Pulitzer Winner Evan Osnos Talks on Ambition, Chinese Dream

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An attendee asks a question of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Evan Osnos during his lecture, moderated by David M. Lampton, in Kenney Auditorium on Oct. 21. Photo courtesy of Zhaojin Ji.


WASHINGTON – On October 21, 2015, the SAIS China Forum played host to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Evan Osnos for a lecture titled “The Other China Dream: China in the Age of Ambition.” Osnos, a staff writer with the New Yorker since 2008, is also a fellow at the Brookings Institute, a contributor to programs like WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life and PBS Frontline, and the former Beijing bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune.

The talk played off themes from Osnos’ 2014 National Book Award winner, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, the culmination of his eight years based in Beijing. The book investigates this “new China” by means of the people who make it up, in the episodic and up-close fashion for which Osnos became known in his “Letter from China” section with the New Yorker. His philosophy requires a seemingly paradoxical zoom-in to zoom-out, an approach that uses a series of small China stories to understand something about the many pieces that constitute “China” in the way it is perceived as a single, coherent whole.

After SAIS-China and China Studies Director David M. Lampton’s introduction, Osnos stepped to the podium, remarking that he was thrilled to be “among people who know this subject.” Since leaving Beijing, Osnos has been covering domestic politics from Washington, D.C., and has recently been on the US presidential campaign trail. In that setting, Osnos noted, candidates make mention of China “at an octave that might be unfamiliar to most of us.” He followed this statement with a recent Youtube compilation of Donald Trump’s mentions of China: occasionally accusatory, high-pitched, and full of Trump’s particular enunciation (added emphasis on the “ch”). Osnos joked that he played the clip to “set a very low bar” for the discussion, though his larger message suggested the influence of the China specter on US politics and the overly-simplistic gloss these would-be presidents give to China. Osnos appeared relieved to instead delve into selected aspects of modern Chinese society and politics, noting early on that he felt as though “we can close the door and have a real conversation about China.” As Andy Gottlieb, second-year American Foreign Policy concentrator, put it: “Osnos was affable, quick-witted and highly informative, ever the quintessential New Yorker writer. He managed to tease out the ironies of a well-trod but often not well-understood topic.”

Osnos opened the talk by focusing on a man named Zhang Zhimin, a character in his recent book. Zhang, 26 at the time of Osnos’ writing, is the son of a coal miner who grew tired of life at coal mine number 5 with its uniform meals, patched clothes, and hour-long walk to and from school. Zhang Zhimin, rechristened Michael Zhang, became obsessed with learning English, and honed his accent listening to videos, recounting favorite phrases like, “something amazing is happening at Verizon wireless” to Osnos. Zhang used English to set himself apart, Osnos believes, as “the prospect of conformity offended him in some way.”

The story resonated with audience members. Joe Webster, second-year China Studies student, noted how throughout his talk, “Osnos identified two types of ambitions, or dreams: national and individual.” Using this story, “Osnos has hit on something: many often forget that China’s 1.4 billion people are individuals. As Osnos’ story about Zhang Zhimin’s quest to learn English suggested, these individuals have their own, unique aspirations.”            

Focusing on a single person’s ambition represents the essence of the Osnos angle on an issue often described in overly broad terms: the dynamics of modern China. Age of Ambition illuminates the tension between the government-sponsored Chinese Dream, China’s grand national aspiration to return to its historical role at the center of the world stage, and the aspirations of 1.4 billion individuals, whose personal desires are more powerful and prominent than at any other time in China’s history. The relationship between the two, argues Osnos, goes much of the way toward explaining the tensions inside China and with world.

Another of Osnos’ characters stood out for Tyler Makepeace, a 5-semester student in China Studies and International Finance, highlighting the intersection of the personal and the national in China. “Osnos’ presentation was striking in its ability to seamlessly flow from the micro-level of individual experiences to the macro-level of policymaking in the era of Xi Jinping,” said Makepeace. “The story of Tang Jie, an educated nationalist blogger who fell afoul of China’s censors after the Bo Xilai scandal, exemplifies the ideological contradiction that Osnos portrays between the individual ambitions of Chinese citizens and the defined policies of the government.”

Osnos came to know Tang Jie in the wake of the 2008 Olympic torch procession protests that surprised and offended many Chinese, spawning a viral “2008 China Stand Up!” video emblematic of a broader nationalist fenqing (“angry youth”) movement. While some of the anger was directed at journalists like Osnos covering China, he took it as a sign of something profound and sought out one of the video makers. Tang Jie was at the time pursuing a PhD at Fudan University in Western political philosophy, a fact that surprised Osnos, who had expected “someone in his parents’ proverbial basement.” When Osnos asked about his thesis, Tang casually responded that it was on phenomenology in the work of Edmund Husserl.

Osnos concluded that Tang and his friends had chosen their identities as proud young nationalists, and while their entire lives had been in an era of tremendous growth for China, to some important degree, their anger stemmed from the fact that “they had bet on the West, and then to discover the West did not have the same regard for them” embarrassed them.

Riding the success of their nationalist videos, the group turned their patriotic zeal to focus on problems within China, a decision that proved to be their downfall. Osnos shared how the video makers had become fans of Bo Xilai, the populist party secretary of Chongqing, who fell from grace in a whirlwind of international scandal. The wave that swept Bo from power in 2012 deluged his supporters as well. The video channel was shut down, marking a moment Osnos points to as the collision of individual ambition with the government-sponsored Chinese Dream. Even self-proclaimed nationalists are not immune.

At a time when 30 percent of the world’s skyscrapers are under construction in China, central leaders have made clear their unwillingness to let individuals interfere with maintaining China’s economic and physical transformation. They seek to reinvigorate support for the Party and restore China to its former glory. There is talk of a mission to Mars, while the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank exceeds the World Bank in lending to the developing world. Osnos asserts that official priorities are clear, even if he doubts Beijing’s willingness to take on the expensive responsibilities that accompany superpower status. But to what degree do ordinary people in China share that dream? he asks. For most of Chinese history, suggests Osnos, individuals understood themselves as embedded in larger forces. Any one person’s wants and needs remained secondary considerations. This is no longer necessarily true. He does not argue that Chinese citizens oppose the government’s plan; on the contrary, most of the new leaders’ points are popular. But Osnos does suggest citizens are growing less and less willing to subordinate their own interests to those of the state. “How long will people accept that the zhongguomeng [Chinese Dream] is handed to you like a finished plate of food?” he asks. When will they decide they want to make their own?

The juxtaposition of these tensions made for a “very thoughtful and intriguing discussion on the rising national and individual ambitions in China,” according to Natalie Lynch, second-year China Studies concentrator, who called it a “thoroughly enjoyable experience.”        

In the second half of his talk, Osnos turned to focus on the role of the individual in China and a phrase he has made the centerpoint of these musings: ambition. The Chinese phrase for ambition, yexin, means literally “wild heart.” During the fervor of the Cultural Revolution, when people were to be “rustless screws in a revolutionary machine,” a wild heart was a terrible thing to possess. But with Reform and Opening, Osnos notes, “autonomy began to creep into people’s lives.” A boom in business card printing followed, and yexin began to shed its negative connotations. Now it has transformed completely, appearing on the covers of self-help books in stores across China.

But ambition for what? Osnos points first to fortune, suggesting that people are predictably “racing for all obvious reasons to get rich as fast as they can.” But the road does not end with wealth, he suggests, for no fortune is safe without an awareness of the outside world. This leads to a quest for truth. With material needs satisfied, people begin to ask harder, deeper questions. The pursuit of truth, and with it a coherent moral system, easily spirals into a crisis of faith. Thus, Osnos completes Age of Ambition’s sub-titular triad of fortune, truth, and faith. For a generation, he argues, the Communist Party focused on economic questions, but set aside spiritual questions. In looking for their own answers, citizens have begun raising new questions more publicly, whether about Beijing’s air quality index, misspent funds and corrupt village cadres, or food safety scandals sweeping the Chinese Internet. In searching for their own truths and a new center in which to vest their faith, these 1.4 billion individuals may no longer be willing to accept that their version of the Chinese dream and the Chinese Dream as “national rejuvenation” pushed by their government are one and the same.        

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