When Evan Osnos first arrived in Beijing as a college student in 1996, China was a different country. The economy was smaller than Italy’s. The Internet was a nascent, little-known thing. Despite nearly 20 years of economic reforms and opening up to the West, Chinese people still rejected imports like Hollywood and McDonald’s.
“Cameras had failed to convey how much closer it was, in spirit and geography, to the windswept plains of Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong,” Osnos writes of that time in Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, his new book on modern China. Soon, everything would change.
Two years later, Osnos returned for a summer to find that a feverish desire to consume—houses, Cokes, meat—had taken hold. A new magazine called the Guide to Purchasing Upscale Goods published stories with titles like “After the Divorce, Who Gets the House?” A new Communist Party slogan proclaimed “Borrow Money to Realize Your Dreams.”
By the time Osnos relocated to China in 2005, first as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and later as one for the New Yorker, “China was building the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks.”
How does one tell the story of a place changing so rapidly that the outside observer can hardly keep up? In his book, released just last week, Osnos argues that the country’s remarkable growth has unleashed an age of possibility for Chinese citizens, an unprecedented fervor for chasing dreams and soul-searching. For eight years, Osnos followed the lives of Chinese people tugged by these tides of change: A peasant’s daughter turned online dating tycoon, a young political scientist and ardent defender of China’s one-party system, a street sweeper moonlighting as a poet, a political dissident revered abroad but erased at home, corrupt officials that make Washington look like child’s play.
Through these stories Osnos traces the cadence of everyday life that often gets lost amid modern China’s played-out superlatives. Now living in Washington, DC, Osnos spoke to Mother Jones about his run-ins with the Great Firewall, overnight moguls, pollution, and why now’s the golden age for foreign correspondents in China.
Mother Jones: What are the most notable ways China has changed since you first visited?
Evan Osnos: This is one of the things that’s thrilling about China’s metamorphosis, which is really what it is. It’s how physical it is. When I lived in Beijing in 1996, it was a horizontal city. If you wanted to go out for a burger, if you wanted to really treat yourself, you went to this place called the Jianguo Hotel. The architect had proudly described it as a perfect replica of a Holiday Inn that he had seen in Palo Alto, California. It’s exactly what you would imagine a Palo Alto Holiday Inn looks like.
Now, of course, 40 percent of the skyscrapers under construction worldwide are in China. It’s rare, if you look back through history, there are these moments—we had one in the United States, there was one in the UK—where countries just physically transform themselves. That was quite striking.
MJ: In your book, you also talk about China’s intangible transformations.
EO: In the end, it was the non physical transformation that became the subject of this book. It was this very private, and in some ways kind of intimate, change in the way people saw themselves as citizens, as members of the society. Traditionally you saw yourself as a member of a group: the family, then the village, then the factory, and then of course the country at large.
I think a generation ago, people in China would have always talked about the collective. Today, the Chinese call it the “Me” generation, because that’s exactly what it is, people who are able and quite determined to think about their own lives in ways that are specific, idiosyncratic, and infused with personal choice. They imagine themselves to be the actor at the center of this drama. That’s a transformation. It’s meaningful in all kinds of ways—politically, economically, socially.
MJ: In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, you wrote about trying to publish a Chinese edition of this book. Local publishers wanted to significantly revise or censor politically sensitive sentences. Were you surprised at by this, given the book prominently features Tiananmen and the June 4th protests, and dissidents like Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, and Shi Tao?
EO: After I had written the book in English, the question I’d been thinking about for a long time is how to get this to a Chinese audience. Chinese readers are buying books in translation, particularly non-fiction about China, in large numbers. That’s exciting and important—it actually feels like a fair trade: I’ve been there writing about their country, and I like the idea of being able to put my story back into their hands, partly for accountability’s sake. If they say this doesn’t ring true, then I’ve learned something.
The problem is that in order to publish a book in mainland China, you have to agree to be subject to censorship. That’s the nature of the system. I don’t challenge that system on its face. It’s their system. But as an author I have a choice to make whether I’ll participate or I won’t. And when they came back and said ‘Here are the cuts you have to make. You won’t be able to talk about dissidents like Chen Guangcheng or Ai Weiwei, we don’t want you to talk about Chinese history in a certain way.’
I decided that that’s not something that I can do. If I give a portrait to the Chinese public of themselves that’s not actually how I see the world and how they look to me, that’s not an honest accounting. It would be as odd as if somebody came to the United States and wrote a book about the last 100 years and said, ‘You know, I don’t want to write about the Civil Rights Movement because it’s sensitive, awkward, and uncomfortable. So let’s just not talk about that.’ I felt like I couldn’t do the equivalent in Chinese.
MJ: One of the themes you return to throughout the book is how decades of economic development has unleashed a sense of ambition among Chinese citizens, to seek fortune, information, and a sense of self. But as you point out, these forces have run up against limits under China’s authoritarian regime. When did these limits first become clear to you?
EO: When I first moved there, I was overwhelmed by the sense of aspiration. All of a sudden, people who had never really had the opportunity to define their own goals in life had embraced that. There was a woman named Gong Haiyan who I wrote about when she was just out of graduate school, and all of a sudden she was taking her company public on the stock exchange, and got very wealthy. That seemed like in its own way a symbol of this moment in China.
Then over and over I started running into people whose aspirations had led them into a confrontation with the state, Ai Weiwei being perhaps the most dramatic example. He was obviously using his art in a way that he thought was going to advance certain political objectives. He found out he couldn’t do that, and in some sense my interactions with Ai Weiwei focused my attention on that confrontation, on that collision.
It wasn’t just unfolding in the lives of people as unusual as Ai Weiwei, it was in fact unfolding in microscopic ways all over the country. For instance, if you’re a small-time entrepreneur, and you’re in a city in which you need a license to operate a business, and you discover that you can’t get a license to operate that business unless you know somebody.
MJ: Give us an example of how the Chinese government’s restrictions on access to information, like the Great Firewall of China, got in the way of your reporting.
EO: If you’re trying to write about what the Chinese people are talking about, you can sometimes get a distorted picture if you go online and look at the conversation on social media. You’ll discover that people are not really talking about Bo Xilai—the big corruption case of a couple of years ago—or you might find that people are not talking about the latest political rumors the way you would expect them to. The truth is, they are talking about them, but they’re being censored and they’re being removed in real time.
For some of us as foreigners, we can go to China and it is a wonderful place. It’s a place I love and it’s been a part of my life for 20 years and it will continue to be. But if you go to China and all you see is these new skyscrapers and this sense of progression and openness, you’re not seeing the country as it truly is.
MJ: You’ve written a lot about China’s crackdown on the web. Has the Internet actually expanded creative and individual freedom in China, or has it merely created the illusion of freedom?
EO: Great question. There’s no question that the internet has created a greater sense of intellectual possibility. The greatest example is somebody I met towards the end of my time there, a guy I write about in the book, who’s a street sweeper. When you meet him, you think ‘I understand the contours of his life. He’s not a person with an intellectual outlet.’ He said to me, ‘Everybody thinks that I don’t have an education. And what they don’t know, what they don’t understand, is that I’m a poet. I’m the host of a forum online for modern Chinese poetry.’ At first I thought the guy was unhinged. And then I went online and discovered that it was true. He really did have an entire universe that he had created and was a part of. There were people that he knew, and there were poetry competitions that he’d won.
This was really important in understanding what the Internet allows people to do. There are limitations, but I think there’s a danger in imagining that the limitations means that there’s not substance.
MJ: His poetry was quite good!
EO: He was ambitious in his poetry. He was not doing small bore stuff. He saw himself as a descendent of Mao, and Mao, after all, was a poet. He really believed that there was nobility and dignity in trying to put ideas to paper. It simply wasn’t available to him before the internet. If we think the internet is transformative for us in the United States, imagine how transformative it is for people in China who are otherwise living in these fairly isolated areas.
MJ: What did you find most challenging about writing about the complexities of life in modern China for an American audience?
EO: You have to figure out a way as a writer to capture idiosyncrasy, what is it that makes it distinctive without making it overly exotic. It’s very easy when you’re a writer talking about this very distant place to take the names of streets and translate them back into English, and make them sound almost other worldly. I used to live on Cotton Flower Alley, for instance, and I lived next to Pineapple Junction.
There is a way of over-exotifying a place, when in fact my goal is that by describing Chinese people as they are, and as they really live, that I will allow American readers to see them as they appear to me: they’re much, much more like us than I think we ever imagined them to be.
MJ: What have you found to be the biggest shortcomings in the outside world’s view of China?
EO: It’s funny, actually, I’m sort of complimentary of the journalism on China these days. This is not just because the folks doing it are my friends. As much as we talk about the troubles that foreign journalists have in China today—and they’re substantial—this is a golden age for foreign correspondents in China because technology allows us to travel the country faster and farther than we ever have before, and it allows you to be in touch with the rest of the world, so you can understand what the rest of the world understands about China, and what they don’t.
And also I think the journalists who are there are self selecting. Nobody gets sent to China these days. You go because you’ve fought hard to get there: You’ve probably studied the language, you’ve studied the place. So there’s people there who are determined to capture it.
Inevitably, our image of China just simply can’t keep up with the changes inside the country. Everything is happening in China at exponential speed. Maybe you would have said, five years ago, that people in China were feeling good about their economic status. If you said that today, people on the ground in Beijing would say you’re out of touch, because it’s changed substantially. It’s hard to keep up.
MJ: So just how bad was the air pollution?
EO: Over the last few years air quality has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness where conditions that people used to accept, they no longer accept. Part of that is that they feel the effects on their health, and part of that is about information: They now have access to numbers that were never available before. They’re about to read what it is that they’re inhaling. But really, more importantly—and I think this is critical—they know what their children are inhaling. That’s had a metabolic effect on the politics of pollution.
The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: ‘we will make your lives better, if you’ll allow us to stay in power.’ That has been the bargain for the last 30 years. In order to maintain power, the party basically has to ensure that people still believe that their lives are getting better.
I think a few years ago people defined “getting better” in a different way than they do today. It used to be that if your income was getting a little bit higher every year, you were reasonably satisfied. Today, people are thickening their conception of what it means to live a good life. And they’re demanding more things, like clean air for instance, and safe water.
MJ: In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, you recalled speaking at a conference a few years back where you warned that corruption was going to be a bigger issue. You said that back then a lot of people disagreed with you. But you turned out to be right. If you had to guess, what emerging issues do you expect will be important in the coming years?
EO: We should be humble about our ability to predict this place. The longer you’re there, the less comfortable you are making predictions, because you realize just how hard it is to get it right.
But I do think that if I was making a list of the issues that are going to be the most important in China’s future, the environment is really near the top. It’s an issue that in the past was not a political factor, and all of a sudden it’s become a political factor. I think that changes where the country can go, because all of a sudden they have to figure out how to reward people in different ways: They can’t allow the economy to grow at the kind of unbridled speed that it had before.
Anybody who’s spent a lot of time there has seen people who are just willing to do absolutely everything in order to will themselves from one place in life to another place in life. In China today, if you’re not moving forward, then you are moving backwards. That’s still the dominant ethos. That’s not going to change.