Evan Osnos’s “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” provides an interesting snapshot of contemporary china, through the eyes of the Chinese people. These are “the men and women at the centre of China’s becoming”. After all, Osnos the journalist conducted hundreds of interviews and read personal journals of his subjects, and in this vein their views were well-represented, even if they were – to some extent – overly dichotomised. Far too often, the narrative pits one group against another, and his thesis underlines this: The clash of “aspiration and authoritarianism”. Economically, the Chinese government has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but politically the criticisms persist.
Between two opposing views, as a consequence, hundreds of millions are left unrepresented.
This narrative, nevertheless, was divided into three parts – fortune, truth, and faith, respectively about the ramifications of capitalism, the desire for transparency and press freedom, and religion as well as visions for the future – and in each Osnos travels across the country to tell the stories of its people. The reader is likely to be impressed by the contact made with prominent personalities such as Ai Weiwei (contemporary artist who was arrested in 2011), Chen Guangcheng (civil rights activist placed under house arrest, before emigration to the United States), and Liu Xiaobo (literary critic and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who remains in prison), and the book cleverly draws from these perspectives. The personal experiences of the author tie the different parts together, though in excess they at times feel contrived and distract from the more important insights.
Unlike a book like “The Party“, which gave some details about party dynamics and political machinations, “Age of Ambition” is not groundbreaking for those who are well-acquainted with China’s economic and geopolitical ascension. Most would already be familiar with the Sichuan earthquake and the Sanlu controversy – both of which involved corrupt officials, kickbacks, and desperate attempts at cover-ups – though interesting questions about where China is headed were mooted. Problems of “untamed capitalism, graft, and rampant inequality” will not go away”, and increasingly the reality that “one part of China lived in a different material universe from the rest of the country” will only be more deeply felt. These are left unanswered in the book, yet cannot remain so, for the government and the party.