Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos


Often a non-fiction audiobook doesn't work well when the factual material requires slow reading and some repetition. In this case the material is presented through lively stories, most often about individual people. Their experiences illuminate the dizzying changes that have come to China. The author began reporting on China for the Chicago Tribune in 2005, and from 2008 to 2013 wrote about China for The New Yorker. Some bits from the book that were especially interesting are below:

One month before Tang Jie made his Internet video debut [2008], China surpassed the United States to become the world's largest user of the Internet. It had 238 million people online; it was still only 16 percent of the population, but each day, nearly a quarter of a million Chinese citizens were going online for the first time, and it was transforming the way ideas whipped around the country.

It was the numbers that caught my attention there; in 2016 the number of internet users in the US is 286 million. Though the Communist Party has worked frantically to limit access to information online, internet access has changed everything. Even a moderately sophisticated user can readily escape government efforts and that has changed Chinese people's understanding of the world. One generalization that I came away with is that while people understand the shortcomings of the Communist Party, its power lies in the fact that for the Chinese people, it is bound up in the new wealth they are experiencing. The powerful Party is the one constant in their radically changing lives.

The extent of the Party's tight control is vividly illustrated in the reaction to the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East which began in Tunisia. After Mubarak fell in Cairo, the artist Ai Wei-wei tweeted, "Today, we are all Egyptians." Before long jasmine flowers could not be sold, Ai Wei-wei was arrested and editors, including the author, received this message:

Draw no comparisons between political systems in the Middle East and the system in our country. When the names of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere appear in our media, the names of Chinese leaders must never appear nearby.

Osnos describes how the shadowy "department" maintained control on what was printed in the country, including how some publications (and later websites) managed some independence by knowing what limits would be tolerated.

The extent of corruption that grew up during this time of change was stunning. One example is particularly amazing: 

In 2008 a milk producer, Sanlu, discovered that farmers had been adding melamine to boost the protein levels, but the company did not order a recall; instead, it persuaded the local government to bar the press from reporting it. By the time the Ministry of Health warned the public, three hundred thousand infants had been sickened, six of them died. 

This scandal, along with the shoddily built schools that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake because of kickbacks, and other scandals brought to light this widespread practice. Payouts for Party functionaries were interesting to read about. Here's an especially good one:

The last case I saw before I gave up bothering to keep track of such reports was about the police chief in the county of Usu. When he was found to be in a pair of simultaneous love affairs with women whom he had promoted through the ranks of the police force–while keeping them in a luxurious apartment funded by taxpayers–his office released a clarification that must have felt like good news under the circumstances: the police chief's two mistresses were not twin sisters, they were just sisters. When I read this detail, I stopped chewing my lunch and looked up, blinking, while I absorbed the full scale of it; the "just sisters" defense seemed to set a new watermark for the image of Chinese public servants.

I appreciated the deluge of information pouring into my ears from this audiobook and wish I could recount half a dozen more interesting bits.

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 371 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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