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Aspiration nation

11 July 2014 By Peter Thal Larsen

Can a large country be summed up in a single book? The notion may seem preposterous. When it comes to China, however, too many foreign writers seem determined to try to cram a state of more than 1.3 billion people into a few hundred pages. Few would dare attempt anything similar with the United States, which has a quarter of the population.

The typical approach is a sweeping overview. The reader is overwhelmed with a torrent of statistical superlatives to demonstrate how the Middle Kingdom has become richer, increasingly powerful, more productive, less equal, spectacularly corrupt, extremely indebted, dangerously imbalanced or whatever else supports the author’s broader thesis.

“Age of Ambition” adopts a refreshingly human perspective. Evan Osnos spent almost a decade in China as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker. The book is, he says, “based on eight years of conversations.” The result is a series of portraits of individuals coming to terms with rapid changes. They provide a welcome balance to the remarkably persistent image of the Chinese as a large and faceless mass.

Some of the characters, like the artist Ai Weiwei and the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, are well known in the West. But this is more than a series of celebrity profiles: the subjects help illustrate broader shifts in Chinese society.

The woman who founded China’s largest online dating website demonstrates the rise of the internet, the emergence of an entrepreneurial class and China’s changing mating habits. The tale of a Hong Kong man nicknamed Inveterate Gambler Ping unfolds against the backdrop of casinos and money-laundering in Macau. We meet an English teacher with the following of a rock star, and a graduate student who achieves fame by posting nationalistic videos on the web.

Regular readers of the New Yorker will recognise some of the stories. Nevertheless, Osnos stitches together the narrative by drawing on his own experiences and observations, and by organising the book into loose sections on Chinese citizens’ quest for wealth, truth, and spiritual enlightenment.

The only drawback to this approach is that it devotes most of its attention to people who are willing to talk. Inevitably, senior members of China’s ruling Communist Party are not among them. The book provides only some glimpses of the ruling bureaucracy and some anecdotes of official misbehaviour.

Osnos devotes a chapter to the fall of Liu Zhijun, the railway minister who oversaw China’s high-speed train network and was later jailed for corruption. But president Xi Jinping barely gets a mention until the final pages. The Party mostly features as a shadowy presence, influencing everything but rarely showing its face, like the text messages from the Central Propaganda Department sent to Osnos and other journalists, instructing them to ignore certain stories.

Discussions about China in the West are often sharply polarised. It is either an economic powerhouse or a financial crisis waiting to happen. The Party has either come up with a better form of governance, or is in thrall to the corrupt elite, which is struggling to keep its grip on power. The country is either a belligerent military superpower preparing to impose its will on the rest of the globe, or run by a government that defensively stokes nationalist sentiments to give some sense of purpose to a restless population.

Osnos avoids the simplistic analogies so beloved of Western analysts and hedge fund managers. He acknowledges the contrasting perspectives, but does not seek to choose sides. Perhaps he recognises that China itself has not resolved these contradictions. Perhaps he just thinks things are not so simple.

As he writes, “I found that confidence in one’s ideas, especially about China’s future, seems to vary inversely with the time one spends on the ground”. If there is one lesson to take from this entertaining and highly readable book, it should be that.


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