Author Evan Osnos explores rapid changes underway in China in ‘Age of Ambition’

November 25, 2014 at 8:46 PM EDT
What began as reporting for the New Yorker turned into “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” an in-depth look at China’s recent changes by Evan Osnos. Jeffrey Brown speaks with this year’s winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction at the Miami Book Fair about the “Chinese Dream” and the changes the Chinese are still undergoing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year’s winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction is an in-depth look at the dramatic changes under way in China today. The book is “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.”  Its author, Evan Osnos, spent years there reporting for “The New Yorker” magazine.

Jeffrey Brown talked with him this weekend at the Miami Book Fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was, I know, the culmination of many years of your work in China for “The New Yorker.”

What were you — what were you trying to come to terms with after those years there?

EVAN OSNOS, Author, “Age of Ambition”: Trying to get my arms around it.


EVAN OSNOS: This is the challenge on China. It is this vast story.

It’s this epical story, in the sense that you do sense, when you’re there, that one-fifth of humanity is going through a transformation. And how do you capture it and do it justice, that’s the challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had a sense of it while you were there, right, because these were the years of…

EVAN OSNOS: Oh, you cannot have — you simply can’t escape it.


EVAN OSNOS: The overwhelming impression you have when you’re living there is that you feel like you’re living through history.

And I have lived in other places. It’s not like just the fact that I was abroad gave me that impression. People’s lives around you go through these rapid changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s an example? Give us…



EVAN OSNOS: I will give you an example.

So, I met a woman, and she was just out of graduate school, named Gong Hayan. And she was trying to get married and she was sort of frustrated and trying to figure out how to meet the right kind of person because she was from a village, but had gone on and gotten a great education.


EVAN OSNOS: And her parents couldn’t introduce her to the right kind of people. She started a company. The company succeeded. She made $77 million by the time that I had left China.


EVAN OSNOS: And in its own way, that’s a sort of — in some ways, it’s a kind of a familiar story as an American.


EVAN OSNOS: It’s sort of what we have done in our own history.


EVAN OSNOS: And yet it’s also not the whole story. It’s one tiny piece of a story. And there are all kinds of people in China who are trying to get on that train and are not getting on that train. They’re not getting that kind of piece of the big story.

And so capturing both of those in one portrait was the goal of this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And so that creates the kind of splits in a society that we’re familiar with more in our society, but you were seeing it happen real time, real fast.



EVAN OSNOS: I mean, in China, of course — we talk about the gap between rich and poor in the United States. In China, they talk about it.


EVAN OSNOS: But the numbers are even larger in China. I mean, the difference between the poorest places and the richest places is the difference between Ghana and New York City.

And this is the People’s Republic of China. This is the place that is, after all, still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, and that creates a daily drumbeat of, at best, cognitive dissidence and, at worst, a sense that there’s something hypocritical going on and people are trying to kind of get their minds around that.

JEFFREY BROWN: When we have talked on the “NewsHour” over the years, it’s usually because of something that the government has done, right, at a high level. One — the subtitle is the — or the title, “Age of Ambition.”

Now, what is the ambition, as you look back, or as you think about it now broadly, the ambition of China?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, there’s a national ambition, a collective, in a sense, political ambition, which I think is the thing we see from far away. That’s the fact that China’s building roads and airports and extending its reaches out into the East China Sea and the South China Sea and in a way that’s putting it into some tension with its neighbors.

That’s the thing I think we feel from far away. But I think that one of the interesting facts of living there — and this is certainly one of the things that’s essential to this book — is that there’s a second ambition, and it’s the one that is just beneath the surface, and it’s the one felt by 1.4 billion Chinese people.

And each of them in their own way is defining what that aspiration is. So it’s interesting. Today, the Chinese government talks about the Chinese dream. This is the current slogan of the moment.


EVAN OSNOS: And it sounds like, OK, I get what the Chinese dream — it sounds a little like the American dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a little like that, something we all grew up with. Right?

EVAN OSNOS: Right. And there’s energy in that idea.


EVAN OSNOS: The difference, however, is that when the Chinese government talks about the Chinese dream, they’re talking about a single idea that they’re offering to people.

It’s about the renewal of the country, the return of China to greatness, but, actually, on an individual level all across the country, people are interpreting their own life trajectory on their own terms. And that’s an inherent contradiction in a way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are most of them interpreting in terms — in money terms, financial terms, economic terms, that kind of ambition?

EVAN OSNOS: I think they start with it in financial terms.


EVAN OSNOS: The first thing people want is, finally, after all these years of deprivation, they want to get rich.


EVAN OSNOS: But once they get rich, they realize there’s all these other things that they need.


EVAN OSNOS: So, they want information, for instance.


EVAN OSNOS: And they don’t want information for abstract reasons.

When you buy a house, and you get a car, and you finally get these things…


EVAN OSNOS: … you realize they’re not really secure, they’re not safe. Somebody could knock down your house if you don’t understand who’s setting the rules in your society, who’s breaking the rules in your society.


EVAN OSNOS: So, that creates…

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is still happening all the time in China, yes.

EVAN OSNOS: All the time.

So that creates that appetite for information. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: But the bargain that we have always talked about and heard about with China is that — is still that strong government, right? We will give the security in exchange — but we will not give you — and we will give you economic entitlement or empowerment, but not freedom of expression, say.

EVAN OSNOS: Yes. Yes. Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or privacy.


And this gets harder.


EVAN OSNOS: As people begin to get further away from the worst years — you know, it’s easy to forget that, in our lifetime, the Chinese people have suffered through terrible things.

So, for the first years of the economic development, this period, this extraordinary economic development that began in the late ’70s, people were willing to mortgage a whole lot of other things, because they were finally, for the first time, feeling like they had enough food on the table, they could put their kids into a decent school.

Those kinds of satisfactions no longer satisfy in a way, and people now say, well, what more? What else? What — I want a richer life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re now in Washington, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — how do they compare? And do you look wistfully, do you look — you still cover it. You still follow what happens in China.

EVAN OSNOS: It’s been harder than I thought, to be honest.


EVAN OSNOS: I spent years overseas. I spent 11 years abroad.


EVAN OSNOS: And on all these years, I would talk about, well, I know that we have got our sort of political problems at home, but have faith in the United States Congress. It will — it will prevail in the end.

And then I come home, and the very first thing that happens, the very day of work in the U.S., was the day the government shut down last fall, and I sort of had to recalibrate the instruments right away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Welcome home.

EVAN OSNOS: Yes, exactly. I have a lot to learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Age of Ambition.”

Evan Osnos, thanks so much.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks very much.