vicious scrum, with tyrant thugs on top. For all his cult appeal, Han doesn't trust the people. Populist democracy he sees as the enemy of frail liberties. "Gradual reform" should rein in state authority until citizens enjoy the spectacle of "power confined inside a cage".

That figures. Beyond his run-ins with the online censors, Han has not suffered persecution, exile or prison. He calls in the old Chinese tradition for wiser, juster rulers, not for a root-and-branch challenge to the system in the manner of a true rebel such as Ai Weiwei. Which of them better represents Chinese culture now? For all Ai's bravery, it must be the blogging boy-racer. Catch him while you can.

Keep Penguin out of the chief reptile's grip

Whatever else he may have done, Rupert Murdoch has nurtured a nest of criminal vipers in the phone-hacking corners of his empire. Now, according to a grim rumour, the HarperCollins (and News International) chief may be planning a takeover bid for Penguin Books, after the departure of Dame Marjorie Scardino from Penguin's parent company, Pearson. Authors, readers: prepare to raise the defences against any threat to the Big Bird - a glory of British culture, not just of British business - from the deadliest reptile of all.

Post-Orange, put branding on hold

After Orange pulled out of sponsoring the prize that used to bear its name, the award's custodians were swamped by potential suitors. Although another long-term partner will surely emerge soon, the mobile giant's withdrawal came too late to secure a deal for 2013. So, next year, the Women's Prize for Fiction will take place as usual but with its running costs covered by a consortium of private funders, including Martha Lane Fox, Joanna Trollope and Cherie Blair (the annual £30,000 for the winner already comes from an anonymous source). The plain, dignified new title strikes me as a distinct improvement. Brands - and their corporate owners - chop and change strategies and identities as fast as a teenager's ringtone. Who really gives a missed call about the lot of them? The prize should keep its current moniker, whoever takes over as principal backer.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing