How the power of “me” drives the new China

August 1, 2012 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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In Age of Ambition journalist Evan Osnos recalls a Chinese friend asking him which cities he should visit on his next trip to the United States. Osnos suggested New York. The friend responded, with some disappointment, ‘‘Every time I go, it looks the same’’.

China, for all its detractions, can never be accused of stasis. This is a country whose frenetic pace of change can make it appear scarily insurmountable to the outside. China is currently building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined. Its consumers now plough through more movies, beer, and energy than anyone else on the globe.

But get closer and China’s ascent is propelled by something invisible, yet potent: personal aspiration. In Age of Ambition Osnos writes about a people who have leapfrogged in just a few decades from reverence of the masses to reverence of the individual.

Osnos reported from China from 2005 to 2013, first for The Chicago Tribune and later for The New Yorker before leaving for Washington D.C. last year. Age of Ambition is essentially a rejigged, and fattened up, version of already published pieces from the latter.

What is new is both the narrative drive – with Osnos adeptly introducing characters who dip in and out of chapters, adding pathos and suspense – and a theoretical underpinning. Age of Ambition explores the tension between two competing pillars that Osnos believes have driven modern China’s extraordinary rise: namely, aspiration and authoritarianism.

Age of Ambition - Hardcover - USUnder Mao Zedong individualistic thinking was stamped out by ‘‘Thought Reform’’, which became known colloquially as xinao or ‘‘mind-cleansing’’. (In 1950, xinao inspired a CIA officer to coin the term ‘‘brainwashing’’). Back then, your danwei, or work unit, had the final say in where you lived, worked, and who you married. Service to the Chinese Communist Party was paramount; public dedication to Mao and the socialist cause always came above private desire.

No longer. Today, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s opening up and reform of the country, people are, for the first time, able to write the script to their own lives. In China, success is no longer defined or determined by the state but by personal ambition.

Language concisely sums up this shift. As a young man in the 1980s, filmmaker Jia Zhangke (lauded for last year’s gritty A Touch of Sin) used to travel for hours by bus to buy pop ballads. For decades, lyrics had referred only to ‘‘we’’. But Jia recalls becoming enthralled by something new, something previously unheard of in the song The Moon Represents My Heart. He tells Osnos: ‘‘It was about ‘me.’ ‘My’ heart. And of course we loved it!’’

‘‘Me’’ has proved to be the engine to China’s success: in a country that is now capitalist in all but name, many entrepreneurs have successfully shed the shackles of sluggish state socialism to ride the economic boom. ‘‘The Party no longer promises equality or an end to toil,’’ Osnos notes. ‘‘It promises only prosperity, pride, and strength.’’

For a time, that was enough. But now that millions have been dragged from poverty, they want more. Osnos shows a society increasingly chaffing over official corruption, internet censorship and pollution. ‘‘The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history – and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival,’’ he writes. At the heart of Age of Ambition is this struggle between the power of the people’s aspirations and the power of the authoritarian system.

The story of a superpower on the ascent is beautifully told from the muddled perspectives of people on the ground. We meet Gong Haiyan who, frustrated with her lack of options for finding a mate, set up China’s most successful dating website Jiayuan (it now has nearly 100 million members). There is Michael Zhang, son of a retired coalminer, who grew up hankering to escape his hometown Mine Number Five and saw learning English as the way out. Then there is Lin Zhengyi, a Taiwanese soldier who defected to China in 1979 by swimming across the ocean in the dead of night and, as the Party put it, ‘‘traded darkness for light’’.

The promise of light has yet to be delivered: this June the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passed with no official acknowledgement. Whether that might change one day has yet to be seen; Osnos, thankfully, refuses to make glib predictions. Instead he renders China as it is now, in all its messy, vast, pulsating glory. Few things about the country’s future are certain. Except, of course, that it is at little risk of staying stationary for long.

Photograph: Author Evan Osnos in Beijing. Credit: John Lee

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