"Age of Ambition" Review
During last year’s Duke-UNC Chinese Leadership Summit, Dan Blumenthal delivered a prognostication of China’s future, and as director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, he knows what he’s talking about. Mr. Blumenthal described China’s growth into its Gilded Age, which may mirror America’s own Gilded Age of 150 years ago, and we know how that turned out – an era corrupted by immoral politicians and devil-may-care tycoons who exploited the working class into deprivation. Blumenthal buttressed his theories by quoting from Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, leaving his audience with a question yet unanswered by scholars: “Will the ambitions of the Chinese people forge a strong economy controlled by corrupt elites, or will those ambitions create a Chinese society with opportunity, freedom of speech, and democratic options?
A curiosity about China’s future induced me to an act that college students my age are thought rarely to do – I sat down to read a book not on the required reading list, in this case, Age of Ambition.
Given that the book garnered the National Book of the Year Award for 2014, my expectations were high, and Mr. Osnos did not disappoint. Having lived in Beijing for a decade, he paints a troubling portrait of Chinese people anxious about their values, identity and future. Mr. Osnos argues that China’s metamorphosis is not grounded in grandiose governmental decisions about political and economic policy, nor in sweeping sagas about a nation that is home to one sixth of humanity, but rather rooted in the cumulative result of alterations in attitudes of Chinese people, and in a shift in dreams so subtle they are barely discernible.
What Mr. Osnos provides for the Western world is a much needed, fresh portrait of modern China. I confess that, living as an outsider in Beijing and Shanghai, at first, I stereotyped Chinese people as homogeneous, people with the same ideas, beliefs, and ambitions. Having lived in Beijing last summer, I came to Age of Ambition with a bias based on personal experience. But Mr. Osnos refined my impressions about China to a level not customarily accessible to visitors of even extended stays. As in any developing nation, Chinese people hunger for progress, new ideas, and especially respect. China is no longer the army of “blue ants” under Mao, but instead, China is filled with many opposing forces: Western liberals against nationalist conservatives, old entrenched elites against restless young plutocrats, and even propagandists against cyber utopians. As I adjusted to the atmospheric haze that covered these great Chinese cities, it was not the great infrastructure, sweeping policies, or government censorship that surprised me, but rather the dynamic entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people, their curiosity, their energy, and their dreams.
Mr. Osnos starts out focusing on the Gilded Age. He profiles Chinese youth, single-minded in pursuit of affluence and status. They know that meteoric success does not come to passive players swept along by the times, but rather to those who determine their destiny. Mr. Osnos points out that many Chinese reached for freedoms once denied by government. He reminds us that, by means of capitalistic reforms after Mao’s death in 1976, the Communist Party unleashed the greatest prospect for economic growth in world history and spawned, ironically and probably by accident, the greatest threat to its own survival. Deng Xiaoping’s new Communist Party offered its people a deal – prosperity for loyalty. He abandoned Marx’s theories, no longer assured food and shelter for all, but he retained Mao’s portrait on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. As Mr. Osnos writes, “The Party no longer promises equality or an end to toil. It promises only prosperity, pride, and strength. And for a while, that was enough. But over time, the people have come to want more.” The Party boasts that it molds the “central melody” of Chinese life, but as China has changed, the melody has lost its harmony.
A second powerful theme that Mr. Osnos examines is religion. He cites a growing desire for faith that cannot be satisfied by a party lacking moral doctrine. The more money citizens have, it seems, the more they challenge old ways in search of moral meaning. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with prosperity, there is food, shelter, and time to worry about self-actualization. Religion, philosophy, psychology and literature help humans find an alternative to “ideological incoherence and unrelenting ambition.” Anybody who studies Chinese life discovers a more complicated conception of the good life, one that makes room for the pursuit not only of cars and condos, but also of values and dignity.
In my time working in a Shanghainese law office, I have observed an important phenomenon in Chinese culture, mianzi. In Mandarin, this term literally means ‘face,’ but can be translated to ‘dignity’ or ‘prestige.’ It is not a face that can be washed, but it is a face that can be given and lost. Often social intercourse is regulated by mianzi in China, driven by hierarchy and pride. In our office, rarely will anyone disagree and shoot down another’s idea, because it is the highest form of disrespect. The social construct of mianzi carries enough weight to stop a business deal or multinational treaty from being signed, and demonstrates that Chinese culture holds on to some if its ancient practices, heavily influenced by Daoism and Confucianism. Mianzi shows that dignity, pride, and faith in oneself is important to the Chinese people, and these feelings, in citizens across the world, can be bolstered by a faith in God.
The Communist Party attempts to disguise nationalism and commercialism as religion, hoping people place faith in it. Despite efforts by the CCP, however, many Chinese people seek an ideology more altruistic than either one. The newspaper editor Li Datong believes “that the fury of China’s young nationalists arose from accumulated desire for expression like a flood that suddenly races into a breach.” Many CCP leaders fear the new faith could destabilize China. Outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, for example, masses convened to throw trash. Police appealed for public support: “We share your feelings, but we should support our government, express our patriotic sentiments in a legal, orderly, and rational fashion, and not adopt extreme behavior, or disturb the social order.” Clearly, the CCP wants to discourage any ambition and emotional faith that could create strong, energetic leaders or any social disruption, for if the people disrupt order, the Party loses legitimacy. I agree with the contention of Mr. Osnos that there is a spiritual hunger in the Chinese soul that makes China’s future less certain. In my observation, many Chinese people mix and match Chinese religions, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, creating a polytheistic national character that fractures cultural identity. For example, when I visited a Buddhist temple with my Chinese class and our teacher in Shanghai, I asked my teacher if the all the visitors praying were Buddhists. She then told me that most Chinese citizens will pray to not only Buddhists gods, but Daoist gods, and folk gods too.
For the West, meanwhile, the challenge is to grow out of its torpor and its oversimplification of Chinese politics, history, and culture, and to recognize that, whatever the government, the Chinese people are demanding a growing role in an increasingly complicated world. That demands, among other strategies, more college courses that recognize the importance of China, and more intelligent scholars, like Osnos, writing books of insight, like Age of Ambition. It demands, also, on the part of all Americans, a willingness to concede that the global politics and unchallenged Western superiority of the 20th century is history. Those days are gone, forever. As Aldous Huxley noted, it’s a Brave New World all right. How new? Very. How brave? Call me an optimist, but I have a sense that China is at the advent of ambitious change.