Sto­ries from the new China

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anna Hey­ward

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.

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