Review: Evan Osnos observes China’s split personality in ‘Age of Ambition’

Review: “Age of Ambition” looks at how China pits aspiration against authoritarianism
Remarkable changes in the personal lives of the Chinese populace over the last 35 years are as evident as the glittering lights of East Nanjing Road in Shanghai.
(Matteo Colombo / Flickr Vision)

For more than a year, a portion of my apartment complex in Beijing has been a construction zone; squat, old buildings have been razed, and new towers are sprouting in their stead. The area is blocked off by walls covered with large, professionally printed green banners that stretch perhaps 15 feet high. A slogan on one reads: “The China Dream, My Dream.”

Such posters — inspired by President Xi Jinping himself — can be found all over the country, and in six brief Chinese characters, the motto unwittingly speaks volumes about China today: a state and its citizens bursting with aspiration toward an undefined goal. A leadership eager to express common cause with — and win loyalty from — 1.3 billion increasingly independent and informed individuals who have no say in their government. A catchphrase appropriated from the American democratic political system — a system China’s Communist leaders vehemently reject.

Unpacking the forces behind such fascinating and frustrating contradictions is New Yorker writer Evan Osnos in his thoughtful and lively new book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.”

Osnos came to China in 2005 for the Chicago Tribune and was the New Yorker’s correspondent in Beijing from 2008 until last year. Fans of his “Letters From China” are well acquainted with his knack for crafting telling portraits both of Chinese movers and shakers and the laobaixing, or ordinary folk, finding in their small, individual triumphs and tribulations larger truths about a country so vast, varied and contradictory that it often defies description, let alone interpretation.


As he well should, Osnos relies heavily on his published profiles for the pillars of “Age of Ambition”; regular readers will easily recognize passages from his dispatches on figures such as investigative journalist Hu Shuli, dissident Chen Guangcheng and artist Ai Weiwei, among others. But thankfully, rather than sweeping together a collection of greatest hits, Osnos has reworked the essentials from his reportage into a coherent examination of the tension between aspiration and authoritarianism.

The book traces China’s 35-year journey from poverty and collective dogmatism to a dynamic if cut-throat era of competition, self-promotion and materialism. Part 1 looks at the early days of the boom after China’s leaders started to break down the state-run economy in the late 1970s, sparking a wave of risk-taking (and wealth-making) among millions who until then had led severely constrained lives of conformity. “Age of Ambition” introduces us to high-rollers in the casinos of Macau, evangelical English teachers, Chinese tourists in Europe and nationalist Web whiz-kids.

Osnos wryly notes that a 1980 version of the nation’s authoritative dictionary still defined individualism as “the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others.”

The book’s second section chronicles how economic emancipation sowed a desire among Chinese for freer flows of information and expression, the Communist Party’s spectacular problems with corruption and its increasingly complex and aggressive efforts at propaganda and censorship in the Internet age. (In a stark illustration of China’s extensive censorship regime, Osnos has refused to allow “Age of Ambition” to be translated and published on the mainland because censors suggested he would need to cut or revise up to a quarter of the book.)


Part 3 taps into the growing quest for meaning and belief in a political system that constrains religion and civic activism — an insecure Communist state that, as Osnos says, has “shed its scripture but held fast to its saints.”

Where this is all leading politically, though, remains unclear. Osnos remarks in his epilogue that China, once known — to the outside world, at least — for its conformity, has become home to “fiercely opposing forces: Western-style liberals against nationalist conservatives; incumbent apparatchiks against restless plutocrats … propagandists against cyber-utopians.”

These forces, such as they are, though, remain diffuse, generally unorganized and often uncountable; in general, their desire and ability to effect change appears to be limited and incremental rather than radical and revolutionary.

“In the short term, the Party could succeed at silencing its critics, but in the long term, that was less clear,” Osnos says, “especially if segments within the Party recalculated their own risks and rewards for loyalty and decided that they had more to gain by siding with the people.”

True, yet given just how motley a group Osnos has shown “the people” to be, it’s not clear what “siding with the people” might mean. Democracy, or something else?

China’s Communist leaders continue to pour massive resources into controlling citizens’ rights to free expression and free assembly, and into maintaining legal and economic policies aimed at ensuring the Party’s grip on power endures. Whether Xi and his comrades can realize their own ambition to iterate a new paradigm of competent governance that commands genuine respect on par with Western democracy, while possibly affording greater personal liberties, though, only time will tell.

Osnos has adeptly chronicled the remarkable changes in the personal lives of the Chinese populace over the last 35 years, the tension that now animates the public-state relationship and the ideological stalemate bogging society down. This rapid evolution makes some kind of significant political transformation in China feel not just possible but also essential. What this country of 1.3 billion strivers achieves matters deeply — not just for them, but for us all.

Makinen is a reporter in The Times’ Beijing bureau.


Age of Ambition
Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China

Evan Osnos
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 416 pp., $27

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