Can't Buy Me Love

China's New Rich and Its Crisis of Values

People pray at Yonghegong Lama Temple, the biggest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Beijing, February 2010. (Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters)

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. By EVAN OSNOS. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014, 416 pp. $27.00.

Ever since the late 1970s, when China began the process of reforming and opening up its economy, Western observers have struggled to make sense of the country’s rise and to predict the future path of Chinese society and politics. Early in the reform period, most China experts in the West -- along with some members of China’s leadership -- assumed that economic development would inevitably lead to political reforms. As Chinese citizens grew wealthier, the thinking went, they would conform to the predictive models of political science and demand a government that better represented their interests and protected their newly acquired assets. 

During the 1980s, it seemed possible that the country’s politics might indeed liberalize along with its economy, as a nascent pro-democracy movement began to take shape, especially among young people. But those hopes were extinguished when the Chinese Communist Party launched a brutal crackdown on dissent during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In the 25 years since those fateful days, China’s economy has grown and developed far more rapidly than almost anyone expected, and Chinese society has transformed in many ways. But the country’s politics have remained more or less frozen -- or even regressed. 

Since the end of Mao Zedong’s rule, in 1976, a number of Chinese leaders have occasionally hinted at possible political reforms. But the current government, led by Xi Jinping, seems downright Maoist at times in its hostility to Western-style political institutions and values. For example, a document drafted last year by the party’s Central Committee denounces any call for “defending the constitution” or the “rule of law” as an attempt to “undermine the current leadership and the socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics system of governance.”

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