Q&A: China's Collision Between Aspiration and Authoritarianism

A conversation with the author of "The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China"

According to author Evan Osnos, China is engaged in a cultural battle between individualism and authoritarianism.

No country has changed so much, so fast as China. In one generation, it has gone from being largely agricultural to a country of megacities and bullet trains and, soon, the world's tallest skyscraper. The number of Chinese billionaires is growing faster than anywhere in the world, and this year the nation's GDP is expected to overtake that of the United States.

But last year China also executed more people than any other country and has imprisoned an estimated 1,300 political or religious prisoners.

For much of the past decade, New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos was on the front line of these momentous changes. In his new book, The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China he describes the decisive battle taking place between individualism and authoritarianism, how the Internet is transforming Chinese lives, and why having a weasel in your roof is a sign of good fortune.

You say every journey in China begins with "the call." When did your calling to write about China begin? Did you have a China connection growing up?

We lived in Moscow when I was small. My father was a reporter for the Washington Post, my parents spoke Russian, so I grew up with a sense of Eastern Europe being the cultural background we were interested in. I didn't pay much attention to China until I got to Harvard as a freshman. I took a class on the background to the events of 1989, and that narrative, for me, was electrifying. That drew me in.

You first traveled to China as a student in 1996, returning as a journalist in 2005. What changed in those intervening years?

That was astonishing. In my mind the image of China was fixed. I had this picture of what it meant to be in Beijing, which was left over from the summer I spent there in '96. The city smelled like coal and cheap tobacco. The countryside was inside the confines of the city. I used to eat in Xinjiang village: row after row of gray brick buildings, which the Uyghurs had built as restaurants—there were sheep tied outside them!

Then I came back in 2005, and China had gone from being a place where the cities were the exception to a country where cities were an important part of the narrative. It was in the midst of this incredible physical metamorphosis. China was building the equivalent of Rome every two weeks.

There were new buzzwords, too, weren't there? Like ye xin, meaning "wild heart."

This is one of those instances where the Chinese language is so vivid that it can become an entry point into understanding the inner experience of being there. "Wild heart" had always been pejorative in China. If you were described as having a wild heart, it was a harsh criticism that could be ruinous for your family. It suggested you were at odds with ancient Chinese ideas—the Confucian ethic—but also modern political orthodoxy.

When I came back in 2005, the phrase had come to mean something different. It had lost much of its negative connotation. It had become a neutral term. Indeed, it began to take on a positive meaning. If you go to Chinese bookstores now, you'll find a book called How to Have a Wild Heart in Your 20s.

Unlike most correspondents, you opted not to live in a modern apartment, but in a hutong in Beijing, where I visited you two years ago. Can you describe what that is and what your daily life was like?

I lived in a traditional Chinese courtyard in a hutong, an alleyway. These are the capillaries of the city that have been an essential part of Beijing going back to the Yuan dynasty. For me, they've always been the nerve center of the city—the place where things are happening. The Mongol emperors laid them out, [and] they are very condensed, intimate spaces where you know all your neighbors, and they know everything about you. And I really loved the experience of what the Chinese call "living with your feet touching the ground."

Over the course of eight years I lived in three different courtyards. Each one had its idiosyncrasies. The one I lived in longest shared a wall with a Confucian temple. It was a gift to have this little window onto a part of Beijing that is largely disappearing. It was also a vantage point into the history of the city, because a lot of traditions that are disappearing elsewhere endure in the hutongs.

For instance, we had this weasel that moved into the roof of the house. The neighbors all told me that this was good news because the weasel in northern Chinese cosmology is a very good omen, which heralds the imminent arrival of good fortune! I called an exterminator, but he too congratulated me on the arrival of the weasel—before he set about trying to get rid of it. He failed. And soon there were five weasels!

You describe the narrative of contemporary China as a collision between two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism. Can you give us some examples?

There's a young man I met a few years ago named Tang Jie. He was a patriot, a nationalist. He had become well known because he had produced a video on the Web that was a manifesto for young Chinese nationalists because it criticized the West for what were seen as its efforts to prevent China's rise. After the video became so successful, he thought there might be a market for the ideas he was promoting, so he created what he called the Chinese nationalist YouTube.

But the larger he got, the more his ambitions put him into a political gray area. He began to criticize corruption, for instance, and eventually his website was closed down by the authorities. So you had this curious situation whereby one of China's most ardent patriots found that his own aspiration to develop his voice and put those of his peers out on the Web placed him in direct opposition to the state. He's an acute example of what happens all the time.

What sort of constraints were you yourself under as a correspondent?

I always try not to overemphasize the restrictions we face as foreign journalists, because I think they're absurdly small compared to what Chinese journalists face. The government does interfere with the way we can access politically sensitive individuals. If you go to a village and try to discuss a politically sensitive issue, they'll probably step in the way.

One of the people I write about in the book is the blind lawyer Chen Guangchen, who is now in exile in the U.S. He was under house arrest for years, so when I tried to visit him at home, I was turned away. But I always felt I wanted to minimize those occasions, because the only person who suffers is the person you're trying to see. I tried to figure out more sophisticated ways of getting information that would not imperil the people I was writing about.

There's a wonderful quote you use by China expert Perry Link, who describes the relationship between the people and the Communist Party as like "living beneath a giant anaconda in a chandelier."

[Laughs] What he's referring to is the experience of living in a country with censorship but where the rules are never quite clear. If you're a writer or an editor, you know there are always consequences if your work irritates the government. You can lose your job. You can go to jail. And yet the rules are never explicitly codified in a way that would allow you to make confident judgments about the limits. So it is like living with a snake above your head. You never quite know what the anaconda is going to do. It's always there. Most of the time it does nothing, but its presence shapes your behavior in a deep and psychologically powerful way.

You compare China's "age of ambition" with America's Gilded Age. Can you unpack some of the parallels?

I didn't set out to see China in a framework that was familiar to me. But the longer I was there, the more it reminded me of a period in American history at the end of the 19th century when we were also growing at a furious pace. This was a time when the U.S. was rebuilding from the Civil War. We were laying railroad tracks across the country. It was also a time of spectacular corruption. The grandson of President John Quincy Adams was in the railroad business himself, and he said: "Our business is based on lying, cheating, and stealing." There are a lot of parallels between this muscular, chaotic moment in American history and what's happening in China in our generation.

There are many rags-to-riches stories woven into the book—what's called in China "bare-handed fortunes." Can you tell us about a woman called Gong Haiyan?

She grew up in a small town at the base of a mountain. Her parents were farmers who couldn't read or write. But she was from this generation that was growing up in a period of relative prosperity and peace, and she had the opportunity to go and get an education. From a very early age she also had this inclination toward business. As a kid, she decided to buy Popsicles from a nearby town, bring them home, mark up the price, and sell them door to door.

Her parents said: "We have three neighbors, [and] we live at the foot of a mountain. Who do you think is going to buy these things?" But she stuck at it, and sure enough, she succeeded. She went on to found the Chinese equivalent of Match.com and ended up taking it public on the NASDAQ! That absolute, sheer determination to succeed at all costs is the propulsive force that is driving the country ahead—and makes it so thrilling.

The battle between the state and the individual is being played out on the Internet, which one of the dissidents you profile calls "God's gift to China." How is this battle being fought?

When I arrived in 2005, there were a million bloggers. Today there are about 600 million people online. We think of it as a transformative technology in the West, but in China it has been even more so. They were living more isolated lives, they had less information, and all of a sudden the Internet provided the possibility of connection and this incredible infusion of competing viewpoints and alternative views of history.

But the government has also created human history's arguably most elaborate system of censorship. So what you see is this arms race between the government's determination to prevent what it considers unhealthy information and the citizens' ingenuity in finding and amplifying it. It's like a cat-and-mouse game in which people are figuring out what they can do online, how much they can say and get away with.

On the other side, the government is responding as fast as it can, investing in physical infrastructure or hiring human monitors, people who by the tens of thousands—we don't know how many exactly—spend their time on the Internet either striking down comments that are politically intolerable or doing something more subtle by steering the conversation in a direction the government would like. The term in Chinese for these people is "ushers."

One of the things that come across in the book is the Chinese people's inventiveness and wit in subverting or mocking the system. Tell us about "Big Underpants."

[Laughs] The censorship system is partly based on filters that prevent unflattering words getting out on the Internet. If I typed in "Tiananmen Square," it would be blocked. So as a result, people are constantly creating terms to carry on the conversations they want to have. It's a kind of code or parallel language system.

The government was very pleased when the new headquarters of Chinese Central Television (CCTV) was unveiled. It was this futuristic, Rem Koolhaas high rise, with two towers that slant toward each other. So they allowed discussion to grow on the Internet. But people started calling it the "Big Underpants" [laughs] because that's what it looked like to them. The apparatchiks thought this was not very funny, so they suggested an alternative, the suitably solemn "Window on Knowledge." But people soon figured out that that phrase is a homonym for hemorrhoid [laughs].

One of the many jaw-dropping facts you quote is that in 2012 the richest 70 members of China's National Assembly had a net worth of almost $90 billion, more than ten times that of the U.S. Congress! Can the Communist Party survive this level of corruption?

I think the government has recognized that corruption had become an existential threat. That's why it's embarked on this intense anti-corruption campaign. The question, ultimately, is whether it's prepared to take the kind of steps that are necessary to reinvigorate its legitimacy and ensure its survival. And I don't think we know yet. But the Chinese political system is very adaptable. In 1979 they gave up socialist economics almost overnight because they realized it was a threat to their political survival. And that's an important habit of mind to understand about the way the party conducts itself.

In a chapter called "Soul Craft" you describe the rise of religion and spirituality in contemporary China. Why do you think this is happening?

The Chinese people live in a society that is Communist in name, capitalist in practice, yet it does not have a clear set of philosophical, moral ideas. Life under Mao was almost a religious experience. People would confess their sins at the foot of his statutes and hold his book aloft like a holy text.

Then all of a sudden China embarked on a free-market economy and that cosmology had to be set aside, which left behind this great hole. So, people had this spiritual appetite, which they have gone out to fill themselves. I met Pentecostal judges or tycoons who had adopted the Baha'i faith. There is this great upswell of spiritual energy that reminds me very much of the Great Awakening in the U.S. in the 19th century.

There is also a new nationalist strain, which we're seeing in China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Do you think the U.S. and China are on a collision course?

I don't know if we're on a collision course. What's clear is that we have reached a point where these two countries that had a diplomatic accommodation with each other for the past 40 years have entered a new, more complicated phase. I choose not to imagine we're ordained to enter into conflict with each other just because we are two large powers.

One of the reasons I write in such granular detail about Chinese life is to convey to people that at this very moment when our two countries seem to be moving into greater conflict with each other, we have never had more in common as individuals, on the basis of our ordinary, lived experience. And that should be a basis for mutual understanding—and not distrust.

One of the hardest things to explain to people outside China is that even in a country that is the only place in the world with a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison, there is immense humor and joy at the same time. And you have to allow both of those images into your portrait of the place, or you won't capture it honestly. Putting those two in harsh juxtaposition is very much my project in this book.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.