Book Review: Age of Ambition

General Information
Title: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Author: Evan Osnos
Publisher: Macmillan USA
Year of publication: 2014
ISBN: 978-0374535278
Pages: 403
Price: 10.99 €

Age of Ambition book cover


Evan Osnos is an American journalist who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a B.A. focusing in Government. After working for several years in the Middle East, he lived in Beijing from 2005 till 2013, spending time writing for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker. Initial ideas for Osnos’ book came from excerpts of his work as the New Yorker’s China correspondent. After returning to Washington D.C. he published the book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. For which, he won the National Book Award in 2014 in Non-fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in 2015.

My motivation to read this book was twofold. Firstly, the book has been widely acclaimed and has been heralded as an insightful account of China in the twenty-first century. Having lived there for 8 years, and despite being a foreigner, the author observed and experienced life in China and gained some insight into a Nation which prefers to promote a government-approved image. Secondly, the book portrays China from the perspective of a westerner, possibly making it easier for western readers to relate to. Despite being subjective, the author may be more aware of the distinctions within Chinese life and society, highlighting these more clearly for the reader.

The story of the celebrated officer in the Taiwanese army Capt. Lin Zhengyi, who defects to mainland China introduces this section. The change from communism to China’s current form of socialist market economy, initiated under Deng Xiaoping, greatly impacted the Chinese people. The majority of the population, having previously lived and worked in collective farms, were suddenly permitted to establish their own private businesses. Having been in Beijing in 1996 and 1998, Osnos describes the changes he observes throughout the city once he returns in 2005 and outlines the speed of economic development the country has recently undergone. During which the per capita income increased from three thousand dollars a year in 1998 to over seven thousand in 2008.

Along with greater economic freedom came the possibility, for people to choose their careers and marriage partners. This change is exemplified through the story of Gong Haiyan, the daughter of two well-off peasants who drops out of school to work on an assembly line. Eventually, she finishes school and studies. After the social pressures to find a husband lead her to be duped by an online dating site, she founded her own, which becomes the most popular matchmaking site in China – Jiayuan. It became particularly important for men to have a house, car and the means to live well. Those who didn’t became known as the “triple without” and had little chance of finding a partner. With this privatization also came the creation of classes. The first to become rich were the xianfu qunti – the “Got Rich First Crowd”, the middle class became known as the “New Middle-Income Stratum” and some were left behind, causing the gap between the rich and poor to grow exponentially.

Others, like Siu Yun Ping, found their fortune through luck in gambling in Macau. Osnos provides a brief exposé on the wealth, corruption and money laundering taking place in Macau through telling the story of the gambling barber who won millions playing baccarat and, who by sheer luck, escapes being a murder victim of the triad. He then hides in the countryside, investing his money into real-estate. As the wealth of the Chinese increased, so did the demand for art, culture, and knowledge which is why we are introduced to Ai Weiwei, a prominent Chinese artist and Michael, a fervent English learner. Finally, the Chinese ambivalent view of the West is briefly portrayed when Osnos takes a bus tour in Europe with a group of Chinese tourists, observing their reactions and comments.

Despite increased economic freedom, political control and censorship remain rife. The Central Propaganda Department, whose headquarters do not officially exist, particularly focuses on controlling the information and opinions released by the press. Even Osnos himself receives and documents the Directives he receives from the Ministry of Truth. Unlike most, the outspoken and influential magazine Caijing is a pioneer in the search for transparency and truth. Under the guidance of its editor-in-chief, Hu Shuli, it continually tests the boundaries of the Central Propaganda Department. Others remain patriotic, like the student Tang Jie. In light of the protests before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, he releases a video in support of the government which goes viral. Another strong proponent is Capt. Lin Zhengyi. He changes his name to Lin Yifu, and after studying economics at Peking University becomes one of the prominent and respected economists in China, even spending time working for the World Bank.

The internet remains problematic for the Party, becoming harder and hard to control. It provides a platform for many to voice their discontent. Osnos presents us with the example of Han Han, a high-school dropout, race car driver and best-selling author, writes a blog criticizing problems in China. He is a frequent critic of a broad range of topics which afflict the average citizen. The internet also gave a new voice to Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and the famous artist Ai Weiwei, allowing them to share their work. Liu Xiaobo is the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful struggle for fundamental human rights. However, the Party’s ruthless censoring meant that Liu Xiaobo’s Award Ceremony was never seen or heard by the Chinese people. Another dissident, Chen Guangcheng, a blind peasant lawyer speaking up about the abuses of the one-child system, is put in prison and, upon release, isolated from the rest of the world. Regardless, People with Grievances – those appealing to court rulings or protesting injustices – were now able to share their problems online. To combat this the Party employed “ushers of public opinion” to help direct and control public online debate. Nevertheless, the Party suppressed opponents, stopped protests and imprisoned dissidents, including Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo.

With the increased affluence and continued lack of transparency, corruption also thrives. The bribing culture, as Osnos discovers, was a daily and necessary ritual. So much so, that, public servants on a salary of twenty – thirty thousand dollars became regular customers at luxury brands. However, when a scandal too big to suppress occurs, such as the collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou in 2011, killing 40, due to substandard equipment, or the murder of a British businessman by the family of a high-profile politician, the pressure to act was too big. As a result, a few are punished and imprisoned, but the same practices remain. Michael, who undergoes several failed English ventures, and others still waiting for success, grow increasingly pessimistic. Yet despite the oppression of the government, the search for the truth perseveres.

3. Faith
During Mao’s Cultural Revolution old customs, culture, habits, and ideas were discarded, leaving a “spiritual void” – jingshen kongxu. This allowed for the pursuit of money and success with greater abandon but also created a need for something meaningful. Consequently, the rise and practice of many religions took place, often simultaneously: Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity and the worshiping of indigenous deities. Furthermore, over 400 Confucius Institutes were opened across the globe. The need for moral and ethical guidance became especially clear when a little girl, called Yue Yue, was run over by a van in the city of Foshan in 2011. Seventeen people passed, ignoring the bleeding girl lying in the street. As a result, the “humaneness” of the Chinese was questioned.

Nevertheless, despite the increase in religion, the Party continued to practice censorship, including in the cultural sphere, leaving little room for expression. Ai Weiwei continues provoking the government and becomes a symbolic dissident. As a result, he is imprisoned for two months under the pretences of tax evasion. The remaining characters of the book also struggle. The blogger Han Han is accused of being a fraud and Michael continues in his conviction that English is his path to success. Hu Shuli failed to impress with her new media venture and the student Tang Jie as well as Lin Yifu, who remain ardent Party supporters, are criticized for being too nationalistic and idealistic. Nevertheless, the blind and imprisoned Chen Guangcheng manages to escape, seeking asylum in the U.S. embassy. He is sent to New York University as a visiting fellow, yet his conservative views alienate him in his new home.


Age of Ambition is a well-written account of the author’s experiences, encounters, and observations. Osnos’ style and language make it easy to immerse oneself in the book and his occasional ironic remarks are entertaining. His eight years of experience in the nation allow him to paint an intriguing, albeit sometimes worrying, picture of modern-day China.
Within the broad thematic structure of the book, Osnos interweaves his characters stories with sufficient information to provide an informative account of the changes taking place. However, the author solely focuses on individuals who stand out in their field or are striving to make a name for themselves and does not concretely define the ‘age of ambition’. Nevertheless, the struggles between the individual and his ambition, and the state are described in a detailed and instantly recognizable way. In short, in order to gain a general impression of the nation, I can only recommend Osnos’ narrative of the twenty-first century China he encountered.

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