The Venetian Macao casino and resort, with recreations of the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace, Macao, China

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 the brand name “Helen Keller.” An entrepreneur invents a way to teach “Crazy English” by shouting sentences, word by word, to assemblies of students who shout back in unison—but when someone else tries the method, “I didn’t obtain my goal…. All I obtained was chronic pharyngitis.”

The cartoonish flavor sometimes stems from frantic movement of a kind mildly reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin. Osnos introduces Hu Shuli, the famous editor of the magazine Caijing, known for its bold investigative reports, this way:

I heard Hu Shuli before I saw her…. I heard an urgent click-clack of heels down the hallway. She approached the door and then kept on going, sweeping into the newsroom spouting a series of decrees and ideas, before spinning around and heading back in my direction.

I have no doubt this is an accurate description, and it shows a side of Hu that is worth knowing. But the cumulative effect of selecting details from the funny, too-busy side of life runs the risk of putting a curtain between the reader and the full humanity of the people on the other side. And that, in turn, leaves too much room to imagine that human nature on the other side might be different from our own.

Osnos writes, for example, that “love stories didn’t become popular in China until the twentieth century” and that Mao so repressed sexual expression that after he died, some couples “struggled to conceive because they lacked a firm grasp of the mechanics.” But many Ph.D. dissertations have been written on pre-modern Chinese love stories, and there was much unregulated sex among young people during the wild times of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In this respect, Chinese people, on average, are normal.

Western ideas of an exotic China have been useful to China’s ruling authorities. The notion that Chinese people are “different” buttresses their claim that human rights and other “so-called universal values” are not suitable in China. Images of the Chinese people as crazily busy—but without minds—were widespread in the fiction and film of the Mao era and are still used today when Beijing presents “the Chinese people” to the outside world.


Seeing the Chinese from a distance can lead to the further conclusion—also welcome in Beijing—that “we” and “they” are very different and both have faults, so moral relativism is in order. Osnos is generally free from this flaw, but occasionally he is not. He writes, for example, that after the 1989 June Fourth Massacre, when the Communist Party wanted to design a new campaign to “educate” the Chinese people in loyalty to the Party, it turned to “the holy land of public relations, America” and drew specifically on techniques pioneered by Walter Lippmann and by Coca-Cola. In fact, anything that Deng Xiaoping and his propaganda staff learned from Lippmann and Coke was fluff when compared to the techniques of threat and coercion that were already firmly in their repertoire. Their basic methods came not from the West but from age-old Chinese thinking about how human beings calculate their personal interests, plus an overlay of “engineering of the soul” borrowed from Stalin.

In its later chapters, Age of Ambition leaves the exotic view almost entirely behind and provides a closer and much more realistic appreciation of Chinese life. This curve in the book can be illustrated in the way the author treats the question of “how do we know what most Chinese people think?” Twice he mentions a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center that found 87 percent of Chinese saying they like the way things are going in their country. At the second mention, however, he adds that “it was easy to overlook a routine budget report that revealed a surprising milestone:…[that the government] was spending more on domestic security than on foreign defense.” Later he concludes that “asking citizens of an authoritarian country for their views on politics, over the phone, did not produce candid answers”—a point that would have been appropriate when he first mentioned the Pew report.

With the help of China Digital Times, he begins to monitor the daily instructions that Chinese authorities send to all domestic media about how to present—or to expunge—news stories. The expunged items include ones like “In China, 94% Unhappy with Wealth Disproportionately Concentrated at the Top” and “UN Releases World Happiness Report, and China Ranks No. 112.” Osnos is able to find, before it is suppressed, a People’s Daily survey in which 80 percent said they did not support one-party rule and did not believe in socialism.

As he reveals more about what Chinese people think, Osnos is able, much to his credit, to take the further step of estimating what they would think if they lived with a free press. His expatriate friends criticize him for paying too much attention to dissidents who are “famous in New York or Paris [but] unknown to ordinary Chinese citizens.” This leads him to reflect that “popularity always struck me as an odd way to measure the importance of an idea in a country that censored ideas.” He could have supported his point by citing the Chinese authorities themselves. The intensity with which they censor a writer like Liu Xiaobo is eloquent evidence of their own judgment that Liu’s ideas would have strong appeal if they were allowed out.

The curve in Age of Ambition is further evident in the way Osnos follows the quixotic figure of Justin Lin, who in 1979, as a young Taiwanese military officer, secretly swam to mainland China from a small island controlled by Taiwan. Lin left behind his pregnant wife and a toddler without letting them know where he was going or why, so that they could honestly say they knew nothing when the police came knocking.

Lin was answering “the call,” as Osnos puts it, to be a heroic patriot. In the year Lin took his swim, I was living at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, just north of Hong Kong, and all around the campus could see government posters that read “Resist the Secret-Escape Tide.” The years 1957, 1962, 1972, and 1979 were high points in a flow that saw perhaps two million people steal into Hong Kong, many by swimming.2 But Lin swam in the opposite direction from his compatriots, both in 1979 and, metaphorically speaking, from then on, as he built a Party-sponsored career as an economist and wrote papers about “the China miracle” that attributed China’s boom more to gifted authoritarians than to the exploitation of a huge pool of low-paid and unprotected labor.

Osnos begins with a sympathetic portrait of Lin, without mentioning that his direction of swimming was unusual. By the end of the book, though, Osnos senses “how isolated” Lin seems, and Lin himself, quoted by Osnos, seems a bit chastened: “Income distribution became an issue…corruption became an issue…. So people tend to look at it more negatively…. They’re frustrated.”


The potent chapters near the end of Age of Ambition show how deep these problems of corruption, inequality, and frustration, among others, have become.

Corruption was already a large problem in China in the 1980s—it was a leading complaint among the protesters of 1989—but both corruption and inequality vaulted sharply upward in the 1990s under Deng Xiaoping’s policies of emphasizing money-making and “letting a part of the population get rich first.” Corruption eventually became standardized. Osnos refers to a municipal Party secretary position that was on sale for $101,000; to be chief city planner cost $103,000. The appointed person receives bribes and gifts in order to recoup his investment before turning a profit. Osnos writes that “a one-star general could reportedly expect to receive ten million dollars in gifts and business deals; a four-star commander stood to earn at least fifty million.” Greed aside, corruption is actually required. “If you don’t take bribes,” an insider tells Osnos, “you have to get out.” This is because corruption remains officially illegal and anyone who might want to blow a whistle can easily do so, so a good way to guard against whistleblowers is to make sure that everyone takes bribes or embezzles. I want you to be corrupt, and want you to know that I know that you are; only then am I safe.


AFP/Getty Images

Factory workers assembling circuit boards, Mianyang, China, April 2012

Osnos shows some of the ways in which corruption is disguised. One can learn how to lose at poker and make it look like an accident. One can answer the ads, delivered as text-message spam, that offer fake invoices for sale. But things get much more sophisticated than this. Osnos befriends a man named Hu Gang, an expert on bribing judges, who explains the necessity of building long-term relationships—with cigarettes, then banquets, then trips to massage parlors for sex, and by attention to details like when children’s tuition comes due—for many months before expecting anything in return.

The fruits of corruption need to be disguised as carefully as the process, and a standard way of doing this is to send money overseas. Based on an internal report from China’s central bank in 2011, Osnos writes that “since 1990, eighteen thousand corrupt officials had fled the country, having stolen $120 billion.”

Reports in the Western press in recent years have revealed fortunes in the families of China’s top leaders—Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao, Zhou Yongkang, and others—that reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars each. Osnos notes that “by 2012 the richest seventy members of China’s national legislature had a net worth of almost ninety billion dollars—more than ten times the combined net worth of the entire US Congress” and that “in 2010, high rollers in Macau wagered about six hundred billion dollars, roughly the amount of cash withdrawn from all the ATMs in America in a year.” Meanwhile, on a per capita basis, China’s income is still “somewhere between Turkmenistan’s and Namibia’s.” In 2012 the government suspended publication of its figure for China’s “Gini coefficient,” the standard measure of income inequality, but Osnos cites an independent estimate that puts it in 2013 at 0.61, higher than Zimbabwe’s.

With the rise of the Internet, such inequality is increasingly visible to the Chinese people, and this is a main reason for the increase in recent years of “mass incidents”—strikes, demonstrations, road blockages, and the like—to about five hundred per day. Research has shown that popular anger is less about inequality per se than about the unjust means by which the wealthy are seen to have obtained their wealth.

Corruption has also contributed to a general decline in public ethics. Osnos points out that the poor as well as the rich are obliged to give bribes—to get treatment in a hospital, for example, or to get a child into a school. Such bribes are given standard labels like “sponsorship fee” in order to spare ordinary people the need to master the art of sophisticated subornation. But the principle of duplicity remains. And duplicity pops up everywhere—in fake food, forged receipts, false promises, doctored photos, and much more. People begin to withdraw inward, trusting less and less of what they see and hear.

Osnos relates a famous episode from October 2011, when a toddler named Wang Yueyue is crushed, but not immediately killed, by a passing van on a street in the southern city of Foshan. The van moves on, and Yueyue is ignored by the first seventeen passersby, who seem to be examples of the new amoral Chinese. A security camera captures the events and the recording reaches the Internet, where it goes viral. A deluge of denunciation falls upon the passersby. People send money and gifts to Yueyue’s parents. So morality, in another form, is very much alive. Osnos astutely observes, though, that the reaction itself was a bit intemperate. It seemed an eruption of accumulated gall of the kind Justin Lin, the Party economist, had gently called “frustration.” Some cynics on the Internet even imagined that the whole thing had been faked—a scam to attract donations.

Drawing on the research of the anthropologist Yan Yunxiang, Osnos shows that the suspicion of a scam, although preposterous in the Yueyue case, is not preposterous in general. Yan studied twenty-six cases in China of “Good Samaritans who had been the victims of extortion,” people who stopped to help the injured—or the ostensibly injured—and then were accused of having caused the injury and asked to pay for it. In each case, police began by assuming the accused to be guilty.

Can the government do anything to reduce such cynicism? It does spread words like “harmony” and “socialist civility,” but in its actions does more to generate cynicism than to curtail it. On the Internet it hires people to “guide opinion,” and no tactic is too cynical so long as a job gets done.

For example, if citizens are criticizing leaders for high gas prices, the opinion-guider can toss in the comment that “if you’re too poor to drive, then it serves you right!” The Web chat then turns to an attack on the nasty comment, and complaints about gas prices are temporarily forgotten. The government consistently says that “China is a country of laws,” but as Hu Gang, the bribery expert, frankly allows, “when the rules favor the rule-makers, they are applied; when they do not, they are ignored.” The laws pretend to serve justice but in fact are tools of power. As people learn this, their cynicism increases.

If anything is as widespread as cynicism, it is insecurity. Osnos quotes a television host who dares at one point to break away from his script to ask, “Can we drink a glass of milk that is safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can we travel roads in our cities that will not collapse?” Another citizen says, “Everyone has some cash in his pocket, but the money isn’t safe. You need a sense of security to be comfortable.” Insecurity appears at every level of society. It underlies the outbursts of extreme nationalism among “angry youth”; it is the reason for the huge amounts of money the government spends on domestic stability; and it is what causes the wealthy, including top leaders, to send their money and children abroad.

Despite the cynicism and insecurity, though, a basic human longing for something better keeps showing itself. When Osnos asks a writer friend why young Chinese are so animated in their protests against Japan, she answers that “growing up in China, there are very few chances for you to feel like that—to be lifted spiritually, to be working on something bigger than yourself.” Osnos discusses the oft-noted “spiritual void” in China, and the resurgence of religion. He shows how the government, too, has taken note of the void and sought to fill it by refurbishing Confucius, a thinker Mao had roundly denounced. When Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize infuriated the regime, it answered by inventing the Confucius Peace Prize and awarding it to Vladimir Putin.

By the end of his book Osnos has moved a considerable distance from China as an amusing place to China as a distressed place. He invites the question of how long the Chinese people are going to put up with their situation. He quotes Hu Shuli, the editor of whom his first impression was the busy click-clack of heels, saying that “it is autocracy that creates chaos, while democracy breeds peace. Supporting an autocracy is in reality trading short-term interests for long-term costs.”

He quotes Ai Weiwei, the activist artist, who observes that almost everyone in China is aware that the country “is facing a great crisis in terms of trust, ideology, moral standards, and many, many other ways,” and then says: “It’s not going to last.”

A fan of Ai Weiwei’s sends him some money with an attached note that says: “Don’t hurry to repay it. You can repay it when there is a new currency” (i.e., a different government). And how might such a thing happen? Osnos wonders whether “segments within the Party” might someday decide that they have “more to gain by siding with the people.”

Those are the sorts of words that burn one’s bridges with the Communist Party of China. So are the words in another passage, where Osnos relates how a woman with connections near the top of the Party approached his wife, Sarabeth, asking that the Osnos couple relay to Michael Forsythe, then a Bloomberg News reporter who had revealed that the family of China’s president Xi Jinping was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, this message: Forsythe and his family “can’t stay in China…. Something will happen. It will look like an accident…. He’ll just be found dead.” The message was obviously meant to intimidate Forsythe, Osnos, and other journalists. It certainly was not meant to be published.

In pondering these examples, I was struck that Osnos is publishing Age of Ambition as he leaves China to go write for The New Yorker from Washington, D.C. Would he have written the same way if he had wanted to stay longer in China? I reflected that many of the China correspondents I have admired over the years had, like Osnos, done their tour in China, written frankly, and then moved on.

Academics don’t do that; China scholars are wedded to China for life. Then I thought again about the question of “the one book” a traveler to China should read and realized that none—or almost none—of the books that I might nominate were by scholars. Some were by Chinese writers in translation. Among Westerners, nonfiction writers like Osnos and Peter Hessler, author of River Town, can offer more.3 Part of the problem is language. Osnos and Hessler write clear, charming sentences, whereas academic jargon, which scholars use even though it seldom is necessary, can be enough to choke even the brightest visitors. But the deeper problem is that scholars cannot risk leaving a burning bridge behind. Their access to China for research is at stake. People who are moving on can be more plainspoken.