Evan Osnos’ new book deconstructs a life of possibilities in post-Communist China.
Forty years ago in China, the parameters of daily life were controlled by the Communist Party. Your danwei, or work unit, had the final decision on where you lived, where you worked and whom you married. Mao Zedong ruled over millions of people in identical uniforms, an army educated to live, work, and die for the greater good. Mao was, as one pithy book title terms it, ‘Emperor of the Blue Ants’.
The king is dead. In Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos examines the birth of an era of aspiration. The non-fiction book is about a people who have jumped, in one generation, from worship of the collective to worship of the individual.
‘The longer I lived in China, the more I became focused on a recurring fact in people’s lives: that the single most powerful thing about them was they suddenly held a sense of their own possibility, their potential, and they could define what it meant to succeed,’ says Osnos, who lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013 as the The New Yorker’s China correspondent.
Today, ‘nobody is defining success by standards delivered to them on a platter by the state,’ he observes. The characters in Age of Ambition pursue their own dreams: from Gong Haiyan, founder of China’s largest dating website Jiayuan (which boasts almost 100 million members), to Tang Jie, an ardent patriot educated in Western philosophy who created a nationalist video in 2008 that went viral, drawing more than a million hits.
‘In a way, the Party unleashed this enormous power in 1979 by giving the people the right to aspire,’ comments Osnos, alluding to Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary opening up and reform that followed Mao’s death. ‘Without that, China and the PRC’s communist-led system would have collapsed – it wouldn’t have had the economic growth that allowed it to succeed.’
Ironically, what has made China flourish has also shaken the country’s political foundations. The power of the individual has propelled the country forward while gnawing away at the power of the state, leading to what Osnos terms ‘structural uncertainty’. It is this tension that makes Age of Ambition such a fascinating read.
Osnos became interested in China when he stumbled on a class on contemporary Chinese politics as a student at Harvard in 1994. ‘I was swept away by this operatic drama that had been contained within the past 60 years,’ he recalls. ‘You had revolution and civil war and these tragic figures such as Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping – almost people out of fiction. It was intoxicating.’
In 1996 he moved to Beijing to spend six months studying Mandarin. Back then, he writes in Age of Ambition, the capital smelt of ‘coal and garlic and work-stained wool and cheap tobacco’. It was wild and grimy and unglamorous, closer in spirit to ‘the windswept plains of Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong’.
In their place was a city that had already begun its metamorphosis from a dusty backwater to a vast metropolis. Osnos was disorientated and thrilled by the pace of change. Now back in the US, where he writes for The New Yorker from Washington DC, he misses ‘the slightly dangerous serendipity that comes with being in China. The [fact] that you get up every morning and have no reasonable knowledge about what is going to happen that day. ’
Age of Ambition is saturated with this frenetic energy. But most of all, the book conveys the opportunity for an individual with grit, drive (and some luck) to remake themselves.
Dhs62, available at www.amazon.com. By Jenny Hewett
Time Out Dubai, 10 June 2014