Osnos, Evan. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.

Author:Steunkel, Oliver
Position:Book review
 
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Osnos, Evan. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.

China, like any other non-democratic regime, poses a fundamental dilemma to scholars: How to be truthful without losing access to valuable sources in the Chinese government, academia and civil society. This is particularly important for those who have set their career on studying China. Mastering the Chinese language is a multiple-year effort, yet those who turn into personae non grata will find it difficult to conduct field research, find positions as visiting faculty at Chinese universities, or interview Chinese policy makers. Most scholars are therefore cautious not to cross the 'invisible line.' International correspondents who leave China after working there for years are, by contrast, in a privileged position; they no longer depend on the Chinese government's goodwill and are in a position to write an honest account about their time in the world's most populous nation. And indeed, Evan Osnos' Age of Ambition is remarkably candid about corruption, oppression and struggle in China. Certainly, his chapters about systemic corruption on an absurd scale and waste of public resources are by far the most interesting part of the book.

The main narrative in Osnos' book is the transformation from collectivism to individualism in Chinese society. The swiftness of this change is dizzying and has made China, in many ways, far more individualistic and materialistic than many Western societies. Personal ambition is more explicit, and Osnos compares today's China to late nineteenth century America, when robber barons ruled an increasingly unequal and exploitative economy. The sense of urgency seems omnipresent. The author cites a Chinese tourist in Europe who marvels at a car that stops at a crosswalk. Drivers in China think "I can't pause. Otherwise, I'll never get anywhere." The Chinese word for ambition, ye xin, literally means "wild heart" and it has only recently shed its negative connotation. After all, open personal ambition, under the dark days of Mao, was considered undesirable.

Yet, while the examples provided are colorful, the overall impression they create is somewhat 'caricaturesque' and makes the Chinese seem almost mindlessly active, and practically un-human. For example, Osnos writes that sex was taboo in the early twentieth century that some couples struggled to have children "because they lacked a firm grasp of...

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