Age of Ambition

Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

Another recommendation from Marginal Revolution. I tried to find a book on Taiwan but failed, so I decided to read about China instead. The dangers of reading books on China are that things change quickly and it is difficult to tell what is real and what is fake. Osnos, who writes for the New Yorker, delivers a revealing account of modern Chinese society. My key takeaway is a set of characters whose actions and experiences paint a daunting image of the state.

1. Justin Lin defected to China by swimming from Taiwan.

His story jumpstarts the book, and I knew right away that my knowledge of modern China must be lacking if I didn’t know who Justin Lin was. I was even more surprised when I learned he was recently a chief economist at the World Bank. I worked there two years ago. How did I not know? It is fitting that he is an economist. He saw that China had much more upside and gave up his homeland. His main economic argument is that the state should play a large role in development, and he considers China to be a successful example.

2. Mao Zedong oversaw the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), neither of which was economically sound.

The Great Leap Forward was a fail and is one of the deadliest events of modern history. Mao subsequently started the Cultural Revolution to reinforce the ideals of communism and to maintain his status within the party and the country.

3. Deng Xiaoping played a huge role in pushing the economy forward.

Although his name comes up much less often in the West, Deng was responsible for driving economic growth in China starting in the 1980s, when he set up special economic zones and loosened migration of rural workers to cities. Osnos repeatedly cites his Deng’s two famous lines: “Development is the only hard truth” and “Crossing the river by feeling the stones.” These lines summarized Deng’s philosophy. Economic growth must be relentless but also done carefully. Ultimately, Deng believed that China should let some people get rich first.

4. One of those rich people was Cheung Yan.

Nicknamed Queen of Trash, she ran Nine Dragons Paper. Her business collected paper in the U.S. and recycled it to make cardboards in China.

5. Hu Shuli ran Caijing, a publication that often ran up against the state.

She was not afraid to uncover scandals that might have looked bad on officials. In a hostile environment for press freedom, she pushed the boundaries.

6. Chinese people approve of their country.

Osnos says that 90% of them do, a far cry from the sub-50% seen in much of the developed world. To me, this book focuses on the dissenters but delivers the overarching message that they are very much the minority. The majority of Chinese people are content or happy about their lives. Who needs democracy when you can live a good life? Can China show that democracy is not a prerequisite for success?

7. Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

He received the award in prison, for protesting against the Tiananmen incident in 1989 and starting Charter 08, amongst other calls for human rights.

8. Han Han is a blogger and racer who rose to prominence with the book Triple Door.

The book lashed out against the educational system. Osnos describes Han Han as a different type of dissenter, one who brought up issues and was popular with the young generation. He was accused of ghostwriting and now seems to mostly focus on racing cars.

9. Ai Wei Wei is a controversial artist who demanded details on the Sichuan Earthquake.

The government has not been forthright about the identities of those who died in the earthquake, and there is speculation that the schools were not built properly and thus could not withstand the shake. Ai is repeatedly put under house arrest but is a world renowned artist. He once designed an exhibit in Munich using giant backpacks to bring attention to the kids in Sichuan. Another exhibit, this one in Copenhagen, is a surveillance camera, symboling the scrutiny that he is constantly under.

10. 50 cent party

Apparently some people were paid 50 cents for each comment on an online forum that opposed any accusations against the state. As a result, pro-government comments were soon immediately labeled as the work of 50 centers.

There was a lot more in this book that didn’t make the list. For example, a third of the book is devoted to faith with a focus on how Confucianism has shaped or been shaped by modern Chinese society. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Parts of it were scary, in that China seemed to have its way with anyone who dared to oppose it. The book winds down with discussions about Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream speech. Many may marvel at how quickly China has leaped to the top of the world, but the fact is that China had been the largest economy not too long ago. It can be argued that it just missed the wave of colonization and the Industrial Revolution and fell behind. Now, China is catching up and surpassing many. The problem is that, like Osnos says, China is a fast train with a limited number of seats.


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