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Age of Ambition
Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in The New China
Forty years ago the Chinese people had no access to fortune, truth or faith - three things denied to them by poverty and politics. Within a generation they have gained access to all three, and they want more.
Online dating agency - a female grad student laid out her expectations: never married, masters degree or more, not from Wutan, no only child, no smokers, no alcoholics, no gamblers, taller than 172cm, parents still together, salary over 50,000 yuan, track record of at least two ex-girlfriends but no more than four, willing to guarantee eating at least four meals a week at home, no Virgos or Capricorns.
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The most important question was whether the man had a place of his own. If you still live with parents, or share with others, you're effectively out of the game.
Average person in Shanghai saw three times as many ads as a Londoner, and they were quite comfortable with that. The Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan sometimes had so many ads that had to split an issue into two volumes because a single one was too big too handle.
Long before Westerners were reading about 'tiger moms', the most popular Chinese parenting guide was Harvard Girl, in which a mother documented how she got her daughter into the elite college. The regimen began before birth, when she forced herself to eat high-protein foods, even though they made her sick. By 18 months she was learning Taoist poems. In primary school, she took her to noisy settings to hone her concentration, and kept her on a schedule of 20 minutes study, 5 minutes of running stairs. To build fortitude, she had to clench ice cubes in her hands.
"Crazy English": a system where learned English by shouting the words. ran classes like religious revival meetings, and earned on similar scale to televangelists.
Chinese tend to regard bets as investments and investments as bets. The stock market and real estate not much different to a casino. Run a survey and Chinese always describe themselves as cautious. But when you put them into financial sims, they consistently take much bigger risks than comparable Americans.
Chinese attitudes towards West a mixture of pity. envy and resentment. Pity for the barbarians outside the Middle Kingdom, envy for their wealth and resentment for their incursions into China.
Chinese travellers habit of hiding their money in toilet cisterns or air vents. One woman even sewed her money into the hem of the curtains. (And then they forget to pick it up before they get on the bus ....)
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China bargain between the people and the ruling Communist party: sweeping economic freedom to get rich if you could; but little political freedom. The state still firmly in control. And after the disintegration and financial collapse of the USSR, it looked like a better strategy.
Lin Yifu, a Taiwanese who defected to China in 1979, rose to become chief economist of the World Bank. He said that 'industrial policy' has a bad name in the West, because picking winners fails far more often than it succeeds. But he argued for a 'soft' industrial policy where the govt gave tax breaks to companies that were growing, and concentrated on building the infrastructure of ports and roads thy needed.
He believed that developing countries should imitate China - defer political reform (or fall victim to Russia's chaos) - aim not for freedom from repression, but freedom from hunger.
All the disasters - poorly-built schools collapsing on kids in earthquake, fast trains crashing - traced back to bribery and corruption.
The HQ of China's powerful planning agency (The national Development and Reform Commission) is surrounded by gift shops selling alcohol and porcelain. Chinese needing help knew to stock up before going into meetings. The cadres arrive at work empty-handed. The supplicants arrive carrying full bags. They leave empty-handed. The cadres leave carrying full bags.
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They get so much more than they can use that they sell it back to the shops, who in turn sell it on, without invoicing.
Rising gap between the rich and poor. In most countries, parental education biggest determinant of child's success. But in China it's connections.
But unlike other countries, there is danger. In the span of eight years, at least 14 yuan billionaires were executed on charges ranging from pyramid schemes to murder for hire.
"... it seemed that people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats. For those who found a seat - because they arrived early, or had the right connections, or paid the right bribes - progress was beyond their imagination. Everyone else could run as far and as fast as their legs would carry them, but they could only watch as the train shrunk into the distance."
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For more than a year, a portion of my apartment complex in Beijing has been a construction zone; squat, old buildings have been razed, and new towers are sprouting in their stead. The area is blocked off by walls covered with large, professionally printed green banners that stretch perhaps 15 feet high. A slogan on one reads: "The China Dream, My Dream."
...the motto ["The China Dream, My Dream"] unwittingly speaks volumes about China today: a state and its citizens bursting with aspiration toward an undefined goal.
Such posters - inspired by President Xi Jinping himself - can be found all over the country, and in six brief Chinese characters, the motto unwittingly speaks volumes about China today: a state and its citizens bursting with aspiration toward an undefined goal. A leadership eager to express common cause with - and win loyalty from - 1.3 billion increasingly independent and informed individuals who have no say in their government. A catchphrase appropriated from the American democratic political system - a system China's Communist leaders vehemently reject.
Unpacking the forces behind such fascinating and frustrating contradictions is New Yorker writer Evan Osnos in his thoughtful and lively new book, "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China."
Osnos came to China in 2005 for the Chicago Tribune and was the New Yorker's correspondent in Beijing from 2008 until last year. Fans of his "Letters From China" are well acquainted with his knack for crafting telling portraits both of Chinese movers and shakers and the laobaixing, or ordinary folk, finding in their small, individual triumphs and tribulations larger truths about a country so vast, varied and contradictory that it often defies description, let alone interpretation.
As he well should, Osnos relies heavily on his published profiles for the pillars of "Age of Ambition"; regular readers will easily recognize passages from his dispatches on figures such as investigative journalist Hu Shuli, dissident Chen Guangcheng and artist Ai Weiwei, among others. But thankfully, rather than sweeping together a collection of greatest hits, Osnos has reworked the essentials from his reportage into a coherent examination of the tension between aspiration and authoritarianism.
The book traces China's 35-year journey from poverty and collective dogmatism to a dynamic if cut-throat era of competition, self-promotion and materialism. Part 1 looks at the early days of the boom after China's leaders started to break down the state-run economy in the late 1970s, sparking a wave of risk-taking (and wealth-making) among millions who until then had led severely constrained lives of conformity. "Age of Ambition" introduces us to high-rollers in the casinos of Macau, evangelical English teachers, Chinese tourists in Europe and nationalist Web whiz-kids.
Osnos wryly notes that a 1980 version of the nation's authoritative dictionary still defined individualism as "the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others."
The book's second section chronicles how economic emancipation sowed a desire among Chinese for freer flows of information and expression, the Communist Party's spectacular problems with corruption and its increasingly complex and aggressive efforts at propaganda and censorship in the Internet age. (In a stark illustration of China's extensive censorship regime, Osnos has refused to allow "Age of Ambition" to be translated and published on the mainland because censors suggested he would need to cut or revise up to a quarter of the book.)
Part 3 taps into the growing quest for meaning and belief in a political system that constrains religion and civic activism - an insecure Communist state that, as Osnos says, has "shed its scripture but held fast to its saints."
Where this is all leading politically, though, remains unclear. Osnos remarks in his epilogue that China, once known - to the outside world, at least - for its conformity, has become home to "fiercely opposing forces: Western-style liberals against nationalist conservatives; incumbent apparatchiks against restless plutocrats ... propagandists against cyber-utopians."
These forces, such as they are, though, remain diffuse, generally unorganized and often uncountable; in general, their desire and ability to effect change appears to be limited and incremental rather than radical and revolutionary.
"In the short term, the Party could succeed at silencing its critics, but in the long term, that was less clear," Osnos says, "especially if segments within the Party recalculated their own risks and rewards for loyalty and decided that they had more to gain by siding with the people."
True, yet given just how motley a group Osnos has shown "the people" to be, it's not clear what "siding with the people" might mean. Democracy, or something else?
China's Communist leaders continue to pour massive resources into controlling citizens' rights to free expression and free assembly, and into maintaining legal and economic policies aimed at ensuring the Party's grip on power endures. Whether Xi and his comrades can realize their own ambition to iterate a new paradigm of competent governance that commands genuine respect on par with Western democracy, while possibly affording greater personal liberties, though, only time will tell.
Osnos has adeptly chronicled the remarkable changes in the personal lives of the Chinese populace over the last 35 years, the tension that now animates the public-state relationship and the ideological stalemate bogging society down. This rapid evolution makes some kind of significant political transformation in China feel not just possible but also essential. What this country of 1.3 billion strivers achieves matters deeply - not just for them, but for us all.
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