The hit sitcom Sex and the City may be a thing of the past in New York, and SoHo long since abandoned to tourists with bum bags, but these hallmarks of late 90s nightlife are almost political talismans for Wei Hui, the 30-year-old Chinese novelist who single-handedly imported chick lit into China with her 1999 best-seller, Shanghai Baby, a steamy roman a clef about a Chinese woman's sexual coming of age.

Six years ago, when her autobiographical tales of sport, sex and binge drinking hit the Chinese market, Wei Hui (which is pronounced way-way) ignited a firestorm. Forty thousand copies of Shanghai Baby were burned publicly, her publisher closed, and Wei Hui was labelled "a whore to western culture" by critics. The Government even made it impossible to search for her name on the internet.

Breezing into her favorite SoHo cafe in jeans and a plain silk top, Wei Hui hardly looks a human Molotov cocktail, but rather any other New Yorker sitting down for a break. Slowly, however, as she begins to speak in heavily accented English, the political dimensions of her experiment in superficiality become important.

"It was a big deal, and sure, after me a lot of 'baby' came out in China," she says of her influence on the literary scene. "There was Beijing Baby, or Gunagdon Baby, lots and lots of 'body writers' as we call them."

The Government, of course, cut many of the sex scenes out of these novels, but the spirit is there and growing, according to Wei Hui. "Women in China and the east, the new generation, really want to express themselves."

She hasn't stopped doing this either, but she is moving on. Even for a part-time resident of Shanghai, ruffling feathers and tearing up the night clubs is so five minutes ago, so her latest book, Marrying Buddha, picks up where the previous one left off — only it has a more spiritual angle.

In the year since Shanghai Baby, Wei Hui's happy-go-lucky heroine Coco has evolved from a sex-crazed hedonist to a blessed-out Buddhist, thanks to her crush on Muju, a Japanese-Italian television executive who happens to be a terrific lover.

The novel builds to a head when Coco's love for this man runs up against her affections for Nick, a moneyed New Yorker whose crass commercialism and no-strings-attached sex are a tempting lure back to old ways. Caught between the two, Coco returns to her native island of Putuo and goes on a spiritual quest to find herself.

Although Wei Hui thinks this book has a great deal more depth than her previous work — she has published two short-story collections not yet translated into English — authorities have yet to agree.

Despite her frustrations, Wei Hui remains diplomatic about the realities in Shanghai for now. "In China now the economy is amazing, it's become so much greater. We've almost embraced capitalism. But our social and political systems are communism."

Part of the problem with Wei Hui's books is not the fact that there is sex. It's just how it is portrayed. "The downfall of Shanghai Baby may not have been the sex," she says. "But the fact it was written from the perspective of a girl; the idea that a woman can express herself so boldly."

The daughter of a Chinese Army officer, she studied literature at the prestigious Fudan University. She didn't begin to write in the voice she uses now until she encountered the work of American novelist Henry Miller.

"I had the experience that most writers went through," says Wei Hui, recalling her short but memorable apprenticeship with frustration. "I didn't have fame, I didn't have money, and I didn't have a job. I was 22, 23, I didn't like home life in Shanghai. I was at a breaking point.

"I was going to give up. My home, my friends, they said, 'you are from a very good university, you can find a good job and marry someone'."

Instead, however, Wei Hui encountered Miller's work and decided there was a whole new way to live. "I read Tropic of Cancer and then half of his books — I felt like, 'wow, this man is wild, he's like an animal. He has this strong life force. He also lived a very poor life in Paris, had nowhere to sleep. And still he was passionate about writing'."

It has taken a while for Wei Hui to achieve the state of nearly unfettered mobility she enjoys now. For a number of years she worked as an editor at a newspaper in Shanghai.

But now she has an posh East-West existence, apartments in New York and Shanghai, and world tours for her books. Movie interest continues to percolate and in China Wei Hui remains a bit of a cult figure.

When they can get their hands on them, everyone from construction workers to office secretaries reads Shanghai Baby, which has so far overshadowed this new book.

I ask her what people from such diverse walks of life might see in this new novel and her answer is so lightning-quick it reveals media savvy lurking beneath the remnants of her wild-girl exterior.

"I think it shows that in spite of all this change that there is a soul that people do not want to lose, and a sense of tradition that is still very alive."

Perhaps one of these days the authorities will agree with this assessment.

* John Freeman is a writer in New York.