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.

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week