In the late 1970s, when the passing of Mao made it possible for foreign journalists to work in China for the first time in three decades, the first reporters to get in wrote wide-ranging books that addressed nearly everything they could learn.1 Later books by journalists tended to be more specialized. Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos returns to the panoramic tradition, and now, as Chinese society seems to be edging toward a crisis, may be a good time to do it.
Osnos begins by noticing a bifurcation in popular Western views of China—roughly, a good China of rising material standards and a bad China of repressive government—and he wants to reconcile the two. He cites ironies in his prologue:
China has…more people online than the United States, even as it redoubles its investment in history’s largest effort to censor human expression. China has never been more pluralistic, urban, and prosperous, yet it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.
He is right about the split in Western perceptions, but this is largely a Western problem. No serious Chinese writer is puzzled by a split. Inside the country, the wealth and the repression are all one bundle. Authoritarian government makes possible an easy exploitation of unfree labor; workers in huge numbers generate vast wealth; most of the great wealth goes back to the authoritarians, who become objects of popular resentment and thus feel a need to repress even more. The scene displays interlocking causalities, not a schism.
It is not clear, in the first few chapters of Osnos’s book, that he understands this, but when we reach the book’s powerful end it is obvious that he does. He seems to have followed a writing strategy of trying to engage Westerners at their starting point—the innocent “which is the real China?” question—then bringing them gradually forward. Fair enough, I suppose. But Orville Schell writes on the dust cover that this is “the one book about China” that a traveler should read in advance, and that is true only if the traveler has time for it all. Stopping halfway could do more harm than good.
Western imagination of China has a rich history. Leibniz thought of the mystical ancient Book of Changes as containing “the rule of true wisdom”; Voltaire called China “the wisest and most civilized nation in the world.” Other projections have been less sanguine, and sometimes demonizing, but in every case they are done from a remote standpoint. China is far away and strange. In recent decades a tinge of cuteness has mixed with the strangeness in journalistic accounts, and Osnos inherits some of this. He uses examples such as stylish eyeglass frames that are offered under…
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