In his first book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos explores China’s astounding social transformation, and its discontents.
Why does “ambition” define this period in China?
During the Cultural Revolution, it was a political liability to be described as ambitious—that meant you didn’t put politics and the collective before yourself. Nowadays, the Chinese feel they have nobody to depend on but themselves. Ambition used to put you out of step with Confucian and communist thought; now, ambition is what propels you out of the village or factory and lets you design your own life.
What are the most striking changes you witnessed?
When I was a student there in the mid-1990s, they had just created the weekend; depth and individuality were slowly returning after the austere, colorless low of the 1970s. When I returned to live in China from 2005 to 2013, the country was building everything anew. People now have ostentatiously exotic hobbies to show they have ideas of their own: “I’m interested in Bordeaux wines from a specific first growth varietal.”
You discuss China’s fraught attitude towards the West, especially its Maoist methods of teaching English, with everyone shouting slogans.
The study of English is a religion. One man I knew would spend hours every day practicing English, looking at his mouth in the mirror to form words as precisely as possible, trolling the Internet for beautiful-sounding expressions; he liked to recite Verizon ads because there was vigor in the language. He felt that mastering English would get him a good apartment and a mate. English has become this portal through which people imagine they can access the things they want.
You write about the battle between the Chinese government and the Internet, including a web app that leaks the secret censorship decrees of the Party. Who’s winning?
Disclosure and transparency are the currency of the Internet, and they are at odds with authoritarianism. Every time the government comes up with a way to limit online expression, people dart around it. The Party has created the world’s most complete and efficient system of censorship, but it’s facing an incredibly durable force of creativity and expression, and it’s at a fatal disadvantage.
The shift to a market economy has brought immense material benefits to China. Are there misgivings about its impact on other aspects of life?
You see that in the story of Yueyue, a little girl who was hit by a van; more than a dozen people passed by before somebody stopped to help her. Her story became a sensation because it crystallized what everyone sensed about this moment. People are free now to start businesses, choose professions, and pursue their own conceptions of the good life, but that’s also an atomizing process that’s pulling them apart; there’s an acute sense of loss and anxiety about the moral basis of society. Social and moral questions used to be answered by communism, but now it’s up to individuals to figure out what they stand for and believe in.