Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014, 403 pp., $27
Not too long ago, it was one of the tenets of political theory that a market-based economy would eventually lead to a pluralist, democratic society. In a number of cases, this idea worked out. However, the huge, persistent, and unavoidable counter-case is China, whose leaders insist on running the place as a communist dictatorship even as they declare that wealth is wonderful and applaud the country’s crop of home-grown billionaires. And don’t expect anything to change soon, says Evan Osnos in this dense, entertaining book: the people at the top are not planning to cede power—ever.
The contradiction between political authoritarianism and capitalist aspiration is the underlying theme of Age of Ambition, though sometimes it is hard to see. This might be because much of the book is a compilation of Osnos’ newspaper columns, first for the Chicago Tribune and later the New Yorker. The result is a mosaic rather than a cohesive narrative, but the advantage is that Osnos largely lets people speak for themselves without imposing his own views.
His focus is on the idea of China rather than the geopolitical contest between China and the United States. It mainly paints a picture from the bottom up; for much of the eight years he spent in China, Osnos lived in a hutong, one of Beijing’s crowded back alleys. He does a good job of capturing the atmosphere of such communities (the story of the weasel that takes up residence in his roof is memorable).
Osnos spent much of his time in China walking around, looking at things, talking to people, and reading newspapers. Even after decades of the one-child policy, there are armies of young people everywhere, and they seem to be driving the rush of consumerism, in everything from fashion to television. And anyone who thinks that the internet is chaotic in the West should experience it in China. While many Chinese are wary of government monitoring, the internet has become a stew of political views of every stripe, a dynamic commercial scene, and peculiar online dating options. Indeed, there seems to be something in the Chinese character, in the tension between public groupthink and private dissent, that has caused people to seize on the internet at a fundamental level. It’s not a match made in Heaven, exactly, but a large chunk of cyberspace is distinctly Middle Kingdom.
If the flood of internet traffic is to be believed, a crucial concern for the Chinese public is corruption, especially where government officials are involved. The scale of some of the scandals is huge. Osnos delves into the case of Ding Shumiao, who began her commercial life as an illegal egg vendor in Shanxi province before eventually amassing a fortune of $600 million. She was convicted of paying $15 million in bribes and kickbacks to the minister for railways, mainly in connection with land deals and development projects. There are plenty of stories like this, and usually the people involved don’t really see much wrong with it. It’s just business, how capitalism works, getting rich is glorious, and anyway that’s what the people further up the ladder do, right? It appears that even many of the people who complain about official corruption are willing to engage in a bit of under-the-counter commerce or dubious speculation when there is a profit in it.
Osnos notes that the way large development projects are structured enables corruption—and perhaps they are even designed for it. There are huge buckets of unsupervised money passed around, contracts for friends and for friends of friends, and little in the way of clear accounting processes. The surprise is not that corruption flourishes, but that auditors are sometimes able to pick their way through the maze to find out what went wrong—why that railway line went nowhere or how that expensive factory complex never materialized.
Every now and then the government announces a crackdown on corruption, but there is a widespread feeling that these episodes are just for show, with the party elite insulated from real scrutiny and punishment. Corruption has been tied to a string of disasters, from contaminated baby formula supplies to the disastrous crash of a high-speed train, but in the end little is ever done in the way of fundamental reform. (The wrecked train was literally buried.) Corrupt practice is not just part of the system; it is the system.
For many years, the top tier of the Communist Party was able to avoid the stigma of corruption, arguing that it was a problem only at local levels. But this excuse has gradually unraveled as evidence has piled up. The heavyweights are very sensitive to investigations and have come down hard on foreign media organizations, like Bloomberg, that have dared to ask where the staggering wealth of the elite really comes from.
The sensitivity of Chinese leaders to criticism is an issue that Osnos explores in several ways. Aware of the power of the internet, the government bureaucracy spends a great deal of time constructing firewalls. But there are plenty of tech-savvy hackers and activists—and a lot of others who do it just for fun—who find ways around the constraints. It would be theoretically possible for the government to shut the whole system down, but there is an awareness of both its commercial importance and the role it plays as a safety valve. Hell would have no fury like a billion citizens deprived of Facebook.
The government has also invested a great deal of time and energy in trying to conduct the fight in cyberspace. The key player here is the Central Propaganda Department, an agency that does not officially exist, according to Osnos, with not even a sign on the building (which is, Chinese-style, nevertheless identified by everyone). Part of its job is to tell the print and electronic media what they can and cannot print, even down to certain words, images, and symbols. But the more interesting aspect is its effort to counter dissent on social media sites with pro-government writers. These quasi-commentators are called “ushers of public opinion” or “fifty-centers”, due to the amount they are paid for each post.
For its part, the government seems to be making efforts to get a grasp on public opinion, though they stem more from its need to buttress its own chances of survival than from any democratic instinct. Attempts at opinion polling have not gone well, mainly because most Chinese are wary about voicing criticism of the government to a stranger on the phone. Nevertheless, there is the sense that the leaders are aware that the ground is shifting. They just don’t know where it is shifting to—and no one else does, either. There is an obsession with establishing the “central melody” of the current culture, but the tune keeps slipping away.
In some ways, the government appears more worried about the rise of youthful nationalists than it is about pro-democracy activists. The nationalists are strident in their advocacy of Chinese leadership in the world and of “Chinese values” at home, but this does not usually translate into support for the Communist Party. Worryingly, this group has struck a chauvinistic chord by criticizing the government for being too accommodating with Japan over territorial disputes and insufficiently aggressive toward the United States.
Of course, it combats pro-democracy advocates as well. Osnos interviews artist Ai Weiwei and lawyer Chen Guangcheng, both known in the West for their dissident views and victimization. But, truth be told, these portions of the book do not sit well with the rest and are a bit stilted—perhaps because his subjects hold him at a distance. Osnos might readily admit that he is happier speaking with ordinary people on the streets.
The central problem that Age of Ambition points to is that there is no focus to the dissent. Some people want more order, some want more freedom, some want to be able to express their religious views, some want…well, they don’t really know. The majority, Osnos feels, are happy to accept the rule of the Communist Party as long as it delivers economic growth and a rising standard of living. It is a deal that has worked for many years, but now there are cracks appearing in the optimism and bravado, with a growing recognition that not everyone is going to end up a millionaire. And there is also the rising awareness that China’s investment-heavy model of economic development might be nearing its limits. Osnos does not think that the economy will collapse anytime soon, but even a significant slowdown could have a major impact.
Osnos ends his book with an examination of the Communist Party 2012 showpiece, the 18th Party Congress, which saw the emergence of the current seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, headed by Xi Jinping, a figure that “evoked Jackie Gleason more than Zhou Enlai.” But Osnos senses steel beneath the glossy stage management, and he believes that if push ever comes to shove on the political front, the leadership will not hesitate to call in the troops to protect the system—and their own privileges, of course.
Osnos avoids making firm conclusions, but reading between the lines there is a sense that eventually something’s got to give. The rising, multifaceted tide of public dissatisfaction and the single-minded determination of the government to retain power is a volatile mix. More flexible institutions might be able to absorb the pressure, but in China they simply do not exist.
The story is still unfolding, in dramatic fashion, and no one knows how it will end. Osnos has provided important insights, not just into the political environment but into the lives of ordinary people navigating strange new realities. It is a wealth of stories well worth telling.