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.”
Meanwhile, although growth has created a middle class of sorts and even an upper crust of very wealthy Chinese, neither group has followed the anticipated script. For the most part, the new middle class seems too preoccupied with the intense pressures of owning a home and raising a child in a hypercompetitive society to get involved in politics. As for the new rich, they have hardly pushed for a fairer and more representative government to protect their new prosperity. Instead, most of them have been co-opted by the Communist Party -- or have simply emigrated to countries with more reliable legal systems.
Perhaps most telling, today young Chinese across the socioeconomic spectrum exhibit almost none of the political fervor that led thousands of students to take to the streets in 1989. China’s educational system has fed the country’s youth a steady diet of patriot-ism to ward off rebellious thoughts. But such measures appear almost redundant, since many young Chinese seem more interested in buying iPhones and Louis Vuitton products than in fighting for democratic change.
On the surface, then, the prediction that Chinese economic and political reform would go hand in hand seems not to have panned out. In truth, however, the story is more complicated. As Evan Osnos suggests in Age of Ambition, the optimistic view of China’s evolution wasn’t entirely wrong; it merely relied on a conception of politics too narrow to capture a number of subtle but profound shifts that have changed China in ways that are not always immediately visible. In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.
Age of Ambition is based on the stories Osnos gathered during his time in Beijing, first as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and then as a correspondent for The New Yorker, from 2005 to 2013. During those years, he detected a fascinating shift in the ambitions and hopes of ordinary Chinese. Although it’s true that China’s economic boom has encouraged levels of materialism and conspicuous consumption that would have been unimaginable in earlier eras, the country’s increased openness to the world has also produced a different set of values. A growing segment of Chinese society now not only yearns to be well clothed and well fed but also feels a keen desire for truth, meaning, and spiritual fulfillment.
The implicit post-Tiananmen social contract offered material well-being and social stability in exchange for disengagement from politics. Osnos’ stories reveal a fraying of this contract, as more and more Chinese citizens seek a version of the good life that goes beyond owning a house or a car. As ever-greater numbers of ordinary Chinese go online, travel abroad, and adopt the latest spiritual or self-help fads, the Communist Party has found itself ill prepared to confront the desire for not just a materially comfortable life but a meaningful one.
Although Osnos does not explore it in depth, his book also suggests a link between many Chinese citizens’ quest for meaning and a set of gnawing worries churning beneath the frothy good times. The search for dignity is no mere embrace of New Age positivity. It also reflects the fears and frustrations of a society laden with systemic risks: environmental devastation, bursting economic bubbles, the collapse of institutions hollowed out by corruption. Each of those threats has the potential to dramatically alter China’s course in unpredictable ways. The growing awareness among Chinese citizens of their society’s fragility has yet to translate into an overt political sentiment. But if and when that happens, it will come as a rude, and potentially earthshaking, shock to the ruling regime.
HAVE-NOTS AND HAVE-LOTS
Even without taking into account the kind of deep-seated shifts that Osnos detects, the Communist Party is already having trouble holding up its end of the post-Tiananmen bargain. The farmers who left the countryside for China’s cities and factory towns starting in the late 1980s now have children who dream of earning college degrees and landing white-collar jobs. Thanks to a government-led expansion of funding for higher education, China now has 11 times as many college students as it did at the time of the Tiananmen protests.
Yet for several years in a row now, the average starting salary of a college graduate in China has been less than that of an entry-level factory worker. Of course, after their families have sacrificed and poured their meager resources into the pursuit of an education, most college students find the thought of settling for blue-collar work after graduation inconceivable. In their desperate search for office jobs, graduates from rural towns and small cities congregate in cramped apartments and boarding houses in China’s wealthy coastal cities: “the ant tribe,” the Chinese call them.
Perhaps even more frustrating to China’s young and ambitious is a sense that the golden years of opportunity have already passed them by -- the impression that, in Osnos’ words, China’s boom was “a train with a limited number of seats.” Increasingly, a young person’s success depends on his or her parents’ connections, and one can find considerable vitriol directed against the so-called second-generation rich (fuerdai) when stories of them crashing Ferraris and enjoying $12,000 dinners circulate online.
Such resentment is hardly limited to the young and the poor. As I conduct anthropological research on the new rich in Sichuan Province, I constantly hear complaints from businesspeople (some of whom are doing quite well) that only those with strong political connections can make real money in today’s China. Many of China’s nouveaux riches (including several of the entrepreneurs profiled by Osnos), who have succeeded in acquiring vast “barehanded fortunes” -- the Chinese equivalent of “rags to riches” -- haven’t fared particularly well in the long run. In 2011, Forbes estimated that during the previous eight years, a Chinese billionaire had died of unnatural causes every 40 days, on average. Besides illness, the most common causes of death were murder, suicide, and execution. Chinese commentators have even begun wryly referring to Forbes’ annual ranking of China’s richest people as “the death list.”
NAILING JELL-O TO THE WALL
In the early years of the Internet era, many observers predicted that the spread of digital communications technology would overwhelm the Chinese government’s ability to suppress all these tensions and resentments brewing within society. In 2000, Bill Clinton declared that the Communist Party’s attempts to control the Internet would be like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” It was a good line -- but controlling the Internet hasn’t proved quite as hard as Clinton and many others expected. Today, the Chinese government blocks websites and search results with the so-called Great Firewall, an army of censors deletes articles and comments deemed politically sensitive, and legions of government-sponsored Internet users steer online sentiment in the government’s favor by posting pro–Communist Party and nationalist comments in discussion forums.
The recent rise of social media platforms such as Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and WeChat (an incredibly popular messaging program, which boasts approximately 355 million users) has made it much harder for the government to restrict information online, as messages posted to such services tend to spread rapidly before censors catch wind of them. Still, the Chinese authorities do not seem to be in immediate danger of losing their grip on their citizens’ digital lives. And yet their success so far has been something of a Pyrrhic victory; controlling the Internet has meant suppressing innovation along with dissent.
When Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs passed away, in 2011, there was much discussion in China about whether the country could ever produce a figure comparable to Jobs, whose risk taking and creativity were fostered not only by the strength of the U.S. economy but also by the openness of American society. The Chinese leadership desperately wants to end the country’s reliance on low-cost (and low-value-added) manufacturing and move toward an economy based on knowledge, information, and services: China wants to stop just assembling iPhones and start designing them.
Making that sort of shift is the only way that China will be able to create the kind of well-paying jobs that its youth crave. Yet many doubt that a culture of technological innovation and experimentation can flourish in a country that blocks Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Chinese Internet users like to point out that only two other countries do the same: Iran and North Korea -- hardly bastions of innovation and technological progress.
COME TO JESUS
Osnos’ reporting on the political, economic, and technological pressures on China’s stability is first-rate. But those themes -- and some of the characters Osnos focuses on, such as the artist Ai Weiwei and the human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng -- are somewhat familiar. Where Osnos manages to offer a truly fresh perspective on the country’s changing Zeitgeist is in the sections of the book that explore the role of faith in Chinese society and the contemporary search for meaning among Chinese citizens.
When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death, in 1976, the Communist Party’s abandonment of class struggle and collectivist ideology left an ideological vacuum. The economic boom that followed, coupled with government suppression of political dissent and official hostility toward organized religion, all but guaranteed that pragmatism and materialism would trump faith or ideology. This has led to what intellectuals and ordinary Chinese call a “moral crisis” or a “spiritual vacuum,” which they cite to explain everything from the pervasiveness of corruption to scandals over tainted food that has cost hundreds of lives and outraged China’s neophyte consumers. It seems to many Chinese that in the absence of a widely shared set of values, concern for fellow citizens has become a scarce commodity -- and that life itself has become cheap.
Osnos documents what might very well prove to be a tipping point in public angst over this kind of social alienation: the story of Yueyue, a two-year-old girl who, in 2011, wandered from her home in a crowded outdoor market in the southern city of Foshan and was hit by a van making its way through the market’s narrow streets. After the van’s driver continued on his way without stopping, at least 18 people walked past the injured child without assisting her. Then, another vehicle struck her; that driver also fled the scene. Finally, an elderly scrap collector stopped to help the girl, who later died from her injuries. The entire episode was captured by security cameras nearby, and the recording quickly spread online. In addition to laments about the state of Chinese society and threats to the drivers, the story led to an outpouring of donations to the victim’s family and to the scrap collector who stopped to help her.
Osnos compares the aftermath of this incident to that of the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City in 1964: it has become an allegory of the decline of civic virtue and social trust. Yet as Osnos points out, despite the way the girl’s death touched a nerve, Chinese society has also displayed a tremendous amount of collective concern for others. Jump-started by the massive civic response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, philanthropic and volunteer organizations have blossomed in recent years, and charitable giving is on the rise.
Perhaps the most significant response to the perceived moral and spiritual crisis has been a surprising flourishing of religion. Middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs are turning to Christianity and Buddhism in ever-greater numbers. Wenzhou, a wealthy city in China’s southeast dubbed “China’s Jerusalem,” has seen an explosion in church building financed largely by wealthy businesspeople; at least 15 percent of the city’s population now considers itself Christian. Nationwide, the number of Christians has grown from just a few million underground worshipers in the late 1970s to an estimated 67 million today. Given Christianity’s status as a state-designated “foreign religion” and the role Christianity played in anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the Communist Party views the rise of Christianity with considerable apprehension.
Even more discomforting for the Communist Party than the spread of Christianity has been the growing embrace of Tibetan Buddhism by middle-class Chinese who view it as more potent and pure than its Chinese counterpart. Ethnic Han Chinese from outside Tibet have begun funding the construction and maintenance of monasteries and temple complexes across the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan monks now frequently travel to large Chinese cities to give sermons and conduct “spiritual empowerment” ceremonies. The prospect of millions of Han Chinese devoted to a religion whose leader, the Dalai Lama, is considered an enemy of the Chinese state has produced distinct uneasiness in Beijing.
The Communist Party has responded to these trends by encouraging citizens to embrace the precepts of Confucianism. This represents a dramatic reversal from the Mao era, when Beijing tried to drive the population away from traditional beliefs that might compete with Maoism and even launched numerous “criticize Confucius” campaigns (the philosopher was blamed for promoting ideas that contributed to China’s economic and social backwardness). China’s current leaders have begun trying to rehabilitate Confucianism, hoping that its emphasis on stability will help patch up the country’s fraying social fabric without threatening the Communist Party. But so far, these attempts have fallen flat. Most notably, a state-financed 2010 Confucius biopic -- starring Chow Yun-Fat as the ancient philosopher -- was a massive flop at the box office.
“Development is the only hard truth,” declared the reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1992, aptly summing up the guiding sentiment of post-ideological China. The Communist Party has shown that it can deliver hundreds of shiny new airports and thousands of miles of high-speed railways. But its ideological offerings during the reform era have failed miserably. As Osnos puts it, “Thirty years after China embarked on its fitful embrace of the free market, it has no single unifying doctrine -- no ‘central melody’ -- and there is nothing predestined about what kind of country it is becoming.” Managing the diverse, ambitious, and increasingly sophisticated dreams of some 1.3 billion people will likely prove an even harder task for the Communist Party than overseeing the largest economic expansion in human history.
The costs of all that growth are now coming into focus. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter; the poisonous smog that blankets Beijing has become an emblem of a growing environmental crisis. Meanwhile, analysts warn that China’s massive property bubble might already be bursting. The damage could be enormous, since real estate investment represents around 20 percent of Chinese GDP. The systemic risks posed by environmental degradation and financial fragility have the potential to generate unforeseeable crises, which could prove especially difficult for the Communist Party to manage if its legitimacy erodes.
And therein lies the subtle threat posed to the Community Party by the Chinese people’s expanding search for meaning and dignity. Even as ordinary Chinese continue to benefit from the growth the party has fostered, many are already beginning to turn away from consumerism and toward other sources of satisfaction: unruly online discussions, religious worship, charity work. Should an environmental or economic crisis make it harder for the party to maintain stability or growth, it might find itself with few ways to appeal to -- much less control -- the significant number of Chinese who have latched on to truths they find more convincing than the “hard truth” of development.