By Chet Yarbrough
By Evan Osnos
Narrated by: Evan Osnos, George Backman
Evan Osnos paints a schizophrenic picture of modern China in his book, Age of Ambition. The 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction is awarded to Osnos for his depiction of a culture of 1.4 billion people.
With some reservation, Osnos’s assessment is insightful, well argued, and supported by selected historical events and facts. One’s reservation is Osnos’s inherent bias as an American. This may be a quibble because the same might be said of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic depiction of America in the 19th century but it is a caution to be considered.
Osnos recounts many incidents and historical events that reinforce a schizophrenic picture of China. Like America, China has nationalists that argue a conservative line that says you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs (to Osnos’ credit, he did not use that cliché).
The advent of the internet results in heavy-handed censorship by the Chinese government. But, some nationalists justify censorship by arguing that dissident’ comments interfere with general public prosperity; a prosperity they believe comes from China’s past and will come from China’s economic future. Osnos explains that nationalists are telling dissidents to be patient. Osnos recounts difficulties encountered by Chinese publishers, journalists, and bloggers that successfully and unsuccessfully skirt censorship to reveal the truth of repressive Chinese events like Tiananmen Square.
Another element of Osnos’s schizophrenic picture of China relates to a universal human instinct; i.e. the belief that there is something more to life than material wealth. In classic (Marxian) communism, it is the state (which believes in a collective good) that is more important than personal wealth. In western civilization it is either religion or Socratic belief (pursuit of individual good) that is more important than personal wealth.
Like western civilizations, Osnos shows that China has religious movements like the Falun Gong and Socratic movements like Confucianism; both of which create tension between materialism, religion, and the Socratic concept of the good. Osnos suggests this tension contributes to China’s schizophrenia; however, the inference is that the tension in China is greater than in western countries because of one party, autocratic rule. Conflicts between China’s government, and Falun Gong, or the monks of Tibet are more obviously suppressed because members of those groups overtly say the state is unnecessary or, at best, is second to personal religious’ or Socratic’ beliefs.
Osnos suggests modern China, in some ways, is like 19th century America. In the 19th century, America ambitiously industrialized to become the 20th century’s wealthiest economy; China appears to be on the same economic’ trajectory, but at a faster rate in the 21st century. A fundamental difference, shown (or at least inferred) by Osnos, is that China’s rise is founded on the basis of cultural conformity and unicameral legislation while America’s rise is based on balance of power and bicameral representative legislation.
However, the truth is much of America’s history is freighted with similar incidents of greed, corruption, and political upheaval. The irony of the cultural difference between China and America is that they are heading toward similar crises; i.e. a widening gap between the rich and poor, growing dissatisfaction with government leadership, and economies that breed unfair competition, corruption, and greed; all of which foment increasing social unrest.
Osnos reflects on Chinese dissident’ claims against rapid economic growth by telling the story of the 2008 Sichuan’ earthquake deaths of children; deaths caused by inferior construction material used to build schools. Based on capitalist’ greed, Chinese’ dissidents argue children were negligently killed. Osnos also recounts the incident of a 2011 high-speed rail accident, caused by a poorly designed fail-safe system. An electrical failure resulted in a train wreck that killed 40 citizens and injured many more. Dissidents argue that government negligently pushed too hard to create a high-speed rail system that did not have enough operational’ redundancy to avoid catastrophe.
Osnos notes various trials that reveal corruption and bribery in China. Osnos suggests it is reminiscent of investigations of private industrialists and government agency collusion in 19th century America. The payment of favors for public officials in China results in expulsion of party apparatchiks that skimmed millions from ambitious industrialists and wannabes that sought lucrative contracts for public construction projects. In one case, the murder of a British’ citizen by the wife of a Chinese political leader is revealed. The political leader’s wife is convicted of poisoning the British citizen. The investigation unravels corrupt practices of her husband and results in his removal from office.
Dissidents in China, like dissidents in America, are pressing for transparency because both believe their societies will benefit from public understanding and input. Osnos infers that neither American’ democratic capitalists nor Chinese’ communist capitalists know what capitalist countries can, or should do to satisfy public needs. It appears America is no more or less schizophrenic than China. One difference is that China appears more ambitious than America; largely because China is trying to catch up, while America is already there; there, meaning an American minority is wealthy while the majority are either poor or falling further behind. The second difference is that China is more overtly oppressive than America which is certainly a difference in action, but not necessarily consequence.