Interview: Evan Osnos

Age of Ambition documents the decline of collectivism in China

Forty years ago in China, the parameters of daily life were controlled by the Communist Party. Your danwei, or work unit, had the final decision on where you lived, where you worked and whom you married. Mao Zedong ruled over millions of people in identical uniforms, an army educated to live, work, and die for the greater good. Mao was, as one pithy book title terms it, ‘Emperor of the Blue Ants’.

The king is dead. In Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth,and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos examines the birth of an era of aspiration. The non-fiction book is about a people who have jumped, in one generation, from worship of the collective to worship of the individual.

‘The longer I lived in China, the more I became focused on a recurring fact in people’s lives: that the single most powerful thing about them was that they suddenly held a sense of their own possibility, their own potential, and they could define what it meant to succeed in their own terms,’ says Osnos, who lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013 as the The New Yorker’s China correspondent.

Today, ‘nobody is defining their success by standards delivered to them on a platter by the state, ’he observes. The characters in Age of Ambition pursue their own dreams: from Gong Haiyan, founder of China’s largest dating website Jiayuan (which boasts almost 100 million members), to Tang Jie, an ardent patriot educated in Western philosophy who created a nationalist video in 2008 that went viral, drawing more than a million hits.

‘In a way, the Party unleashed this enormous power in 1979 by giving the people the right to aspire,’comments Osnos, alluding to Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary opening up and reform that followed Mao’s death. ‘Without that, China and the PRC’s communist-led system would have collapsed – it wouldn’t have had the economic growth that allowed it to succeed.’

Ironically, what has made China flourish has also shaken the country’s political foundations. The power of the individual has propelled the country forward while simultaneously gnawing away at the power of the state, leading to what Osnos terms ‘structural uncertainty’. It is this tension – between aspiration and authoritarianism – that makes Age of Ambition such a fascinating read.

Osnos first became interested in China when he stumbled on a class on contemporary Chinese politics as a first-year student at Harvard in 1994. ‘I was just swept away by this operatic drama that had been contained within the last 60 years,’ he recalls. ‘You had revolution and civil war and these massive tragic figures like Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping – almost figures out of fiction. It was intoxicating.’

In 1996 he moved to Beijing to spend six months studying Mandarin. Back then, he writes in Age of Ambition, the capital smelled of ‘coal and garlic and work-stained wool and cheap tobacco’. It was wild and grimy and unglamorous, closer in spirit to ‘the windswept plains of Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong.’

Osnos wiled away his evenings in the capital’s Xinjiang Village, a Uyghur neighbourhood lined with restaurants. Live sheep tethered on the streets outside were slaughtered nightly to satiate customers hunting for fresh chuanr. When he returned in 2005, though, the sheep, as well as Xinjiang Village, were long gone.

In their place was a city that had already begun its metamorphosis from a dusty backwater to a vast, traffic-congested metropolis. Osnos was both disorientated and thrilled by the pace of change. Now back in America, where he writes for The New Yorker from Washington DC, he misses ‘the slightly dangerous serendipity that comes with being in China. The [fact] that you get up every morning and have no reasonable knowledge about what is going to happen that day. ’

Age of Ambition is saturated with this frenetic, crazy energy. But most of all, the book conveys the opportunity for an individual with grit, drive (and some luck) to remake themselves from scratch. Over the years, Osnos has interviewed everyone from Taiwanese defectors to activist artists. But who did he feel most affinity with?

‘Maybe the person who made the most impact was the most ordinary of all the characters,’ mulls Osnos. Michael Zhang, the son of a retired coal miner, was raised in a town called ‘Mine Number Five’ and believed that learning English could transform his fortunes. ‘Why should I be like everyone else, just because I was born to a poor family?’ he asks in the book.

Osnos sat down with Zhang’s father, tape recorder on the table, to question him about a life spent underground. ‘He said, “I was a coal miner for 30 years, it was very difficult and I earned 60RMB a month.” That was all he had to say about it,’ remembers Osnos, with a slight disbelieving laugh.

One doctor, who had survived brutal persecution in the Cultural Revolution, which had resulted in his wife’s suicide, states in the book: ‘Let your public-self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavours of its surroundings while giving off no flavour of its own. ’Zhang’s coal mining father had learnt through the same bitter times to be like white rice: to give away nothing.

Zhang, by contrast, shared his journals – his most intimate inner world – with Osnos. Zhang's father saw himself as unworthy of having his own story told; Zhang wanted to not only record the past but to write his own future.

‘The rise of the individual, which really is the subject of this book, is about the rise of a sense that you as a person – as an individual, an idiosyncratic, imperfect person– that you matter,’ says Osnos. ‘Every one of the characters in here basically decided at some point that they matter.'

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune,Truth and Faith in the New China is available from priced 84RMB
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