China has forever been a mystery to the West. With a vast cultural history whose longevity is rivaled only by the Egyptians, its philosophers, its artists and even its rulers have enriched the world with their teachings, their creations and their approaches to public works. And yet, for all of this cultural wealth, China has remained an enigma to outsiders, a gem that cannot be valued. For not only have the countless generations endowed its people with a sense of superiority over younger, more ignorant nations, its leaders have often indulged in noteworthy strains of xenophobia that have frequently kept out foreigners.
Western economic advancements in the 20th century, however, have put an end to that isolation. For they, coupled with the disastrous Great Leap Forward, threatened to leave China sprawling amidst history's dust, an impoverished and forgotten nation. No longer. Internal reforms have not only opened China up to the world, they have lifted millions out of abject poverty and started China on the march towards a starring role in the 21st century. And it is of this emerging nation that Mr. Osnos takes his enduring snapshot.
China is at a crossroads. Having emerged from the self-imposed annihilation of the Maoist era, it has undergone a political and economic revolution to become something new in our world, an authoritarian capitalist state that, nonetheless, pretends to hold to its communist beginnings. From the Free Economic Zones in the 1990s to the factory cities of the aughts, it has managed to adopt many western values, consumption, brand identification, and affordable exports, all without relinquishing the one-party system that has governed the country since the 1940s. It has tried, with some success, to incentivize and empower a prosperous business class, to help it compete with the west, without allowing its increasingly wealthy and educated citizens to mire the nation in the democracy's bureaucratic quagmire.
But as much as this streamlined form of capitalism has elevated China into the class of advanced nations, it has lead to widespread sociopolitical problems that will plague it for years to come. For while, to some degree, the tide of the Chinese Miracle has lifted all boats, its blessings have been selfishly accrued by a small class of political and economic elites who have used their wealth to not only isolate themselves from China proper, but also from any repercussions from the Chinese state. This ruling class, combined with a strong sense of pervasive corruption within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has lead many to think that they are but exploited cogs in an unfathomably large machine, unheeded and unheard.
The voice of these voiceless, Age of Ambition is a fascinating glimpse of a society undergoing tumultuous change. Evan Osnos, an American journalist who has recently returned to the west after eight years living and working in China, lays before the reader a cast of individuals, the everyday and the extraordinary, in an attempt to convey not only the existential struggles, but the daily rhythms of Chinese life. In this, his entertaining and eminently readable chronicle oscillates between fixating on political corruption, its ubiquitousness and its exposure, and the lives of the Chinese people who must negotiate two distinct and equally challenging obstacle courses: the trials and tribulations of life in the 21st century and the ever-changing collection of human rights they may or may not be afforded depending upon the whimsy of the all-power state.
Individually, none of Mr. Osnos' idiosyncratic case studies are particularly interesting. Some, like the man who yearns to teach English, activate our empathy while others, like the author turned race-car driver and sometimes political dissident, are engagingly amusing. But none rise above the threshold of simply holding our attention. However, their power, here, comes in the aggregate. The gestalt of all these lives, troubled by the state's fickleness and fears, by a pervasive willingness to exploit their fellows, and by a makeshift, unevenly applied system of justice that evokes memories of the Wild West, leads us to the realization that the CCP has only adopted the convenient aspects of capitalism and not the ethical framework required to sustain it. They have appropriated the engine of economic progress without bothering to assemble the car around it. And given that capitalism is, at the best of times, heartless, adopting only its underpinnings, and not the two centuries of moral customs that developed around it, is bound to start a fire of outrage in the hearts of the Chinese people that will eventually burn away the cynical system that seeks to run their lives.
But while Age of Ambition is both valuable and often powerful, its focus leaves much to be desired. Mr. Osnos, atimes, appears to be writing a polemic against the Chinese state, detailing the various scandals in which it has been captured during his time there. At other times, he chooses, instead, to focus on the struggles of everyday Chinese who have no connection to the government at all. Which leaves this reader with the sense that the author was sufficiently moved by the plights of the men and women he met to include their trials in his chronicle, but he could not find a common thread that would connect them to the broader, political narrative. This is hardly a grievous blow to the work, but one is left wondering if the work would have been improved by deciding to focus on one or the other.
On the whole, an excellent and enlightening journey through a fascinating country that it would take lifetimes to understand. (4/5 Stars)