Beyond Dissidents China in the western mind, from Hessler to Osnos.

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

Evan Osnos (2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 403 pages with notes on sources, acknowledgements, and index

In 2014, Evan Osnos published his first book on China after eight years serving as the correspondent for The New Yorker in Beijing. In this witty, reflective, heartfelt, and beautifully crafted work, Osnos portrays China as a country with mixed images, particularly the image of aspiring people against an authoritarian government. In Osnos’s eyes, today’s China is driven by contradictions. Osnos starts his book with the current economic boom that western readers are most likely familiar with. He then points out that in order to prevent a repeat of the political turmoil commonplace in the late 1980s, the Communist Party offers its people greater freedom in economic activities in exchange for less freedom in political life. As a result, China has “so much money,” but “so little transparency.”

Based on extensive interviews, media coverage in both Chinese and English, legal documents, and personal experience, Osnos uses individual people’s stories to illustrate a series of major events in China from 2005 to 2013. It is a book about Chinese people more than about China. The book is divided into three sections; elaborating people’s pursuits of wealth, of freedom, and of something to believe. Osnos concludes that:


Forty years ago the Chinese people had virtually no access to fortune, truth, or faith—three things denied them by politics and poverty. They had no chance to build a business or indulge their desires, no power to challenge propaganda and censorship, no way to find moral inspiration outside the Party. Within a generation, they had gained access to all three—and they want more.


The three key words that Osnos utilizes—fortune, truth, and faith—are closely related to each other. He explains that the more people succeed in their economic lives, the more they demand to know about the world around. Osnos especially captures the use of the Internet and elaborates on the revolutionary value of the rising cyber community. Osnos sees the culture of the Web as “an almost perfect opposite of the culture of the Communist Party.” The Web, according to Osnos’s research, has been playing an increasingly important role in Chinese social and political life, allowing people to obtain information and expose what the Party does not want people to know. Especially burdensome for the Internet censors is that they “didn’t know who was going to write something dangerous until it was written.” This is unprecedented in Chinese history in Osnos’s eyes.

Osnos starts his book with the current economic boom that western readers are most likely familiar with. He then points out that in order to prevent a repeat of the political turmoil commonplace in the late 1980s, the Communist Party offers its people greater freedom in economic activities in exchange for less freedom in political life. As a result, China has “so much money,” but “so little transparency.”

On the one hand, people obtained so much information, inspiring them to express themselves. On the other hand, as Osnos points out, the Chinese government failed to keep up with the fast-developing Internet and did not engage in the “battle for the soul” to help people build a new moral foundation . During this “spiritual void,” people had to explore different ideas in order to seek alternative cultural icons on their own.

Age of Ambition is no doubt one of the best books about contemporary China in English. Several reasons make this book an enjoyable read and a stand out among similar titles. First of all, Osnos is fully aware of the long-term stereotypes regarding “China” and “Chinese people” in foreign media and challenges these stereotypes. Conventional coverage about China often centers on the “dissidents,” who crave for democracy and live up to western expectations; this view is sympathetic to individuals fighting against human rights abuses. The most renowned symbol or icon of this is the man standing in front of a tank near Tiananmen Square. Osnos describes this dissident approach as “seductive” but dangerous. He questions:


The truth was that I struggled with the question of how much to write about Ai Weiwei—or for that matter, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng or the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. How much did their ordeals really tell us about China? If the average news consumer in the West read (or watched or heard) no more than one China story a week, should it be about people with dramatic lives or typical lives?


Going beyond dissidents, the most original, and probably the best part of the book, is when Osnos accompanied a group of ordinary Chinese tourists to go on a trip in Europe. This so-called “Classic European” popular bus tour promised the Chinese travelers to traverse five countries in ten days. The first day they arrived and checked in a Best Western hotel in Luxemburg. However, they never had the opportunity to see Luxemburg in the daylight, and during the whole trip the tourist guide pushed people to move fast, saying “The sooner we finish here, the sooner we get to Paris.” By closely observing and chatting with his fellow travelers, Osnos captures the fascinating tension from the trip: although people showed curiosity about the world, Europe was less a region than a state of mind. Even when Osnos approaches dissidents, he adds so much more depth to their stories than the conventional image of human right fighters. Osnos patiently accompanied Ai Weiwei to file his complaint about a police assault with the local government. He drove hours with Han Han, the rebellious young blogger with millions of followers online, to visit Han’s hometown in suburban Shanghai, and spent the weekend with Han’s parents and grandparents.

Osnos’s first-person voice and great sense of humor throughout the book brings to mind Peter Hessler, the China correspondent for The New Yorker before Osnos. In Hessler’s renowned China trilogy, River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving, Hessler never felt embarrassed to show his readers how the subjects respond to him as a foreign journalist and how he struggled with cross-cultural communication. (Hessler further elaborated his awareness of his limits as a foreign journalist in China in a forum for staff writers of The New Yorker, hosted by Asia Society in New York in December 2015. Osnos was at the forum as well. From Hessler’s perspective, being uncomfortable and awkward was part of the story, and probably where the most interesting encounters appeared, which was often left out in typical news.

Age of Ambition starts with the collective image of ambitious Chinese people but ends with disappointed individuals such as Michael. Inner tensions and limits are ubiquitous throughout.

In this sense, I appreciate the plentiful “less successful” interviews that Osnos conducted. For example, a conversation with the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, is one of those interviews. As a self-educated lawyer helping his village fellows with lawsuits, Chen infamously escaped the government’s close surveillance and settled in New York. Osnos met Chen in Chen’s Greenwich office but the interview did not go well at all:


Chen was not an easy person to interview. When he found my questions vague or uninspiring, I sense his impatience, and I found myself stumbling in Chinese. The more I tried to untangle my syntax, the more he attended to his computer. I asked his assistant to help me express what I was trying to say, but after an hour or so, I sensed that our interview had run its course. I thanked him, and he politely walked me to the door.


Osnos realizes that the gap between himself and Chen originated in the fact that in Chen’s whole life, Chen was used to challenging ideas that he found unpersuasive. This “unsuccessful” interview with Chen appeared more reflective of an untold truth than those “successful” encounters with this tough, blind lawyer.

Sometimes Osnos seemed too gentle and polite to pry into his subjects as a journalist, which makes his cross-cultural encounters more nuanced. A documentary about Ai Weiwei, the well-known dissident artist, provides a glimpse of how Osnos approaches his subjects in Age of Ambition. Ai has an infant son from an extramarital relationship and Osnos tries to find out more about Ai’s personal life. In the documentary, Osnos and Ai sat face-to-face outside of Ai’s studio in Beijing on a sunny day:


Osnos: Some of your friends told me that now you have a son. (59:06)

Ai: I have a baby with a girl. (59:08)

Osnos: What is his name? How old is he? (59:10)

Ai: His name is Ai Lao, which is “Old Ai.” (59:12)

Osnos: Forgive me if it’s a personal question, but it—(59:17)

Ai: Not so personal. Just ask. (59:19)

Osnos: Is—so—and who is the mother of that child? (59:21)

Ai: Is the child’s mother? (59:25)

(Osnos nodded, with hands below his chin, quietly looked to Ai)

Ai: It’s a girl. It’s a…I mean, are you asking the profession? You ask what? The name or…(59:28)

(Osnos looked down, paused for a while, stuttered, adjusted his position on the chair and leaned forward to Ai)

Osnos: I guess the name or the profession or the relationship. (59:36)

Ai: The name is Wang Fen. (59:38)

(Osnos repeated the name, but did not write it down on his notes. The name does not seem to be new information to him.)

Osnos: Do you see him every once in a while? (1:00:07)

Ai: I just come from there. (1:00:08)

Osnos: Oh, wow … (1:00:09) (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 2012)


Ai played with the questions. Osnos stopped there and did not push forward. In another scene of the same documentary, outside of Ai’s exhibit in Tate Modern in London, a different reporter approached the same set of personal questions in a more straightforward and judgmental way:


Journalist: You don’t have children, do you? (1:13:35)

Ai: I have a young boy, a year and a half, not with my wife but with a friend, which is also crazy, but … (1:13:43)

Journalist: You’re an artist. You are allowed to do that, right? (1:13:46)

Ai: Not really. You are not really allowed to do that. He is going to come. (1:13:50)

Journalist: But does your wife mind? (1:13:51)


Different from journalism that is built on deadline and efficiency, Osnos’s book has so much more breadth and depth. Throughout eight years of time, Osnos placed his subjects in a broader time frame and structure, and revisited those subjects to reflect on their changes over time. In eight years’ time, the journalist Hu Shuli left her job at Caijing and founded the new magazine Caixin because of a tightening-up of state censorship, Ai Weiwei’s son grew from an infant to a toddler when Ai got arrested by the government and was released afterwards; the philosophy student Tang Jie became famous for his sensational anti-western media online video but he soon received admonishment from the government, with claims that his new project went too far. A longer period of time gives people and their stories so much more room to grow. Osnos compiles a comprehensive bibliography at the end, and a long list of fellow journalists and editors he worked with when the book took shape. His writing is strongly backed by the best scholarship on China in recent years and also shows the possibility of a new type of writing between journalism and academia.

As both were staff writers at The New Yorker for more than a decade in total, it is natural to compare Even Osnos with Peter Hessler. Osnos is a diligent follower of current events. He hardly missed any important events in China between 2005 to 2013. He met with almost all of the most interesting and powerful people in China. He worked hard to cultivate his sources. Compared to Osnos’s “good journalism,” Hessler is somehow “anti-journalism.” There was no title of “The New Yorker China correspondent” before Hessler. Hessler created this position as someone who never had any formal training in being a journalist. Hessler apparently did his homework (He studied English and Creative Writing at Princeton and obtained a Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford) but the academic qualification does not seem to be something that he values (“I learned more in the Peace Corps than at Oxford”). Since he had no official training, there seems no set pattern and limits for Hessler. In China, Hessler often traveled light without carrying the identity of a foreign journalist. People that Hessler hung out with and wrote about sometimes did not have any instant “news value” compared those Osnos chose: they could be an ordinary Uyghur smuggler in Yabaolu Beijing, a group of college students learning English in a small town in southwestern China, or friends of an oracle bone scholar who already committed suicide in the 1960s. In his last book (and probably the best) about China, Country Driving, Hessler got a driver’s license, rented a car in Beijing, and wandered around the country. I am amazed by how this active and unique way of approaching China changed the way journalism works. Hessler’s geographic scale became so much larger, and he encountered so much more resistance from Chinese authorities since he often entered “restricted areas” while driving. For several years, Hessler drove between Beijing and Sancha, a village outside of Beijing, where he rented a small house as his writing retreat. By interacting with the landlord’s family and becoming part of the village community, he was able to experience things that normal outsiders would never be able to: traffic, elementary schooling, and hospitals. Hessler did not go after news, he lived and his life became “news” in his books.

Even Osnos describes the economic boom in China as “a train with a limited number of seats” so not everyone can find a seat regardless of how fast the train goes. Even for people who catch the train, there are still so many restrictions … 

Based in Beijing and using events to make sense of the world around him, Osnos’s “beyond dissident” effort remains a good try. His way of selecting subjects from events and scandals and his sharp and honest observation led him to a somehow contradictory conclusion that he probably did not expect to reach: it is supposed to be an age of ambition and everyone seemed ambitious, but there is something that people cannot transcend. For example, Osnos built a long-term friendship with Michael Chang, a student studying English. Michael struggled at the edge of success for years but never achieved real success, and it is unknown that if Michael will ever reach his goal since he is in the society that has the lowest class mobility among all the developing countries in the world. Osnos’s book starts with the collective image of ambitious Chinese people but ends with disappointed individuals such as Michael. Inner tensions and limits are ubiquitous throughout the whole book. Even Osnos describes the economic boom in China as “a train with a limited number of seats” so not everyone can find a seat regardless of how fast the train goes. Even for people who catch the train, there are still so many restrictions: a free marriage market with rigid standards to categorize candidates, young people with access to extensive information but who remain cold to politics, most dissidents in China who feel like their interactions with the authorities is like playing chess with “a person from outer space,” not only having no way to figure out the rules, but also realizing that they are doomed to be losers, and ordinary Chinese people who hardly know the existences of those dissidents because of media control. In the end, few of Osnos’s subjects will get to read their own stories since Osnos refused to revise his book to meet censorship requirements in China.

Even for the revolutionary Internet, which Osnos considers to be unprecedented in China in facilitating people to search for freedom and beliefs, it is uncertain that where the Internet will take China or what changes it will really bring. Information circulation definitely outpaces the political system, but it is unclear whether the humor and sensation displayed online can turn into something substantial: either being channeled outward to the West to create a transnational community, or being channeled inward to form a coherent alternative to challenge the Party rule. Without any substantial change and formal organization, jokes remain jokes, and the Internet users remain a cyber community that poses no threat to the current rule. Osnos wonders if this “age of ambition” in China will follow the same course as ’80s-era Japan, where the lauded economic bubbles would eventually burst, or the wild economic expansion of the Gilded Age in the United States., which was followed by the Great Depression. This is not something that Osnos felt could be predicted when he left China in 2013.

In addition to Peter Hesslers’s China trilogy and Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition, writings in the past decade have drawn a big picture of China from different angles. Examples of these many angles include Ian Johnson’s work on village protests and civil society, Leslie Chang’s research applying a feminist perspective and a philosophical touch to the ordinary female migrant workers in Dongguan, Michael Meyer’s book on Manchuria, which brings readers out of urban centers such as Beijing and Shanghai, and Zha Jianying’s intimate family saga on her half-brother, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, spent 20 years in the countryside in exile and remained an idealist, and was sentenced to a decade in jail for trying to form an alternative Party. After serving in China, some writers moved on and headed back to the United States, which includes Osnos; some ventured into the Middle East (Hessler and Chang), and some have been commuting between Beijing and New York (Zha Jianying). Media outlets like The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal continue to develop ways to accommodate different types of writers and writing strategies. The works those writers produce also show the increasing acceptance and recognition from western readers: in 2014, Age of Ambition wonNational Book Award for nonfiction. All of these exceptional scholar-journalists and their work show fresh ways of reading, thinking, and teaching about China. It is ultimately exciting and beneficial for scholars in and outside of the classrooms in the world.

Works Cited:

Chang, Leslie. Factory Girls: From Village to City in A Changing China. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008.

Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2006.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2010.

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, Johnson, Ian. Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China. Pantheon, 2004.

Klayman, Alison. Director. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. MPI Home Video, 2012. 91minutes.

Meyer, Michael. In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China. Bloomsbury Press, 2015.

Zha Jianying. Enemy of the State: The Complicated Life of An Idealist. “Letter from Beijing.” The New Yorker, April 23, 2007 Issue. (; accessed March 17, 2016)

En Li

En Li (Ph.D. in Asian History, Washington University in St. Louis) is an incoming assistant professor at Drake University. Li’s current research uses the practice and licensing of lottery gambling, to investigate social, intellectual, and geo-political changes in the transitional period of 19th-century China and its overseas communities. Li’s next project continues her interests in material culture and diaspora. Born and raised in Canton, China, and dancing hula in Midwestern U.S. for the past decade, Li hopes to connect with her ancestors in both scholarship and life’s journey.