China has a high-yield, but low-trust society, says author of Age of Ambition

The unrepentant individualism, rampant corruption and soaring ambition at the heart of the Asian giant’s rise is examined in an accomplished work.

From Tianjin railway station, it takes only a half an hour to reach Beijing by high-speed train. Tianjin is experiencing huge economic growth and is on track to surpass Hong Kong in terms of GDP by next year and become one of the fastest growing cities in mainland China.  Zhang Peng / LightRocket / Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In May 1979, Lin Zhengyi, a young captain in the Taiwanese army, was stationed on the island of Quemoy, just off the Chinese coast. Late one night, he sniffed the air and took the plunge. A few hours later, he staggered ashore in China, where he was dragged off to prison by People’s Liberation Army soldiers on suspicion of spying.

Over the years, the man now known as Lin Yifu has had a lot to say about why he defected, though none of it amounts precisely to an explanation. The United States had just transferred recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic. That was one factor. China’s newly established leader Deng Xiaoping was talking about change like he meant it. That was another. But above and beyond all that was a kind of apprehension, a conviction that something huge was about to happen in China and that he, Lin, had to be part of it.

This intuition was both personally and generally accurate. Justin Lin Yifu eventually became the senior vice president of the World Bank and a strong advocate of China’s state-led development policies. As for China, it is a tale usually told in superlatives, the latest of which is that China used more cement over the past three years than the United States did over the entire 20th century. Such is the concrete measure of success.

Evan Osnos opens Age of Ambition with Lin's story because he wants to get away from the kind of interpretation of modern China in which the Chinese public are either entirely passive recipients of economic growth that has "lifted them out of poverty"– they did the lifting themselves – or are simply regarded as factors of production, the billion-plus hamsters that keep the massive wheels spinning.

His point is that you can’t go upwards without growing outwards.

“The Chinese people have taken control of freedoms that used to be governed entirely by others” he writes. “The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history – and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.”

It’s often said that the Communist Party is “scared” of the people, usually as a kind of self-consolation for the fact that fear is not really prominent among its many vices. But there is a sense in which it is true. Imagine that you are the Chinese president convinced, first of all, of your right and duty to exercise control. And yet there are hundreds of millions of people out there, and they’re all doing things, things that they personally want or need to do. Most of these things will be harmless and many of them will be beneficial, but not one of the people doing them has thought to ask your permission. That, surely, is what will make you wake up sweating.

Age of Ambition is the story of the people who don't ask permission, not always in a good way. Some are prominent dissidents, such as artist Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer whose escape to the US consulate was the sensation of 2012. Others are big-time entrepreneurs, angry young nationalists and cultural superstars such as the author, racing driver and professional tease of authoritarians Han Han. Another goes under the name of Inveterate Gambler Ping.

And then there is the tale of Ding Shumiao, known to one and all as Daft Mrs Ding, who started her career selling eggs by the side of a village road and ended it on charges of paying US$15 million (DH55.1m) in bribes to the railway minister in return for awarding contracts to companies willing to pay her in turn. Daft Mrs Ding was illiterate, but she could certainly count. She later confessed to raking in over $300 million from companies who wanted to exploit her ties to railways minister Liu Zhijiun. Liu spent the money he got from Daft Mrs Ding on a harem of 18 mistresses, while his brother had so much money lying around his house that some of it had begun to rot by the time the cops finally turned up.

And so on. The epic scale of corruption in China is a challenge to the reader’s morality in the sense that, while half of you duly finds the whole thing disgraceful, the other half wants to stand up and applaud at the blinding audacity of it all. Osnos notes that as well as running a carnival of bribery and when not detained by his 18 young women friends, Liu did manage to get a massive high-speed rail network up and running.

More generally, Osnos compares China’s great leap into capitalism with the Gilded Age of the late 19th-century US. Both involved massive corruption in the context of a brutally competitive society in which accumulation meant everything and there was a stark dividing line between winners and losers. Yet where the US political system was flexible and responsive enough to public anger to eventually curb these excesses, this option is not available for a Communist Party which still obeys Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that “development is the only hard truth” and which will not tolerate any attempt to reform the system from the outside.

The common challenge posed to the party both by paragons of corruption and dissidents such as Ai and Chen is that none will be constrained.

The number of scandals that have emerged over recent years from within China's party/corporate nexus, many entertainingly related in Age of Ambition, only adds to the feeling that something has to give. And yet, while Osnos does a good job assembling the storm clouds, there's no indication in the book of the direction from where lightning will eventually strike.

Rather than reeling under the revelations of corruption in high places, the party continues to expose its own bad actors – the “tigers and flies”, in official jargon. Indeed, it appears to have taken full control of the process and even to be enjoying it at times. And rather than establishing space to operate in an ever more diverse society, rights activists and democrats have been pushed out to the margins in a process that human rights lawyer Teng Biao recently described as moving from “surveillance to elimination”.

It’s arguable that the process of individualisation that Osnos describes might help facilitate one-party rule. It has created a China full of the clash of interest and advantage in the context of an extremely low-trust society. By contrast, there is one organisation that spans the whole country that anyone who wants to get somewhere in life would be wise to join, namely the Communist Party of China. About one in six adult Chinese citizens is a member and each one of these has invested, for whatever reason, in the ongoing resilience of the regime.

It would be wrong to reduce Age of Ambition to its political outlook. The book is a product of what Osnos, borrowing from John Hersey, terms The Call, "a story of gravitational pull", towards a country where everything appears to be happening at once. Fellow China addicts will recognise the concept, and its attendant disturbances; the feeling that something is happening somewhere unknown that you absolutely have to know about, the slightly panicky conviction that if you take your eyes off the place even for a minute, everything will have changed and you will have to start all over again.

Some serious China addicts specialise, partly as a defence against being completely overwhelmed. For others, nothing will do but total immersion, and after that comes the need to offload a book, to get it all down, to make sense of it all. Evan Osnos seems to be in the latter category: he marinated himself in China between 2005 and 2013 as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker, and Age of Ambition is the most accomplished effort I've yet read to synthesise everything seen and heard in this process.

Naturally, China addicts will be greatly appreciative. But they should also give Age of Ambition to their non-addict friends as a kind of gateway drug, or at least as an explanation. This is why I have that strange obsession. This is how it is. It's all here.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and author specialising in China.