I always enjoyed Evan Osnos’s articles on China when he was the Beijing based correspondent for the New Yorker. Osnos lived in Beijing for eight years and speaks Chinese, two attributes that informed his writing on China which I have always found to be informative and entertaining.
Osnos’s recent book on China, Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China is every bit as good as his writing in the New Yorker. He paints portraits of some of today’s most well-known dissidents including Ai Wei Wei and Chen Guangcheng as well as the popular anti-government blogger Han Han. And there are profiles as well of figures who have risen to become part of China’s elite, including a lady who runs China’s most popular dating site and a prominent journalist. In some instances these are the typical rags-to riches tales that are recounted so often in books on China nowadays and in this respect Age of Ambition mirrors other recent books on China. Osnos’s book stands out, however, because he has access to many of China’s most central figures, by virtue of his assignment in Beijing for one of America’s most established magazines. For this reason we are often on the receiving end of the Government’s attempts at coercion and censorship, sometimes successful, often not. And that is what this book is really about, China’s hectic change and the Government’s attempts to keep up and to keep order.
There are also very good sections about the China Bullet train disaster, an accident that was very much owing to corruption, and a well-publicized incident in the South in which a small girl was hit by a car and no one came to her aid. These were big news stories both in China and overseas and Osnos gives us riveting accounts of both.
Still there are weaknesses. The Age of Ambition would have profited had Osnos spent a few months in 2nd or 3rd tier cities feeling the pulse of rural China which still makes up over 50% of the population. For example how effective are the Government’s efforts to curb freedom of expression in cities other than Beijing and Shanghai, where Osnos seems to spend most of his time ? In fact Osnos focuses almost exclusively on establishment figures in modern day Beijing, Starbucks or upscale office buildings being the setting for many of his interviews. A portrait of a textile factory owner in Jinagsu grappling with issues such as pollution and labor unrest would have been preferable to the portrait Osnos gives us of the blogger Han Han who, as both fervent anti-government blogger and amateur Formula 1 driver, obviously has some credibility issues. Osnos glosses over the hypocrisy of Han Han and his often banal blog posts and seems more dazzled by Han Han’s celebrity.
Osnos is also overly critical of China’s progress. He lambasts the Government’s censorship efforts, without acknowledging that mob unrest has a long history in rural China going back to the early Nineteenth Century and that Government fears about internet rumors fanning mob violence are in some cases well-founded. Religious cults, for example, pose a far more serious threat to political and social order in China than they do in more advanced democracies like the US or Japan and China has good reason to worry. Osnos moreover belittles China’s achievements in science and technology, not to mention the achievements of a couple of the individuals he has befriended and whom he profiles. He mocks the English teacher Michael’s attempts to master English and yet he portrays Michael as a friend.
Like other more recent writers on China, Osnos lacks the perspective of someone who was present in China in the 1980s and early 1990s when the country was mired in backwardness and had yet to experience the fruits of the Deng reforms. China was one of the poorest countries in the world then. Today it is one of the richest. Development on that scale means big problems and yet too many writers on China today, Osnos being one of them, focus on the problems and seem to forget the achievement, an achievement that long-time China watcher Henry Kissinger calls the “miracle of our time. “