Age of Ambition
is a non-fiction book by Evan Osnos about the economic, political, and social state of modern China. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker
. The book is based on his time living in China from 2005 to 2013 and the lives of people he meets there. It was a finalist for the 2015 General Nonfiction Pulitzer Prize. The title refers to the people of China’s newfound desire for individual success.
Osnos’s approach is rooted in the lives of individuals both famous and unknown. He follows people he met while living in China, revisiting a few stories over the course of the book. These stories convey broader observations about Chinese society and how individuals relate to its structure. The prologue lays out how China has changed in the modern age and provides a number of facts. The book is personal and Osnos inserts many of his own observations into the general sociological approach. The prologue sets up his observed central dichotomy
, “the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism” (7). This leads to the contrast between the move towards individualism and the authoritarian lack of equality established by The Party.
Part 1, “Fortune,” focuses on economics and business in China. The first character Osnos follows is Lin Zengyi, a Taiwanese military officer who is arrested for defecting to Mainland China, the place where his family originated. In Part 2, Zengyi talks about changing his name to Lin Yifu, his education in America, and reuniting with his wife. Osnos also uses this chapter to provide context and Chinese history, specifically the rise of privatization and a number of social changes. This is extended in the next chapter, where Osnos discusses the introduction of consumerism, the freedom of the Internet, and changing individual relationships. The Internet is a direct threat to The Party and a bane to its existence.
Osnos describes the newfound drive to get rich and to do it first. This sentiment began in 1985 and continues into the 1990s. In order to achieve higher status, people make individualistic choices, such as self-promotion, taking multiple jobs, and even creating their own businesses. He introduces Gong Haiyan, an entrepreneurial young woman who creates a dating service for marriages. This transitions into a discussion on dating and marriage in China. Many Internet services exist to assist with marriage.
In contrast to getting rich quick and first, people attempting to compete with the earlier generation go through a number of failed prospects. Siu Yun Ping is a “professional gambler” who spends his time gambling in Macau, funded by his friend Wong Kamming, a gambling investor of sorts. Macau becomes a shady, crime-infested area, and is eventually raided by the FBI. [TT1]
As related in Osnos’s New Yorker
article, Wong estimates their winnings totaled 77 million. The story concludes with a plot, initiated by the casinos, to murder Wong, which is foiled. He now lives in Las Vegas and is a real estate agent.
Part 2, “Truth,” investigates issues of censorship and protest in China. It begins with an investigation into propaganda, run by an office in Beijing. Newspapers are often controlled by this office and forced to conform. Osnos introduces the story of Wu Si and a woman named Hu Shuli, who become journalists after recognizing the rampant corruption and control. After traveling to America and expanding her network, Hu becomes the editor of Caijing
, a paper that defies conformism and control while carefully avoiding overt dissension.
In the next chapter, Osnos picks up again on Internet usage and the freedom of information. China’s younger generation, knowing how to navigate censorship, has a greater wealth of outside information to draw on. They find value in freedom of speech, speaking out with protests, art, film, and documentaries. Tang Jie, a Ph.D. student, creates a patriotic video that goes viral. It supports a new form of conservatism and supports China. Eventually, Tang comes to oppose both the West and China. He represents the “angry youth” movement and seems to touch on what many of the youth feel about their country.
Ai Weiwei is a political artist profiled throughout the book. China censors all art, controlling what is released. Ai Weiwei staunchly opposes this censorship. He becomes a symbol of rebellion, though many other artists fear the risk of being so outspoken. The government constantly opposes his art, essentially wiping him from their artistic record and shutting down his websites.
Chen Guangcheng is a blind lawyer who becomes a civil rights activist. When he fights the government in a 2005 lawsuit against the one-child policy, he loses, is put in jail, and then, when he is released in 2011, is put on house arrest in his rural home. He escapes on foot at an opportune time. Eventually, the US Embassy provides him refuge. Afraid for his family’s safety, he immigrates to New York. Osnos points out that Guangcheng’s political views in America, such as right-leaning anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage policy, conflict with his desire to change China.
Part 3, “Faith,” hones in on questions of religion, and more broadly, faith in government. New subjects introduced include Zhao Xiao, an economist who practices Christianity; the Reverend Jin Mingri, who preaches from his storefront; and Zhen Shengtao, a wealthy businessman who is converted after seeing the atrocities committed by the government and its ability to cover them up.
The epilogue describes the cyclical nature of Chinese politics. Leadership shifts, but policies stay the same. Censorship and propaganda will take awhile to completely change. But Osnos leaves some hope for the future — the evidence is in the many characters who represent this change.
What is the FBI doing in Macau? This is confusing.