Review: Evan Osnos’s “Age of Ambition”

by Miles Raymer


Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition is packed with detailed observations and curious facts that will edify anyone looking to learn about modern China’s domestic structure and growing role on the international stage. Osnos is a talented writer whose style can be described as “humanist nonfiction”––a series of interview-based narratives organized by theme and supported by ancillary research. It reminds of me George Packer’s exceptional book The Unwinding, which is having a new moment in post-election America. As with all good nonfiction, Age of Ambition complicates the world and asks more questions than it answers. The following passages give a good sense of Osnos’s general approach:

The hardest part about writing from China was not navigating the authoritarian bureaucracy or the occasional stint in a police station. It was the problem of proportions. How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression? From far away it was difficult for outsiders to judge, but I found that up close it wasn’t much easier, because it depended on where you were looking. (227)

Anybody who scratched beneath the surface of Chinese life discovered a more complicated conception of the good life that had made room for the pursuit of values and dignity alongside the pursuit of cars and apartments. (371)

Age of Ambition is broken into three parts: Fortune, Truth, and Faith. Osnos provides solid commentary on each theme, weaving the stories of his interviewees into each section with impressive fluidity. Osnos’s cast of characters is broad and diverse; it includes a Taiwanese military man who defected to China, a female media mogul, Ai Weiwei (the internationally-acclaimed artist), a young conservative nationalist with training in Western philosophy, a young man obsessed with mastering the English language, a blind lawyer put under house arrest for questioning the government, and more.

Each tale adds its own spice to Age of Ambition, but as an American, I became enthralled by the myriad ways contemporary China has imitated the United States while also working very hard to set itself apart from all of Western culture. For example, when fledgling Party propagandists wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, they looked to America, “the holy land of public relations” (118). China rapidly adapted a distinctly American tool to bolster a distinctly anti-American (or at least anti-democratic) government. This dynamic comes up again and again in Age of Ambition, with Chinese individuals constantly negotiating with a cultural attitude toward America that appears admiring, supercilious, aspirational, jealous, and spiteful all at once.

Osnos dives deeply into the question of how China’s modernization has affected Chinese identity. He identifies a “paradox of ambition” stemming from the fundamental contraction of an authoritarian state overseeing a booming private sector: “The Party was sparking individual ambition and self-creation in one half of life and suppressing those tendencies in the other” (150). Referring to the lasting impact of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, one of Osnos’s subjects asserts: “We cast aside our three core ideas––Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism––and that was a mistake” (107-8). A toxic form of Marxism quickly filled the void, and then was injected with rampant capitalism as China “opened up” to a larger role in international trade. But, as Osnos points out, capitalism is an economic system, and not a particularly effective means of generating or maintaining cultural identity:

In its abuses and deceptions, the Chinese government was failing to make a persuasive argument for what it meant to be Chinese in the modern world. The Party had rested its legitimacy on prosperity, stability, and a pantheon of hollow heroes. In doing so, it had disarmed itself in the battle for the soul, and it sent Chinese individuals out to wander the market of ideas in search of icons of their own. (306)

The icons that have come to dominate this rootless landscape are familiar to anyone with a passing interest in world affairs: opulent displays of wealth, crony capitalism, vulgar and insipid media, blind consumerism, and growing socioeconomic inequality. As in America, “China’s new fortunes were wildly out of balance” (267). The nature and scope of Chinese corruption seems to have a flavor all its own, but its underpinnings are present throughout the globalized world. Osnos reflects on this situation with an image that applies as easily to any struggling Western democracy as it does to modern China:

The longer I lived in China, the more it seemed that people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats. For those who found a seat––because they arrived early, they had the right family, they paid the right bribe––progress was beyond their imagination. Everyone else could run as far and fast as their legs would carry them, but they would only be able to watch the caboose shrink into the distance. (271)

So what to make of all this? For me, Age of Ambition inspired fear and admiration in about equal measure. I read the book because a dear friend of mine recently lived in China for a time, and came away from the experience distressed by what he saw as a deeply repressive and increasingly aggressive nation with a huge and needy population. Without the chance to make that judgment for myself, I must admit that I’m far more fearful of the new government in my homeland than one far across the Pacific, at least for the moment. And then the sadness really sinks in, because fear is perhaps the only emotion currently shared by everyone alive on Earth––the commonplace tragedy that unites and divides us.

As the reasons for informed cynicism continue to mount, I take solace in the knowledge that thinkers like Osnos will continue to provide us with exemplary texts to improve our minds and defend civilization from its worst self.

Rating: 9/10