Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Age of Ambition", by Evan Osnos, an informed look at China now

This book by "The New Yorker" writer Osnos won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2014. It is hard to imagine that there was any other book within striking distance.  I have no idea about that, but this book turned my head around several times.  With my family's interest, K's family's substantial direct experience, and my daughters' frequent travels there, there was an impression that I was well informed about China.  Relatively speaking that's certainly true, but absolutely speaking "Age of Ambition" taught me otherwise.

Osnos's work as the China correspondent for the magazine from 2008 to 2013 was followed here with interest.  Much of what was published in those articles is covered in this book, but the book is, in its scope and depth, much much stronger than the stand alone columns.  Those came across as human interest stories set in China, fascinating and at times provocative, but they gave no hint of the bigger picture that Osnos was working on and that is unveiled in this book.  One could think that he waited until he was safely out of the country, and his assignment was completed, to give his view of the full picture of China today.

The subtitle of the book is "Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China".  Despite thinking of myself as well informed about China for many reasons, even the opening section of the book has me resetting my mental clock.  My father had been a Kunming based member of the Flying Tigers as part of the Army Air Force that took over from the secretive OSS in 1942.  Despite being shot down, safely crash landing, he had enjoyed the experience of being in China immensely.  When China reopened in 1978, he and my mother signed up for one of the first "friendship tours", arranged in a joint effort between the Chinese government and a few U.S. travel businesses.  They had experience with this type of touring as they had taken such a trip to the Soviet Union in the mid-seventies.  My mother's curiosity was immense and my fathers willingness to go on adventure travel was unlimited. They enjoyed that trip to a China totally frozen in place from the past, so much so that they went to China two more times on more open trips, in 1986 and 1992 to the best of my recollection.  What I realized in reading the Osnos book was that China had barely budged in its overt development during that time.  My parents loved China as it once was, and will never be again.  The intense development and devotion to market capitalism that characterizes the "New China" did not even begin until the late '90's. Since then it has steamrolled across the infrastructure and the culture of society.

With that as an economic backdrop, Osnos goes on to detail the somewhat well known corruption that overshadows almost all activity in China today and a level of censorship and government control that the adjective ubiquitous cannot adequately describe.  It is hard to imagine that this degree of oversight over such a huge country has ever existed before.  The harsh penalties for those seen as going beyond the accepted government norms are extreme.  There is almost no latitude in deciding whether to heed government warnings, which are never ending for the media and for artists.  The picture of this way of life is sharply drawn and fully developed in "Age of Ambition", and while the sustainability of this system is questioned, Osnos does not suggest that it is seriously challenged. It, in fact, does not seem possible any time soon.  The internet and information technology are the biggest threat to the hegemony of government mind control, as the effort required to stay one step ahead of this force is huge.  Even minutes count, and unapproved thoughts continue to seep through.

In the Epilogue of this book, Osnos writes, "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."  After reading "Age of Ambition" I would call that an optimistic statement, certainly in the near term.

What a book!  It is a fascinating read with more humor and insight than one could hope to find in a book of both recent history and a chronicle of near term current events.  Osnos takes all of the isolated insights that are common knowledge about China today and puts them into a mosaic that is profoundly more interesting.  He does not tell the reader what to think but he gives a picture that allows broader interpretation for those with the inclination.  The endorsement of "Age of Ambition" here is not remotely subtle, it is wholehearted.

Tangentially related postscript:  Osnos continues to do incisive reporting as a Washington reporter for "The New Yorker".  His article on Samantha Power in the 12/22&29 edition is freshly informative and attention grabbing reading.


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