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.

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

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices