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Linglei escape mainstream with no destination
By Hannah Beech (Time)
Updated: 2004-06-23 15:29

A bleary dusk is descending on Beijing's Haidian district, and four lanes of taxis, fume-belching diesel trucks and the occasional horse-drawn cart are snarled in bumper-to-bumper gridlock. Suddenly, on a bicycle path running parallel to the main road, a silver Toyota Celica shifts into high gear and races past the river of red brake lights.

The Speed Freak Han Han, 21The high school dropout wrote a best-selling novel at age 17 and now indulges in his hobby of buying-and racing-cars. [file photo]
Han Han, as usual, has found a shortcut, and as he careens past the Mao-jacketed grannies pedaling home, he pauses for a moment of self-reflection. "In China today, there are many different paths to fulfillment," he says, adjusting his sunglasses and narrowly averting a pedicab piled high with computer parts.

"There's no reason to stay on the normal, boring road when there are so many other ways to do things." Dressed in a black leather jacket so oversized that the sleeves cover his hands, Han isn't exactly channeling James Dean or a young Bob Dylan. But the high school dropout, who at age 17 wrote The Third Way, a best-selling novel excoriating China's hidebound education system, is the embodiment of disaffected youth, a long-haired 21-year-old racing to define himself through fast cars and shopworn anti-establishment symbolism.

Han taps his lucrative book royalties to indulge a serious addiction to auto rallies, in which he participates around the country with his five cars, among them a $50,000 Mitsubishi. For Han, a ribbon of open asphalt means more than just a Kerouac-like aimlessness.

For decades the mobility of Chinese citizens was severely restricted, and the freedom to move is nothing short of revolutionary. "It's my choice to do what I want and go where I want," he says. "Nobody can tell me what to do." That familiar refrain is steadily building among a generation of Chinese who are now in the process of deciding what they want to be when they grow up.

No longer forced to fit into a regimented Maoist monoculture, their range of possibilities has diversified along with the country's exploding economy. For many, their path to success does not necessarily lead through the traditional tedium of high school cramming, college exams and then a junior position at state factory No. 327.

Although some are dropouts whose alt-lifestyle experiments are subsidized by newly wealthy parents, they're not all slackers. They are setting up their own companies, writing books, designing funky clothes, making music, making love-and in the process they are beginning to form the crude outlines of what in the future will be considered countercultural, even cool, in China.

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