Book Review: Age of Ambition

It’s hard to review a book without resorting to cliches. This goes doubly true for a China book, so I will attempt to avoid the obvious arguments about Evan Osnos’ just-released Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. In brief, it is a good book, an introduction to those in the West learning about China, and a grand summation of events for those of us who experienced the Hu Jintao years as expatriates. At 416 pages, it makes for brisk reading, and Osnos’ writing is accessible and entertaining.

To begin, Osnos is a journalist and his profession lends a humanist, storytelling perspective to covering China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos hasn’t written a polemic about China, nor has he picked apart State Council statistics, nor has he engaged in Zhongnanhaiology to predict Chinese foreign policy. Osnos covered China for eight years for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker and continues to blog about China and other topics on his New Yorker blog. His focus in the book is the people of the People’s Republic, and what they can tell us about China.

Once again, I wish to avoid the obvious cliches and say that if Osnos’ book can be compared to anything, it’s literature. Like George R.R. Martin, Osnos gathers together a cast of point of view characters, repeated interview subjects who he uses to explore the radical changes which swept through China during the last three decades. The book is subtitled “Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith,” and is divided into three parts representing each of these themes in a loosely chronological framework. Osnos uses his interviews to explore each theme, and while much of the material should be familiar to his longtime readers, he adds enough to keep us satisfied.

The first part of the book, “Fortune,” is naturally concerned with the development of China’s economy. Osnos takes us to the 1970s, but also to the 1990s, when he first visited the country. By the time the Tribune returns Osnos to the country, he was already impressed by the rapid pace of development:

The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a year—equivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States too fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.

As most China chroniclers are apt to do, Osnos ticks all the usual boxes when describing the new realities for the Party-State and the economy. “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.” “At the lowest levels, the Party felt like a professional network.” “Young people began to speak admiringly of the quality they called gexing, ‘individuality.’” We China hands—both amateur and professional—ought to forgive these kind of characterizations, since we often fail to appreciate how new this can all seem to people back home. Isn’t it simply true that, as Osnos writes, “In the age of ambition, life sped up”?

Not all of life’s velocity is in high speed trains and high-rise apartments, though. Since much of my time in China has been spent in education, I enjoyed Osnos’ look at “English fever” and at the Chinese quest for educational achievement, which are part and parcel of the Chinese quest for material security. Osnos meets the now-infamous entrepreneur Li Yang of “Crazy English” (and later, domestic violence) fame, whose teaching methods I came to know and loathe after I arrived in China in 2004.

(A sampling, from my own personal knowledge: Students were given passages and told to read them as loud as possible as many times as possible every day. This severely disrupted the study patterns of other students in classrooms and common areas, so they ostracized their Crazy English-loving classmates . Students were encouraged by Li and his imitators to literally stalk foreigners and demand English practice. In one incident, a student at the university I worked at followed German exchange students around on his bicycle for weeks, repeatedly asking them “Where are you from?” like an English-crazed version of the newspaper kid from the film Better Off Dead. A Canadian colleague of mine who taught at one of the Crazy English summer camps had a Russian coworker who was instructed to fend off questions about his accent by telling people he was Scottish.)

Accused by some of his critics of leading a cult, Li told Osnos in an interview that he, like Han Solo, was just in it for the money. (Osnos leaves it to his readers to draw the obvious parallel between con men and cult leaders.) Li Yang might not have been a cult leader but he had his share of true believers. Osnos befriended Michael Zhang, a Crazy English fan who ardently believed in the transformative power of English, becoming an educator and would-be entrepreneur. Osnos follows Michael’s story for the better part of a decade, with Michael’s obsessions, optimism, and harsh living conditions becoming a metaphor for the Chinese scramble for wealth every bit as significant as the experiences of others interviewed by Osnos, including media moguls like Hu Shuli and power brokers like the World Bank’s Justin Yifu Lin.

The second part of Osnos’ book, “Truth,” is unsurprisingly about freedom of the press and of expression, censorship, and dissidents. These are also the kinds of things we expect to hear about when reading about China, but again, Osnos has his own take on things. Journalists tend to be sympathetic to dissidents, partly because they are fascinated by David and Goliath narratives, but also because, as Osnos reminds us, journalists get to encounter dissidents directly: it is harder to dismiss someone when we see the effects of oppression with our own eyes.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism in reporting on Chinese dissidents, it’s not China correspondents with firsthand knowledge of China. Instead, it’s Western media commentators who distort the nature of Chinese political dissent through third-, fourth-, and even fifth-hand accounts, much like a game of “Chinese whispers.” For instance, no journalist who got to interview dissident (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo or his wife Liu Xia came away thinking that Charter 08 would lead to the imminent collapse of the Communist Party, yet their stories were repeated again and again with subtle alterations that changed the scope and nature of the Lius’ activism to the point where many Western readers were asked to accept wishful thinking about a Chinese democratic revolution as a substitute for actual understanding.

Thankfully, Osnos does not present us with a single dissident voice, because such a thing does not exist in China. In addition to the Lius, we meet journalists like the aforementioned Hu Shuli, who “dance with shackles” while trying to report the news; Han Han, the novelist, race car driver, and social critic; Ai Weiwei, the avant-garde artist and activist; Chen Guangcheng, whose activism highlights failures in China’s rule of law rather than rejecting the Chinese government; and, most interestingly, China’s neoconservatives like Tang Jie, whose nationalist positions are often to the right of Beijing’s.

While liberal figures like Han Han, Chen Guangcheng, and Ai Weiwei are regularly featured in the Western press, China’s neoconservatives are either crudely stereotyped or not discussed at all. In part this is because patriotic thinkers have been treated, in the Leninist sense, as “useful idiots” by the Communist Party: allowed to thrive when they contribute to national unity or support the propaganda discourse against the Party’s foes, but shut down when they go off script or otherwise demonstrate their independence. Thus it becomes easy to characterize them as government-controlled rather than reflecting an actual (albeit niche) viewpoint among Chinese. (How many Straussians are there in China, exactly?) As with most of his interview subjects, Osnos treats the neoconservatives with respect, but is not above pointing out ironies:

“The mainstream of Chinese media is liberal; that is common knowledge,” Li said, and he ticked off a list of objectives he didn’t agree with: “independent legal system, market economy, small government. … These people who control the media say they are liberal, but they act like authoritarians. Alternative views are blocked.” For a second, I thought he was making a joke, but he wasn’t: the rising generation of Chinese nationalists was earnestly complaining about the lack of free expression.

When introducing us to Tang Jie and his allies, Osnos highlights the 2008 Olympic Torch protests and negative Chinese reactions to Western media coverage of Tibet as the crucible of their new nationalism. He notes the flurry of activity in April of that month, including Tang Jie’s viral Youtube video “2008 China Stand Up!” and boycotts of French products and the French supermarket chain Carrefour. (The largest of the Olympic Torch protests took place in France, and nationalists fabricated stories about French support for Tibetan independence.) Osnos places the Sichuan earthquake around roughly the same time as the nationalist protests, yet he doesn’t explicitly link the earthquake, which happened on May 12th, to the collapse of the protest movement by mid-May. At the time, however, the shock of the earthquake effectively disarmed Tang Jie and others of their biggest weapon: an audience that cared.

Of course, the Sichuan earthquake is not the only disaster which altered China’s political landscape in the last decade. Osnos revisits some of his phenomenal writing from The New Yorker on the Wenzhou high speed train crash and the subsequent trial of Liu Zhijun, China’s fantastically corrupt railroad minister. Much as disasters and famines threatened the rule of Chinese emperors, Sichuan and Wenzhou led to crises of confidence in the modern Chinese government, and also more broadly to crises of faith in society. This brings us to “Faith,” the third and final part of the book, which is also arguably the weakest section. While it’s true that parts one and two are not exclusively about economic growth and politics, those expecting “Faith” to focus at length on China’s turn to religion will be disappointed. In general, the theme of the third part is muddled—there are great stories here, but they don’t stitch together quite as well as the first two parts of the book. Osnos uses the last third of the book—plus a lengthy epilogue—to wrap up all of the stories he’s been leading us through. As I noted at the onset, the book is also loosely chronological, meaning many of the stories “finish” in part three.

Before he returns to Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng, and others, Osnos briefly looks at Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Perhaps because he was based in Beijing, Islam gets no noteworthy discussion, which is unfortunate considering recent events in Xinjiang. Osnos is clearly interested in Chinese beliefs and how they address the spiritual crisis brought on by the dialectical materialism of the Communist Party and the moneyed materialism of Chinese capitalism, as reflected in consumer safety scandals, political scandals, natural disasters, and moral disasters. Osnos recounts the horrific death of little Yueyue in Guangdong, who was fatally wounded in a hit and run and left dying in the street while passersby in her neighborhood ignored her moans. He questions the comparisons between Yueyue and the famous American case of Kitty Genovese, noting that both incidents were turned into morality plays, and argues against drawing conclusions that Chinese in general have become amoral. Here Osnos quotes anthropologist Zhou Runan: “‘Young people are training to become fully rounded individuals, not selfish isolated people. That’s where the hope is: in the young.’”

While Osnos is optimistic, at the onset of the book he notes that China in the 1990s lacked the kind of social associations we would find in the West—clubs, sports teams, civic groups, and the like. The Party had just spent the better part of three decades demolishing all such organizations, of course, and viewed efforts to create independent social organizations with suspicion. According to sociologist Robert Putnam in his landmark work Bowling Alone, voluntary social organizations are key to developing social capital, and without them, societies have difficulty building trust between citizens and between citizens and government. Osnos doesn’t reference Putnam, but there are echoes of Putnam’s theories when Osnos interviews China’s most unlikely philosophical superstar, communitarian thinker and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel.

In America, Sandel first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a critic of John Rawls’ liberal Theory of Justice, which ordered society along rational lines through moral agents unencumbered by deep moral beliefs or social backgrounds. Sandel’s communitarianism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was a reaction to the unreality of Rawls’ moral agents. Like Putnam, communitarians believed in the necessity of fostering social capital and social trust. In China, on the other hand, Sandel’s target wasn’t Kantian liberalism but the raw utilitarian capitalism unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, which is about as far as one could get from Rawls. Still, thanks to videos of his Justice lectures and his guest lectures in China, Sandel’s message reached the hearts of many young Chinese. Osnos offers an anecdote of a woman named Shi Ye, who proclaimed during Sandel’s final lecture in Beijing, “‘Your class saved my soul.’”

If there’s an overarching theme throughout Age of Ambition, it’s that Osnos remains positive about China’s people even as he documents the country’s new inequalities and the struggles that many Chinese have with their government. With regard to that government, although there’s politics in almost every chapter of the book, Osnos walks a pragmatic line between criticizing corruption and authoritarianism on the one hand and acknowledging the Chinese government’s successes on the other. To Westerners who have come to imagine Beijing as the very picture of Hobbes’ Leviathan, this seems contradictory. Isn’t it all just the same government? Don’t the failures just add up until they become unacceptable to the people? More importantly, why don’t the Chinese people hate their government as much as I would?

Some readers may be disappointed, but Osnos isn’t offering us that kind of critique. Looking closely at his interviews with people like Michael Zhang, Hu Shuli, Han Han, Tang Jie, and even Chen Guangcheng, one can gain a sense about how Chinese people believe their society is, and how they feel it ought to be. We can’t leave out people like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo either, since their treatment speaks to a Chinese government which has yet to mature. Osnos repeatedly compares the China of today to the Gilded Age of American history, giving us an analytical tool we can use to understand how China is developing. Implicit in that comparison is a promise that things can improve, because we, too, have been down that road. Thus, if there seems to be complacency among most Chinese about politics today, it may be because the future remains alive with possibility.