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Book Review: Age of Ambition

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Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China may be the best of the recent books on China. Author Evan Osnos was the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker there, and his book is the record of an active journalist, "based on eight years of conversations." The resulting picture is of a large, dynamic country in the midst of rapid change, often in different directions. Osnos told the stories of individuals: some thriving in the system, others in deep trouble with political opposition, which gives a graphic feel for what it's like to strive and survive in China. We see practical realities ranging from how to bribe judges, to starting a Internet dating service.

During his time in China, Osnos "watched the age of ambition take shape," an enormous revolution for a people with little or no hope in their lives. The result was a "hunger for new sensations, ideas and respect." Even more than in free enterprise America, rags to riches became central to China's self image, as Osnos wrote, "There has been a 'race to catch up.'"

All of this energy and drive to realize ambitions is taking place in a country whose Communist Party leaders live in constant fear of following the fate of the Russian communists. One of its most powerful organizations, The Central Propaganda Department, has its headquarters in a building that does not officially exist.

For those who play the political game, and are successful in business, there is an abundance of evidence of the vast wealth created, including the flow of Chinese wealth into New York real estate. For those who opposed the political system and the Party, their fates can be less obvious, but very grim. Gao Zhisheng is a lawyer who represented the outlawed Falun Gong. He ended up being "tortured for 14 days, beaten and electrocuted with batons," and told "next time in front of your wife and children." When the imprisoned dissident Lin Xiaobo received the Nobel prize, this "drove the Chinese leaders into a rage." His wife was isolated for years. TV screens in China went blank when BBC TV had coverage of the Nobel ceremonies.

Amidst all this dynamism and turmoil, where is China today? Osnos concludes there is "no single unifying direction, no central melody, and there is nothing predestined about what kind of country it is becoming."

"China for all its conformity, is home to fiercely opposing forces."

Despite the enormous economic growth, "people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats." In China, many see the path to success as very dependent on "parental connections." And, despite the vast economic growth created, the Chinese people "better than anyone, knew the impermanence of it all." A defeating observation, for as Osnos noted, "In my final months in Beijing, that feeling of fragility took hold more deeply."

When we in America look at China, we often see what looks like an unstoppable force heading our way, a unified force of economic and geopolitical ambition. The great virtue of Osnos' Age Of Ambition is it shows us a complex country with its own internal contradictions and challenges. In some ways, they are like us.

–Bill Hayes

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