I’ve always enjoyed listening to Evan Osnos’s appearances on The New Yorker’s Political Scene podcast and have been pretty interested in China since taking a course on modern Chinese history in college. I had meant to read Osnos’s book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China for a few years, but I finally got around to it the past couple of weeks.
The book documents the transformation of Chinese society over the past ten to twenty years. Osnos, who lived in China for the better part of a decade, covers many issues in the book—China’s opening up to market reforms, widespread government corruption, massive infrastructure programs, the lack of political liberty, censorship, and more.
Some of the aspects of the book that surprised me most were how little many people know about consequential events like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen Square, how satisfied—at least according to some opinion polls—many Chinese people are with the way the country is developing, and how people think about the West.
The most interesting parts of the book were the chapters on how the government, its censors, and its 50 Cent Party (people paid a small fee to post flatteringly about the government or unflatteringly about its opponents on social media) constantly struggle to keep up with developments in the news and pop culture. As more Chinese people have become connected to the Internet and have become more tech-savvy, it has been harder for the government to curtail free speech. Even when government censors blacklist certain words or phrases, users come up with ingenious homonyms to post about sensitive topics.
At so many points while reading this book, I thought to myself that so much of the news I read in the United States seems less significant when compared to the scale at which things happen in China. Osnos cites almost inconceivable rates at which things happen in China—the number of miners killed in accidents each week, the number of people killed in car accidents every hour, the number of people going online for the first time every day. It made me realize that it’s hard to think about any global issue without thinking about China right in the middle of it.
I enjoyed the format of the book a lot. Osnos intersperses his own personal experiences and his news analysis with interviews he conducts with a variety of Chinese people, including a bold newspaper editor, a young aspiring entrepreneur, famous artists and bloggers, and many others. Even when writing about issues that seem hard to comprehend as an American, Osnos treats his subjects fairly and with a lot of sympathy. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about China and how it operates.