One of the hazards of getting a blurb for your book from someone who has written a great book on a closely related subject is that it invites comparisons. Age of Ambition — subtitled Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China — has a blurb from Peter Hessler, whose three books on contemporary China set the standard on the topic, as far as I am concerned. I spent an unfair amount of time wondering why Osnos’ book wasn’t like one of Hessler’s, a deeply present book, written from the inside out, from someone grounded in the place who is an inhabitant (even if a foreigner) first and a reporter second. Age of Ambition isn’t like that because Osnos isn’t writing a Hessler book, and it took me a while to get over my supposition and see what he was getting up to.
Osnos was the China correspondent for The New Yorker from 2008 to 2013 (he had been a reporter there for The Chicago Tribune from 2005, after two stints in the 1990s spent learning Mandarin), and Age of Ambition is his summation of China in that period, along with threads of discussion that show how particular aspects of reform-era China came about, or longer personal stories that illuminate themes in recent Chinese history that Osnos sees as important. The largest themes are the three of his subtitle — fortune, truth, faith — though he develops several others in the course of the book. The changes in China over the course of the last 30 to 40 years strain superlatives, and Osnos sketches their scope right at the start.
Above all [the age of ambition] is a time of plenty—the crest of a transformation one hundred times the scale, and ten times the speed, of the first Industrial Revolution, which created modern Britain. The Chinese people no longer want for food—the average citizen eats six times as much meat as in 1976—but this is a ravenous era of a different kind, a period when people have awoken with a hunger for new sensations, ideas, and respect. China is the world’s larges consumer of energy, movies, beer, and platinum; it is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined. …
China is the world’s fastest-growing source of new billionaires. Several of the new plutocrats have been among the world’s most dedicated thieves; others have been holders of high public office. Some have been both. For most of the Chinese people, however, the boom has not produced vast wealth; it has permitted the first halting steps out of poverty. … [China’s rise] is been one of the broaded gains in human well-being in the modern age. In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2014, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives. …
[I]n my years in China, the number of airline passengers doubled; cell phone sales tripled; the length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But I was less impressed by those numbers than by a drama that I could not quantify: two generations ago, visitors to China marveled most at the sameness of it all. … Stereotypes about the Chinese as collectivist, inscrutable drones endured in part because China’s politics helped sustain them; official China reminded its guests that it was a nation of work units and communes and uncountable sacrifice.
But in the China that I encountered, the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories—stories of flesh and blood, of idiosyncrasies and solitary struggles. (pp. 4–5)
Capturing those billion stories in one book is impossible, so Osnos chooses some that are illustrative, or that compelled him the most. He starts with Lin Zhengyi (Osnos follows the Chinese practice of placing family names first), who defected from Taiwan to the People’s Republic in 1979. That was not long after Mao’s death but before Deng Xiaoping began reform and opening; China was extremely poor. By sketching Lin’s life in the decades after his defection in some detail, Osnos shows the course of changes. Lin follows the tides and rises high; in time, he is the first Chinese person to be chief economist of the World Bank.
Gong Haiyan is much younger, and her rise stemmed from a new aspect of modern Chinese life: relative freedom in choosing marriage partners. She was so dissatisfied with the rampant fakery in a dating service that she set up her own. “By 2006, Gong’s dating site had a million registered users; the following year, venture capitalists invested. … By her seventh year in business, the site had fifty-six million registered users and was ranked first in China in time spent online and in the number of unique visitors. It was China’s largest dating service.” (p. 51) Osnos fills out the questionnaire himself, and meets other customers (though not as dates). In the process, he shows how prospective pairs evaluated each other “on their potential, especially their earning potential.”
Even that was changing fast:
The pressure to keep up created a kind of language inflation. A few years earlier, a “triple without” was a migrant worker without shelter, a job, or a source of income. By the time I started hanging around Gong Haiyan’s office, a “triple without” referred to a man without his own house, car, or nest egg. If a triple without got married, it was called a “naked wedding.” In 2011 this was the title of a Chinese miniseries about a privileged young bride who married her working-class husband over the objections of her parents, and moved in with his family. It became the most popular show in China.
One of my favorite chapters in the book was one in which Osnos is most immersed: he joins a Chinese tour group visiting Europe. The sights, the style of touring, the questions that they pose and the things his tour-mates think are worth remarking on all show a great deal about how China is emerging into the world. That, too, is changing rapidly. Osnos quotes a guide to behavior abroad from 2002: “beyond Chinese borders, ‘foreign intelligence agencies and other enemy forces’ wage a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ using ‘reactionary propaganda to topple the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.'” (p. 104) By the time Osnos joins a group in 2011, they are dashing through the Louvre, packing in sightseeing, but still getting shuffled off to Chinese-style meals at the end of each day. He remarks, “Nearly half of all Chinese tourists in one market survey reported eating no more than one ‘European-style’ meal on a trip to the West.” (p. 119) Osnos sees the growth of solo tourism, and speculates that tours like the one he went on will also soon be a thing of the past.
Having demonstrated the vividness and variety of contemporary Chinese life, Osnos grapples with an important reaction: the state’s authoritarian nature. There is a long thread in modern Chinese political thinking that only that kind of state can keep the people’s natural anarchy from unraveling into chaos. (The argument is not unique to China; it’s particularly prevalent in Russia, too.) Osnos tells of several people who have pursued truths that the Party does not want to be more widely known: what happened in June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, how many people died in the Sichuan earthquake, how widespread corruption really is. Of course these things are known to many people, particularly the last, but the Party wishes to see that it is not widely known that these are known. Corruption can thus be regarded as an effect of a bad actor, and not systematic; or lawless officials can be seen as a tiny minority, and not anything larger.
Whenever I wrote about human rights abuses, I knew to expect that often the most critical reactions came from other expatriates in China. I understood that: foreigners with no reason to probe could spend years in China without ever interviewing someone who had been tortured, or locked up without trial, and to them, my focus was misplaced.
But those arguments wore thin with me. … [Dissident artist] Ai Weiwei’s lifestyle was emphatically outside the mainstream. But when it came to his ideas, this was less clear than it used to be: the collapse of the schools in the earthquake had captivated the attention of ordinary Chinese, not just the urban elite, and in seeking to dignify the deaths of some of China’s most vulnerable people, Ai Weiwei was enacting an idea that many others supported. …
Understanding why Ai Weiwei was arrested—or why Gao Zhisheng was abused, or why Liu Xiaobo was in prison—was vital to understanding China. The degree to which it could accept a figure such as Ai Weiwei was a measure of how far China had or had not moved toward a modern, open society. (p 228)
Age of Ambition closes with Osnos’ departure from China in 2013. He looks again at statistics, noting that the one-child policy has meant that between 2010 and 2030 “China’s labor force would shrink by sixty-seven million people, the equivalent of the population of France.” (p. 348) Investment was not producing as much growth as before, and signs of a financial bubble were visible. But he wraps up with a conversation with a street sweeper, who is considerably more than just that, signaling Osnos’ hopes for that great Chinese cacophony he has witnessed during the age of ambition.