Stories from the new China
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China By Evan Osnos Bodley Head, 416pp, $34.99 along agricultural lines. Historically, Chinese have grown rice by working together, whereas the Greeks did their fishing and herding alone. Thus the two poles of organised society, equality versus liberty, grew in opposition, out of our relationship to agriculture.
The Maoist principle that ‘‘the individual is subordinate to the organisation’’ reinforced the Chinese idea of fate being an external force. But across the past 30 years, the message of the Chinese Communist Party changed from spiritual equality to ‘‘prosperity in exchange for loyalty’’.
The resultant moods Chinese people have passed through have gone from the ‘‘pent-up desire to consume’’ Osnos found on his first visit to China in 1998 and documents in the first part of this book, to a search for meaning beyond prosperity in life, stories of which are recorded in the final section. All of this takes place under one of the most impressive and effective censorship campaigns in modern history, which Osnos explores in a section headed “Truth”.
The momentum and feeling of this book make it seem as though China were on the verge of some great change, whether towards democratic reform or devolution into further restriction and censorship. The internet is an important force in the lives of Osnos’s subjects, and it is the greatest corrosive to the secrecy and hypocrisy of the Communist Party. Where once ‘‘one narrative was public, and the other real’’, it is now more accurate to say one narrative is official and the other credible. It never stops seeming odd everyone in China knows what happened in 1989 at Tiananmen Square, yet no one is allowed to refer to it in public.
The party’s argument, which seems disingenuous at best, is that democracy is prone to instability. As prominent, and relatively conservative, magazine editor Hu Shuli wrote of the Arab Spring, ‘‘it’s autocracy that creates chaos, while democracy breeds peace. Supporting an autocracy is in reality trading short-term interests for long-term costs.’’ Reading the stories Osnos relates, it seems clear the stability that autocracy creates is all at the top, where power is consolidated. For the billion or so ordinary citizens, it can mean living in fear of arbitrary and harsh punishment. Democracy certainly invites some level of chaos (this couldn’t be more clear than for a person writing from the US, land of government shutdowns and a staggering rate of gun deaths), but it is at the very least transparent, and knowledge is power, as Chinese users of the internet are discovering, faster than the party can control.