Book Review: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
by Evan Osnos, pp. 417, Macmillan

Age of Ambition cover

Review by Peter Kovas

What happens to the People’s Party when all the people get together and don’t invite the Party?

The Chinese Communist Party has been sweating this question for some time now. It became a concern in 1989 and, despite all attempts to create and maintain a “harmonious society, héxié shèhuì,” the guiding socioeconomic principle China’s leadership, the world has changed beyond recognition since those days. The explosive growth of the Internet and the distribution of personal mobile phones have only complicated matters. It has made that unsanctioned gathering of the people more pronounced and demanding than ever. The people of China are able to communicate, explore, and gather their ideas in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Many people have gotten rich and it has been glorious, but what’s next?

“Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. The relentless pursuit of fortune had relieved the deprivation in China’s past, but it had failed to define the ultimate purpose of the nation and the individual. The truth now lay in plain view: the Communist Party presided over a land of untamed capitalism, graft, and rampant inequality. In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard.” (Age of Ambition, p 278-9)

At the dawn of the 20th century, Chinese thinkers wondered how the people could modernize and yet remain Chinese. Few people wanted to become Western and yet China had failed to stand up to the interests of Western nations in the 19th century and as a consequence China lost its sovereignty. The century of humiliation, as it continues to be known, continues to underlie Chinese political thinking. Since then, in broad strokes, scholars say that Mao made China strong because he united it. Deng made China rich. He proved correct, to some extent, the Reaganesque economic interpretation of a rising tide lifting all boats. But the new China didn’t benefit everyone equally. Not everyone got rich and not all boats were lifted equally. Most people, it turned out, didn’t even have boats and they began wondering where they might find one.

These questions about how China fits into the modern world continue to loom over both the Chinese people and their government. But how to answer them? In Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, author and journalist Evan Osnos begins with the twin concepts of aspiration and authoritarianism which, he states in his prologue, have come into collision in recent years.

“The longer I lived in China, the more I sensed that the Chinese people have outpaced the political system that nurtured their rise. The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history – and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.” (page 7).

In Age of Ambition, Osnos encourages readers to get to know China through getting to know the people and their stories. He method bypasses many of the methodological and cultural biases which tend to limit cross cultural understanding between China and the rest of the world because he treats people as people without abstraction or apology. Osnos boldly dives into the murky waters of contemporary China and reveals a country brimming with potential energy. He introduces readers to people and places full of possibilities. Far from being prosaic or passive, Osnos shows readers a China full of sarcasm, defiance, self-awareness and humor. They’ve got dreams, schemes, patriotism and pessimism, just like we do.

Age of Ambition is the sprawling memoir of Osnos’ time as a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker. In it, Osnos tries to make sense of what he learned during his 8 years on the job in China. During that time it was his home and its people became his neighbors. Age of Ambition wonders what the future holds for them. How will being Chinese and modern unfold in the years to come?

Part collection of articles, part history, part cultural exposition, and thoroughly infused with respect for his subject, Age of Ambition presents a plurality of voices which smash many an outdated and monolithic stereotype. It tells the story of privileged and unprivileged people alike, introducing readers to enterprising noodle vendors, tour guides, bored prostitutes, bus drivers, and a host of so called common people. Age of Ambition also sheds light on the lives of more famous characters including artist Ai Weiwei, journalist Shi Tao, internet mogul Gong Haiyan, World Bank official Lin Yefu, Caixin editor Hu Shuli, Chen Guancheng (the blind human rights lawyer who took shelter in the US embassy shortly before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for a state visit in 2012), as well a host of others. Their great successes and tragic failures show readers that the people of China are, like us, complex human beings trying to fulfill their aspirations while navigating the often dangerous waters of politics, economics, and their own identity.

At best, Age of Ambition is a compelling request on behalf of China to begin taking China more seriously. It is an introduction to over one billion voices present in today’s Middle Kingdom who are already part of the modern world. They themselves, Osnos quotes Tang Jie, a maker of patriotic viral videos, are ready to “stand up and give our voice to the world.” (p. 143)

Age of Ambition goes further and argues that the people of China have already taken their place as dynamic, productive, and creative members of the global community. As such, Age of Ambition reads like a revisionist history of contemporary China. It tells stories which are not part of the official cannon. Like Howard Zinn in A Peoples History of the United States, Osnos tries to tell the story of a country and its people from the bottom up. It is these stories, sometimes irreverent and crude but always objectively told, that provide the most compelling elements of Age of Ambition. Osnos capably expresses the individual voices of people in a language even casual readers can understand. He shows us people who love their country if not always their government.

In sum, Age of Ambition is a hell of a memoir. It is well worth the time of anyone interested in learning about contemporary China. If you’ve read this whole review, you really ought to go and read the book.

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This review, written by Peter Kovas for LCB, is part of a current series featuring our take on notable recent books about China and Chinese culture, language, business and related topics.  Follow us on social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus) to stay tuned for next time.  You can always find more book recommendations in our LCB Store; for details on our affiliate program please see here.  As always, feel free to leave a comment below and tell us what you think!