Foreign Affairs Focus on Books: Evan Osnos on the New China

Will Chinese economic development ultimately lead to political development? In Age of Ambition, the journalist Evan Osnos thinks he has found the missing link: the emergence in Chinese society of a search for dignity. Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recently sat down with Osnos to discuss Chinese spirituality, Beijing's censorship of journalists, and President Xi Jinping's anticorruption campaign. A transcript is available below. For more books coverage, follow us on Twitter @FA_books and subscribe to our monthly Books and Reviews newsletter.

VOGT: Hi, welcome to Foreign Affairs Focus on Books. I'm Justin Vogt, books editor here at the magazine. I'm joined today by Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China. Evan, thanks so much for joining us today

OSNOS: Thanks for having me.

VOGT: You spent about eight years, from 2005 until 2013, living and reporting on China for The New Yorker and The Chicago Tribune. You've now written this terrific book about ways in which China is quickly changing and transforming. Now you're back in the United States. You're based in Washington. What's the single most important thing that official Washington misunderstands, or misperceives, or just plain doesn't know about contemporary China?

OSNOS: I think there's a tendency, and it's an understandable tendency, to imagine that China makes decisions out of a grand strategy. The reality is that I think China today is operating, most of all, based on its domestic needs. And those are very specific, and they act as both a motivator and then I also think a hedge against more adventurous actions abroad.

As a motivator, if you think about it, China has grown for 30 years at a rate of about eight percent a year, meaning that the economy has doubled in size every seven or eight years. And that period has come to an end. And so what it's looking for is a new source of domestic legitimacy, growth and unity, and that has forced the government to draw on new impulses, and one of the ways that it's doing that, of course, is by turning to nationalism. And it's cultivating a sense that China should rally around the flag. It's encouraging students in school to study the history of China's victimhood.

So this in some senses, on the one hand, pushing China into more, I would say, a more assertive foreign policy. At the same time, the Chinese government fundamentally knows that it has a very small cushion for error abroad. It can't afford to lose two percent, three percent on its GDP, and so as a result, it's not going to take risks that it believes are likely to lead into political and economic trouble.

VOGT: One of the most interesting things in your book for me, as someone who works in media and journalism, are the sections you have about censorship. The censorship of the press. The censorship of art and film. You profile some artists and activists who have faced this. You, yourself have now, in a sort of form, faced this as well. Your book is being translated and published all over the world, but a Chinese language edition won't appear in mainland China. Can you talk about that a little bit?

OSNOS: Yes, this is a question that I think a lot of authors in the United States and abroad now face, because this Chinese market for books is big, and it's growing. And they're interested in, particularly, what foreigners say about China. But if you're going to have a book published in China, that means that you're going to be subject to in-house censorship at the publisher, and then also, of course, the government has an apparatus that is in charge of making sure that ideas that are considered disruptive, or overly critical, that those don't get onto book store shelves.

When my book was looked at by publishers in China, they said in order for this to be published in China we'd like to do it, but you would have to publish a special edition that would involve cutting about a quarter of the contents. And I said, that's not a good idea. So, it'll be published in Taiwan. It'll be available to Chinese readers there. But I think publishing a picture of China that is, honestly, the picture that we get, and the one that world sees is the right way for me to engage with the place.

VOGT: In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, there's a review of the book, by an anthropologist, John Osburg, and one of the things he found most interesting about it is your take on this sort of spiritual vacuum that many Chinese feel is -- is present in contemporary Chinese society, even in their own lives. And the ways in which they're turning in some cases to religion, in fact, to sort of fill that vacuum. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

OSNOS: Yes, this one of the elements of China's transformation that I think gets overlooked. We often seen the physical changes. Those are immense. And we see the political tensions. But one of the things that's going privately, inside people's lives, is that after satisfying their most basic, material needs, they've looked around said, well, actually China's growth has not answered some of the bigger questions for me as an individual, as a citizen, as a family member. What do I stand for? What are my personal values? What's my morality?

And it's easy, we think of China as being a place without religion, but after all, as recently as 30 years ago, people would confess their sins at the feet of Mao's statues. They would hold his book above their heads, and they would recite tracts from a text, which was, for all intents and purposes, a holy text.

So, there has been this hole now, in Chinese life. People talk about it. They call it a spiritual void, and it's up to them as individuals to fill it. And as a result, you have this huge explosion in religion, and also pursuits of other moral systems, Taoism, Buddhism. And I think this is going to be a big story in the years ahead.

VOGT: How does the Communist Party deal with that? I mean, that's something of a challenge to their traditional vision, and even the sort of newer vision, right?

OSNOS: Yes, they're struggling with how to deal with it. They haven't come up with a coherent answer. On the one hand, they're not going to allow the floodgates to open, and for people to go off and choose whatever it is that they want to believe it, because, fundamentally, the rule of the Communist Party relies on faith of a certain kind. Faith in the party above all.

And yet, at the same time, they know that they cannot afford to squelch this very clear desire, this awakening, a sort of spiritual awakening. So, they're trying to keep up with the public's demand for faith. And that's really the way to look at it. Rather than saying that the party is allowing it to happen, it's really more about the party trying its best to keep up with what people are demanding.

VOGT: Let's talk a little bit about the headlines that are emerging right now from China. One of the bigger stories is these anticorruption moves of President Xi. These are moves that have ensnared a couple of senior figures in the Communist Party, in the military. How do you read this? How should we understand this? Is this a genuine attempt to root out corruption in the state, and in the party? Or is more about President Xi sort of consolidating his own power and influence?

OSNOS: It's both, and I think we need to treat it as a serious anticorruption campaign, partly because Xi Jinping came into office in the fall of 2012 and correctly diagnosed that his party was facing a potentially fatal problem, which was that corruption had become so entrenched in China, and had become such a complaint among the people that if they didn't do something about it, it would be as he said at the time, a cancer that would ultimately take down the party.

So he realized that he had to do something. And yet, at the same time, he's not at this point prepared -- and I don't see any sign on the horizon that he's going to change tack -- he's not prepared to institute the kinds of institutional changes that would introduce rule of law, reliable institutions that would allow people to pursue their own claims against the government. So, what he's trying to do is something very usual, which is a top down corruption campaign, dictated to his own terms, to the extent that he will allow, and that's a very tricky thing to do. At this point, there are already people saying -- inside the party saying, you've gone too far, you need to rein this in. And, yet, he's also created an expectation among the public that this is going to continue.

VOGT: So, the public is, at least as far as we can tell, sort of broadly supportive of this? Is this helping his political standing in some way?

OSNOS: It is.

VOGT: To the extent that it matters?

OSNOS: It is. Yes, I think he's been seen -- and this a very sophisticated move from a public relations standpoint -- as putting himself on the side of the public by saying it's us against the corrupt class. The problem becomes, well, how do you define the difference between the corrupt class and what has become, in the end, a political class that has benefitted enormously from China's rise? And so some of his own colleagues, his own peers, have gotten very concerned, because they don't know, in the end, where this campaign will go.

So I think we're not likely to see the end of this corruption campaign any time soon. I think he sees it as a way to try to bring the Communist Party back into some alignment with its political objectives. Shrink the size of the party, in a sense. It got big. It got extravagant. It got out of control. And what he says is that if we're going to survive for another 30 years, and that's certainly his goal, we need to be more responsive to what people want.

VOGT: Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition, writer for The New Yorker magazine. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for watching. If you want to learn more about Foreign Affairs' coverage of books like Evan's, you can follow us on Twitter, @FA_books, or you can visit www.foreignaffairs.com/newsletters to sign up for our books and reviews newsletter. Thanks very much.

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