New Yorker

How far can a youth-culture idol tweak China’s establishment?

LETTER FROM CHINA about novelist, essayist, blogger, and race-car driver Han Han. In the global canon of teen-angst literature, Han’s debut novel, “Triple Door” was tame, but in China it was unprecedented: a scathingly realistic satire of education and authority, written by a nobody. “Triple Door,” published in 2000, went on to sell more than two million copies, putting it among China’s best-selling novels of the past two decades. In the next several years, Han published four more novels and several essay collections faithful to his subjects: teen-agers, girls, and cars. They have sold millions more, though his publisher, Lu Jinbo, does not hail them as great literature. Five years ago, Han started blogging, and his focus took an unmistakable turn toward some of China’s most sensitive matters: Party corruption, censorship, the exploitation of young workers, pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor. Han proved even more successful online than in print. In 2008, he surpassed a movie star to become China’s most popular personal blogger. On the spectrum of Chinese dissent, Han holds a commanding but highly ambiguous position. At times, his is one of China’s most outspoken voices. He can also be calculatingly elliptical. For nearly a decade, Han Han has maintained a parallel career as a race-car driver, with a respectable record in circuit competition for Shanghai’s Volkswagen team and in off-road rally races for Subaru. By and large, his readers care nothing for auto racing, but the overlapping identities have yielded a singular celebrity. Unlike other prominent Chinese critics of the government, he has few ties to the West; he has visited Europe but not America, and cares little for Western literature. He is still acclimating to attention from abroad. Tells about Han’s parents. His mother, Zhou Qiaorong, dispensed benefits at a local welfare office; his father, Han Renjun, had aspirations to write fiction, but ended up at a local Party newspaper. Tells about the magazine, Party, which Han briefly put out before his publisher was ordered to stop. The instruction came by phone from the “relevant departments,” Han said. He saw the end of the magazine as a function of its success. Discusses Han’s comments on China’s response to the unrest in the Middle East. Tells about criticism of Han by other young Chinese liberals. Han permits few illusions about his willingness to stay on the safe side of lines he can see. He has never made a move to take his activism from the Web to the street, and he opposes hastening multiparty elections. Describes Han’s performance in a touring-car race at the Shanghai Tianma Circuit.

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