Age of Ambition opens with a comparison between early-21st-century China and late-19th-century America. Citing such impressive statistics as a sixfold increase in the amount of meat consumed by the average Chinese and a 30-fold rise in annual income, Evan Osnos likens contemporary China to “America at its own moment of transformation—the period that Mark Twain and Charles Warner named the Gilded Age.” The difference, of course, is that Twain and Warner were free to satirize the greed, immorality, and corruption of their country’s governing elites: Their famous 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, helped to foment a period of intense political opposition and reform.
Political satirists in the People’s Republic of China have a tougher time. Asked to describe the state of freedom in contemporary China, a friend who speaks fluent Mandarin and has spent many years there as a student, a diplomat, and a trade negotiator, offered this reply: “China is a dynamic country with a fast-growing economy where millions of people have more wealth and personal freedom than ever before. It is also a brutal police state, where, if you persist in saying the wrong thing, you will be taken away and not see your family for a very long time.”
These disparate realities are hard to reconcile, which is why many American business leaders, educators, and NGO workers focus on the first, sunnier view—especially when, as is often the case, it serves their interests to do so. At the same time, a critical minority of exiles, activists, and strategic thinkers focus on the second, darker image of China as a ruthless party-state intent on depriving 1.3 billion human beings of their unalienable rights. The result is a perspective less polarized than compartmentalized.
Evan Osnos is mindful of this compartmentalization:
The hardest part about writing from China . . . was the problem of proportions: How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression? From far away it was difficult for outsiders to judge, but I found that up close it wasn’t much easier.
Rather than false modesty, this comment reflects Osnos’s impatience with fellow expatriates—journalists and other Westerners living in China—who think that the West pays “too much attention to dissidents” and try to live down this “stereotype” by paying too little attention.
Whenever I wrote about human rights abuses . . . often the most critical reactions came from other expatriates in China. . . . [T]o them, my focus was misplaced. Dissidents who were famous in New York or Paris were unknown to ordinary Chinese citizens, which suggested that the discussion of democracy and rights was at odds with the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
For Osnos, democracy and freedom are relevant to the concerns of ordinary Chinese. He admits the obscurity, or unpopularity, of certain dissidents famous in the West, such as the renowned conceptual artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (who could not attend the award ceremony in Oslo because he was, and still is, being held in prison). But to his credit, Osnos also says that “those arguments wore thin with me. Popularity always struck me as an odd way to measure the importance of an idea in a country that censored ideas.”
Like most books by journalists, Age of Ambition is a compendium of previously published pieces. The value of this genre depends not only on the quality of the writing, but also on the coherence of the editing. Unfortunately, coherence is somewhat lacking here. Rather than offer sustained portraits of individuals, as Osnos does in his New Yorker essays, this book compiles passages from those essays into three thematically titled sections: “Fame,” “Fortune,” and “Faith.” The result is a readable book marred by a tendency to jump around from person to person, place to place, and time to time—often without providing dates. This garbled chronology is especially vexing because, as Osnos reminds us, the most urgent questions regarding rapid change in China have to do with the overall direction of that change. Thus, it matters whether a certain event or interview occurred closer to his arrival in 2005 or to his departure in 2013.