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Evan Osnos

Age of Ambition

From abroad, we often see China as a caricature: a nation of pragmatic plutocrats and ruthlessly dedicated students destined to rule the global economy-or an addled Goliath, riddled with corruption and on the edge of stagnation. What we don't see is how both powerful and ordinary people are remaking their lives as their country dramatically changes. As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos was on the ground in China for years, witness to profound political, economic, and cultural upheaval. In Age of Ambition, he describes the greatest collision taking place in that country: the clash between the rise of the individual and the Communist Party's struggle to retain control. He asks probing questions: Why does a government with more success lifting people from poverty than any civilization in history choose to put strict restraints on freedom of expression? Why do millions of young Chinese professionals-fluent in English and devoted to Western pop culture-consider themselves "angry youth," dedicated to resisting the West's influence? How are Chinese from all strata finding meaning after two decades of the relentless pursuit of wealth?

Evan Osnos (1976), American journalist and author, lived in China, specifically Beijing, from 2008 to 2013, covering the enormous changes in that nation as it embraces its own brand of capitalism (and the enormous implications, local and global, of those changes) for the New Yorker. Before that, for three years he was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

His book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, published in 2014, explores the tensions between China's rapid expansion and economic opportunity, and its enduring commitment to authoritarian rule. His book is full of revealing personal stories and some telling statistics, like this one. In 2005 there were only 65 Chinese students in private American high schools. Five years later there were more than 7,000, as wealthy Chinese embraced American education to create opportunities for their children.

Osnos’s work helps you understand the odd dichotomy of big government and free market capitalism that exists there. Something that the vast majority of westerners fail to really understand. That is not a simple topic to summarize, but the author presented it - not as a rigid historical background - but as a mix of stories and biographies of real, fascinating people in China. It explains not only how the government got to its current state but also why it's not going away anytime soon.

He tells the story with three different perspectives at play, China's phenomenal growth, the corruption and intimidation the government uses, and the third perspective of what the author refers to as faith, by that he means a belief in tradition and a distrust in the system working fairly for the individual.

Osnos covers a lot of ground and, patiently and persistently over a period of years, pursues big questions about what Chinese culture is, and is becoming. We can extrapolate from his work to consider what change in China means to us around the world. Contemplating China’s development can be exhausting because of its overwhelmingly big, populous, and uncontrollable aspects. But one thing is sure: ordinary Chinese people have a kind of “get ahead” entrepreneurial mentality that swamps the vitality of ordinary western life. The distance from their basic living starting point and ours is so great that their desperate energy is going to be the propulsion for societies around the globe.

Osnos brings to bear the insight that comes only with extended experience and facility with the language in an alien culture, the sort of understanding that no reader can glean from the daily news, no matter how deeply reported. He focuses on ten or a dozen central figures whose stories resume from time to time through the pages of this brilliant survey of contemporary China. A heroic young captain in the Taiwanese Army who defects to the Mainland and later — much later — becomes one of the country’s most celebrated economists, garnering the job of chief economist at the World Bank. A self-promoting English teacher who builds a nationwide adult education empire based on urging his students to shout English at the top of their lungs. A Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at a leading university who spearheads an ultranationalist campaign online. The sad story of the driven railroad man who rises to preside over one of the most corrupt ministries in a country of legendary corruption, building China’s network of high-speed trains along the way — and is nearly executed for his achievements.

On the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, author Evan Osnos discusses his book Age of Ambition with Dave Davies for the show Fresh Air. (Transcript was published June 3, 2014, www.npr.org).

Give us some sense of the scale and speed of China's growth and how much things have changed since 1996, when you first visited.

China's transformation - it's extraordinary economic growth - to put in perspective is 100 times the scale and 10 times the speed of the first industrial revolution which transformed Britain. So, in practical terms what that feels like up close is that in 1978, for instance, your average Chinese person made about 200 dollars a year and last year they made about 6,000 dollars a year. In the most elemental ways their lives are different. In the mid '70s compared to today - a person in China today eats about six times as much meat as they did back then. Today, 40% of the skyscrapers under construction worldwide are in China.

Now, of course, it remains a one-party state. An authoritarian state. Just remind us, what the change in policy was that got all of this going back in the '90s.

Well the crucial moment in understanding how China became this, sort of, hybrid between an authoritarian state and a free market economy came in 1979, after 30 years of socialism. Ever since the Communist revolution in 1949 the party had adhered basically to orthodox, Marxist and Leninist economics. And those had been ruinous. By 1979, Chinese people were poorer, on average, than North Koreans. I mean, your average per-capita income in China that year was one third of sub-Saharan Africa's. And so, Deng Xiaoping, who was the leader of the country, and the men around him made a judgment, which was, if they were going to survive politically, they had to get rid of socialist economics and that's what they did.

So, they embarked on this radical transformation. They basically set aside, in a sense, the scripture of socialism and they held on to the saints of socialism. Chairman Mao, for instance, whose portrait still hangs in Tiananmen square. But for people on the ground, the effect was transformative. All of a sudden they started to unravel the old collective farms and the factories, and people were basically told to go off on their own and begin to find work for themselves and begin to decide what they were going to do with the little bit of money that they were accumulating. I mean, for people it felt so elemental that the word they used in Chinese literally means to untie a prisoner or an animal. All of a sudden people felt that they had been unfastened from the system and were sent out on their own.

You tell some interesting stories which convey the change and I wanted to talk a bit about this one woman, Gong Haiyan. She grew up in a rural village in the province of Hunan. First of all, she showed early signs of the entrepreneurial spirit – she went to a factory, eventually got her schooling and then got into the match-making business.

She - like a lot of people her age - had this strange problem she was confronting, which was that her parents were back in the village and the only people that they could introduce her to were people from their circle. And she said, no, I live in the city. I've got an education. I live a completely different life and I need to find people just like me. And she actually signed up for an early dating service and it turned out to be a scam. They had - she'd been given a list of photos and names and contact information, and it turned out that they were all, basically, fake dates. They had been cobbled together - just sort of these composites. And when she contacted the company and said, well, why did you cheat me like this? They said, well, it serves you right. Take a look at yourself. You're not beautiful enough to be going for the types of men that you're after. And this offended her. It offended her in a way that I think previous generations would never have felt. But she said, I deserve better than this. So she decided to start a company. She was just out of graduate school and she was living in a tiny one-room apartment in Beijing and she started the Chinese equivalent of match.com. And actually, it turned out there was a huge market for what she was interested in doing. There were a lot of people like her. And even though they didn't really have the computers to make it work, people were actually mailing in, by post, their photos and stats. It turned out there were a lot of people facing a similar quandary. And she took her company public on the NASDAQ and she made 77 million dollars.

How much of the newfound wealth is connected to the power and privilege of party associations - Communist Party associations?

On paper the plan was that the people in China who were going to – those who moved the fastest and seized the most opportunities - that they would become these pioneers. And that, for a while, was the mythology. And certainly that's what you saw on the front page of the newspaper every day. You'd see a story about somebody going from a dumpling stand to owning a huge chain nationwide, but I think running beneath that - underneath the surface there was this growing sense - and it's taken hold more strongly in the last few years - that actually the way to get ahead in China was to be born into the right family or to have the right connections or to pay the right bribe. And that became, really, a fundamental challenge to this bargain at the center of Chinese life, which is, we'll let you get rich if you let us stay in power.

You write a lot in the book about the contradiction between the government encouraging innovation and mobility and its attempts to suppress speech and assembly. And you write about a building in Beijing - an unidentified building that’s kind of at the heart of censorship and suppression.

I got very interested in this building. I mean, it's right in the center of the city. It's on Jong-Ansia (ph), which is this broad boulevard that runs right through town. Right next to the Chinese equivalent of the White House is this enormous office building with a pagoda roof on it. And the first time I asked what this building was - I asked the guard and he said, I can't tell you that. And it was odd, there was no number on it. There's no sign on it. And it turns out that the building is home to the Central Propaganda Department, the highest-ranking censorship agency in China. And it has control over everything from the appointment of newspaper editors to university professors to the way that films are cut and distributed. It's almost impossible to overstate how powerful it is in people's lives.

The party has a very kind of self-conscious relationship with its own use of propaganda because on the one hand, it believes that it's vital for holding onto power and for maintaining political stability. And yet it also realizes that there's something completely antiquated about having that in the year 2014. So a few years ago, they actually changed the name to the Central Publicity Department.

It's interesting that you write about the extent to which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are confident that they're going to be able to sustain their role. It's still a very hierarchical organization. And you write that President Xi Jinping embarked on an anti-corruption campaign.

When Xi Jinping came into office at the end of 2012, he realized that the party was facing a tidal wave of corruption. It had grown steadily over the course of the last generation, ever since the country had embarked on free-market reforms. And all of a sudden, you had people who were accumulating an enormous fortune under the table. An example that I encountered was a regional railway boss who decided that he was going to take a little piece of every ticket that was sold in his region for himself. And the money started accumulating so fast and was piling up in cash in his home at such a rate, that in fact the money was beginning to molder and turn to dust. He couldn't get rid of the money fast enough. And all over the country, there were stories of that kind in one form or another, not as extreme. But in people's lives it became a dominant fact of life.

This corrupt railway boss was put on trial, and he confessed and wept. And then the government embarked upon the I Made a Bribe campaign - an attempt to encourage people to report corruption wherever they found it, right? What became of that?

Well, people took the government at its word, and they got enthusiastic about this possibility of being able to report corruption for the first time and to contribute, in a sense, to this new government campaign. But the problem was that as people adopted this and began to do it on their own - so for instance lawyers, who began to report incidents of corruption. They began to propose legal reforms, like income disclosures that would require local officials to report how much money they were earning. Well, the more that this happened, the party began to realize that they were losing control of the anti-corruption effort that they had created. And so they had to rein it in. And so all of a sudden, the party which had so enthusiastically launched the country onto this anti-corruption campaign began to arrest some of the people who were trying to root out corruption. And so all of a sudden, they decided that it really wasn't up to ordinary people to be doing this. The party wanted to be doing it itself on its own terms.

Right, because if in fact they attack the privilege of those in the party, they're undermining the base of their own political support, which is the 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.

This was really the conundrum that the party faces, which is if they go after all of the privileges and the opportunities that have been created for party members, well, then what's left? You know, they've gotten rid of socialistic economics. The party today exists almost like a professional organization. It's helpful for networking and recruiting and things like that. But how much could they rein in the privileges without undermining the party's legitimacy entirely?

So we have a situation where in China, you know, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people have seen enormous increases in their income. And they're better off than they've been in generations. And yet, at the same time, there's official suppression at every hand. There's no real representative democracy, and corruption that really pretty much goes unchecked. Do we know anything about how people regard socialism and the one-party state? I mean, is there poll data on this?

There is. And if you look at some polling data - for instance, there's a poll that asks people if they approve of their government. And what you'll find is that the numbers are very high. I mean, in many cases, more than 80 percent of the people that they call will say that they approve of the government. It's higher often than any other country in the world.

But I think there's also reason to be a little skeptical of some of those numbers. For one thing, if somebody calls you up on the phone and you live in an authoritarian country, and they ask if you like your government, it's not hard to come up with the right answer.

I think it's also important to recognize that there are differences within the population. So for instance, older people who have grown up in which they remember the worst days of the cultural revolution, the political turmoil, the poverty that came with that - for them, China today is an extraordinary improvement, I mean, just in terms of the sheer quality of life. And yet younger people are much less satisfied because they have no memory of the bad, old days. And so young people in China today are growing up in this environment where they've been raised to believe that your income's going to continue growing every year, that if you buy into the system, you get a college education, that you'll have a job waiting for you. But that's getting a lot harder. It's gotten a lot harder in the last few years, and it's going to continue to get harder. And I don't think that that population is as satisfied, and the government is actually very aware of it.

You write that during the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack on traditional Chinese spiritual beliefs that was really pretty effective; and that when this new ethos of progress and self-enrichment didn't really kind of fill the spiritual void, there was a need for something; and that there's now a more permissive attitude towards religion in China. And you write that you wanted to understand Chinese citizens’ quest for meaning in their lives. What did you find?

Well, over the course of a generation, people had gone from living almost a religious experience in their devotion to Chairman Mao. I think it's easy for us to forget that after all, you know, they held up his book, and they waved it over their heads. And people would literally confess their sins at the foot of his statues. And then all of a sudden, that disappeared overnight. Socialist economics was finished. And all of a sudden, people were left to figure out, well, what do I want out of life? What am I here for? What am I a part of? What is the basis of public morality? And so it's really been an extraordinary awakening over the last few years, where all of a sudden, you have people going off and looking for philosophies and religions to the point that today China has about as many Christians as there are members of the Communist Party.

And the government tolerates it as long as it's not what is thought of as a cult, right?

It tolerates it but very, very warily. I mean, there is this constant tug-of-war over who's going to control the boundaries of faith in China. And just recently you've seen that they have toppled some unofficial churches that hadn't received official approval. So, you know, we see this constant process of opening and then closing again. But fundamentally, the government recognizes that it can no longer prevent people from choosing where they want to devote their own spiritual lives. It has to allow people some kind of spiritual satisfaction. And it's - in a sense, it's trying to manage that flood of energy. You know, often times, I think of it - instead of saying, perhaps, that the government is allowing people to pursue faith, actually, it's more like the government is simply trying to keep up with them.