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The Arc of Possibility


The longtime Beijing correspondent on the roots of dissent in Hong Kong, China’s “Me” generation, and the precarious expansion of Chinese civil society.

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Image by Peter Marovich

This autumn has seen large-scale sit-ins and protests engulf the streets of Hong Kong after the Chinese central government refused to fully relinquish control over the semi-autonomous region’s election process. As this show of dissent captured the attention of democracy activists, concerned citizens, politicians, and worldwide observers, the debate over how China should re-integrate the former British colony has never been fiercer. Though authorities in Beijing value Hong Kong as a center for business, they are also wary of the city’s independent spirit—its relatively open media and periodic political marches and rallies. Many Hong Kong citizens themselves are concerned that rejecting the mainland’s overtures and disrupting the city’s streets will seriously damage its reputation as a global economic hub and lead to even more strife with China.

A seasoned analyst of Chinese society and politics, Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2014). Osnos lived in Beijing for eight years, and Age of Ambition, recently longlisted for the National Book Award, is the culmination of his time spent documenting the lives of China’s diverse citizens. The intimate character study of the nation has received critical acclaim for its storytelling—“Osnos beautifully portrays the nation in all its craziness, providing a ringside seat for the greatest show on earth,” says the Economist—as well as its candid commentary—“a riveting and troubling portrait of a people in a state of extreme anxiety about their identity, values and future,” writes the New York Times.

In Age of Ambition, people are the main attractions. Those profiled range from the larger than life—a racecar-driving novelist, Han Han, and the founder of the magazine that broke the SARS scandal, Hu Shuli—to folks like Michael, the 23-year-old son of a coal miner who dreams of the fortune he’ll make once he masters English. Osnos treats his subjects with care and humanity, giving readers a sense of the intense drive and despair—along with the pride and hope—that color modern China.

I spoke with Osnos by phone in early September, three weeks before pro-democracy students occupied Hong Kong’s Civic Square, near its Central Government Offices, triggering clashes with police and counter-protests throughout the city. Though our conversation took place before the demonstrations, Osnos spoke at length about the growing unrest in Hong Kong and contemplated the conflict’s implications for China. We also discussed China’s “Me” generation, its secretive Department of Propaganda offices, and the possibility of love in an environment of ruthless competition.

Jason Q. Ng for Guernica

Guernica: Let’s start with the Occupy Central campaign. At the end of August, the government in Beijing authorized universal suffrage in Hong Kong, but with major caveats; specifically, it insisted that China control the nomination process. Democracy activists in Hong Kong have rejected that proposal and are mobilizing. What’s your take on the situation?

Evan Osnos: What’s happening in Hong Kong is a deceptively simple moment. Though it looks like it’s a technical dispute about the nature of how they’re going to implement universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive, I actually think this is about the Beijing government facing a choice: how to balance two competing political ethics, one being globalism and the other being nationalism. Hong Kong was the first global city in Asia. In the modern period, it’s been a place that defines itself by its integration with the rest of the world; that’s an essential part of its self-image. What Beijing is effectively saying to Hong Kong is that in order for it to participate in China’s rise and to be a part of the country, it has to bring its political system more in line with what’s being done in Beijing. How this will be resolved is a huge question. One of the reasons this is such an interesting moment is that the Party made a decision that was designed to be the final word. This was about breaking the back of Occupy, but in fact, it may have been the beginning rather than the end of this crisis.

Each [group] is trying to do something very difficult, which is to read the Hong Kong public’s tolerance and capacity for confrontation.

Guernica: What’s particularly interesting to me is the struggle for Hong Kong activists to communicate their message and persuade others. Because the counter-message, that shutting down Hong Kong’s streets and sowing instability will make it a less attractive place for business, appears to hold a lot of sway among those on the sidelines.

Evan Osnos: You’ve got two groups, one being the activists in Hong Kong and the other being the Party leadership in Beijing, each of which is trying to do something very difficult, which is to read the Hong Kong public’s tolerance and capacity for confrontation. The activists have made a judgment that there is this latent energy in Hong Kong that they can tap into, that people will pull together and rally around the idea of a shared sense of what Hong Kong should be politically. The leadership in Beijing is making a very different calculation; they’re looking at the same population and saying, “This is a group that will in the end set aside its political ambition to maintain economic and business tranquility.” I just think it’s a completely open question at this point and about more than just the political future in Hong Kong.

Guernica: Do you think citizens on the mainland are watching this carefully? Is the primary fear of the Chinese government that this might turn out to be a contagion, that Hong Kong-style confrontation might spread?

Evan Osnos: I think on a theoretical basis, that’s always been the fear, that what happens in Hong Kong will be a forerunner to the debates you’ll have on the mainland. As a practical matter, it’s not clear that people are looking to Hong Kong as a test case. My own personal sense is that people on the mainland tend to regard Hong Kong as something of an oddity and what happens there as not necessarily transferable to the mainland. The Party and the leadership talk about the contagion factor as an ingredient in their decision-making—they say this openly and it’s in the Party press—but I’m not persuaded that there is much of a sense that what applies in a city of 7 million is analogous to what would happen in a country of 1.3 billion.

Guernica: To shift from geopolitics to a smaller scale—let’s talk about the people and stories in Age of Ambition. Reading your book is like watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and at the end I found myself wishing for an epilogue. Michael, the highly ambitious son of a coal miner, is a very compelling, and tragic, character. Where is he now?

Evan Osnos: The last time I spoke with Michael, he and a friend were planning to open a school to teach Chinese in Cyprus. I’m incredibly admiring of his resilience and his determination, and yet, at times, I felt a responsibility as a friend to say, “Hold on a second, let’s think this through, are you sure this is a reliable bet?” On the other hand, it feels churlish of me to stand in someone else’s way; it’s not my place. So he’s embarking on a new venture, which, knowing him, makes perfect sense.

Something I’ve often thought about is: if you took Michael and moved him into a different world—for instance, if he grew up in Cincinnati and was trying to make it in New York—in a different set of circumstances, a kid like that would end up with the brass ring. Michael has got absolutely limitless energy, a blinding optimism about what the world could deliver for him, and yet he’s also constrained by the functional deficits around him. He simply doesn’t have the connections to get ahead, and he doesn’t have anybody to advise him at key moments. I find him both inspiring and also worrying because if the system is not tapping into the reservoir of energy in people like him, then something needs to change.

One of the things that you feel very acutely if you’ve been to China in the past ten years is this rising sense of possibility and then this declining sense of possibility. I very much felt a need to convey this in the writing. Some of this is structural: I start off with cases of meeting people in China when they were defined above all by this sense of soaring aspiration and possibility. But as the years ticked by—and this was not an arc I anticipated or set out to describe—people felt that the space in which they might actualize what they wanted to do was narrowing. People at the bottom of the income scale no longer felt that previous sense of economic possibility and opportunity, and likewise for people at the upper end of the income scale who were beginning to dabble in what it meant to be politically active. Whether it was Ai Weiwei or Wang Gongquan, guys who had decided to try out the experience of being politically active, they also felt that their bandwidth for available action was narrowing. My hope is that the reader comes away at the end of this book with a sense of that arc, because that’s very much a part of how I experienced it.

Guernica: You’ve compared the current situation in China to the United States during the Gilded Age, and you mentioned in a Sinica podcast that if we want to understand what’s happening to China today, we should read Mark Twain. But during the Gilded Age in the US, there was a reaction to inequity—unions, muckrakers, activists—and there was a progressive period in response. Do you see seeds of something similar in China?

Evan Osnos: I think in a very limited way, but an important way. If you look at what’s been happening in China over the last ten years, there were the Upton Sinclairs and the Jacob Riises of their time who began to step forward: journalists beginning to investigate how power and wealth were distributed in China in ways they hadn’t before. One of the reasons I spent a lot of time writing about Hu Shuli [investigative journalist and editor of Caijing magazine] is because of the values she represents and her evangelizing to younger people about them.

This is a moment when it is possible to begin to investigate China because you have the technology and the transportation to go around and peer under rocks. But it’s very dangerous to do so, and it’s gotten more dangerous. You had this period eleven years ago when Caijing uncovered the SARS virus and figured out that the government was not being forthright about the state of the epidemic. That really was a defining moment for a new generation of muckrakers because they realized, okay, the gauntlet’s been thrown down, and we are ready to be more daring in what we want to uncover. They began to do so, but at huge personal risk.

The key difference between China’s Gilded Age and America’s, from a political perspective, is that we haven’t reached a point in China when it’s possible to have independent labor unions that can organize around the experiences of workers. We’re not yet at a point when someone could publish a book that would be an unredacted view of life as a factory worker. There are still constraints on how information can be used as a check on power. And as long as that’s the case, then it’s difficult for China to go from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Movement.

Guernica: You also quote Han Han saying that young people in China don’t care about unfettered freedom of expression or democracy, but that they intensely desire justice. Emily Parker and Yiyun Li had a recent conversation in this magazine about the same idea, how Chinese people don’t really care about openness of information except as a tool to redress a wrong. Is that your sense as well?

Evan Osnos: I began to notice five or six years ago that some of the words we use in the West as signifiers of an open society—“democracy” for instance—are poisonous in China because they are part of this long-running political narrative. But “justice,” in fact, is not captive to some of those same kinds of cultural pressures, so you can talk about justice in a way that is very powerful.

I would argue that “transparency” is another one of those words that has two layers of power. On the one hand there is a kind of cultural suspicion that surrounds the idea of transparency, because using the word signifies that you’re pushing a broader political objective. On the other hand, you see government agencies using that language all the time. A few years ago China created what is the equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act request, which was a response to this sense that people wanted the bureaucracy to reflect the new expectations of information exchange and transparency. But of course, the political culture hasn’t caught up. So you would see announcements where agencies now technically have a FOIA officer who is supposed to field these requests, but oftentimes there was nobody there to actually field them.

I would argue that, particularly for a young generation, people in China are growing up now with a sense that you can and should obtain information, that there is cultural and social value in it. Just on the most basic level: if you’re the first person to have the news or the gossip or the tip, there is value in that, and the Internet runs on this. This is one of the reasons why the Internet is so hard to mesh with the prevailing political culture in China. Because if information is supposed to be centrally organized, then how can you have an Internet?

The impulse to define a universe of acceptable information runs through every university, every publication, every film.

Guernica: I’ve met digital activists who suggest that it’s more helpful to frame censorship as something else, like “network interference,” because you can more easily argue that network interference is bad for business. This economic argument allows people to broach these issues without getting automatically turned away the way they would if they said “freedom of expression” or “censorship.”

Evan Osnos: People try to frame these issues as much they can in technocratic terms and that’s understandable; it’s safer to separate these issues and remove the political content from it, and say, “It’s not about censorship on a moral level, this is really about management of the Internet.” But I think words matter. It’s important to call censorship what it is. I don’t mean that in a pugnacious way; it’s about describing things in their proper way.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way that propaganda functions in Chinese life. As you know, “propaganda” is not a pejorative word in Chinese, and I think that’s really important to understand, that there is a difference between the way it’s meant in English versus Chinese. In Chinese, it’s such an essential part of life; it runs through everything. For people who have not spent significant time in China, it’s easy to imagine that the concept of propaganda is this antique that’s left over and inhabits a small part of life, that people ignore it and nobody pays attention to the Party newspapers. That’s not true. The propaganda impulse, which is the impulse to define a universe of acceptable information, runs through every university, every publication, every film. It’s absolutely essential to the way that information moves around China, which is one of the reasons why in the book I isolate the Central Propaganda Department as an important entity.

Guernica: There are multiple instances in the book when you use the unlisted Propaganda Department building on Chang’an Avenue as a foreboding image. It’s incredible that such an important department has no public-facing presence.

Evan Osnos: The best story I could never write would be the one where I take you inside that building. And I mean that with total sincerity. I’m being genuine when I say I would love to know what it feels like to be the person clipping maps out of National Geographic. If you’re that person, do you feel like somebody who is holding up the last moral standard in a country that has lost its way? Or do you feel assaulted by time, like somebody who was a buggy manufacturer at the dawn of the automobile? I honestly don’t know. For now, I think we have to rely on the great novelists out there to try and conjure that story for us.

Guernica: There was a Reuters article last year on the censors inside Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, who were all very cynical recent college graduates talking to each other about how bad their jobs were, none of whom you’d think would cut it at the Propaganda Department. And yet, there are unabashedly patriotic young people in China; for instance, in your book, you talk with Tang Jie, who helped found m4.cn, a nationalist website. Would he be able to work at the Propaganda Department, do you think?

Evan Osnos: The problem for Tang Jie was that he was way too much of an entrepreneur to fit inside the Propaganda Department. And that sounds paradoxical, because after all he’s been one of the most ardent spokespersons for some of the ideas that the Chinese government would like the world to accept. But what you see in the arc of his experience is the mark of a true entrepreneur.

Let’s remind ourselves of his experience: he was a PhD student studying Western political philosophy, and he put himself forward on the Internet as one of the vanguard of the new young nationalist generation. He made this video, which articulated the concerns of young Chinese people about what he perceived to be efforts made by the West to contain China’s rise. And he was so successful that he started a company, m4 Media, which he wanted to be the nationalist YouTube of China. It grew, and at one point was so fiercely in defense of what he considered to be the truly orthodox Party point of view, that Xinhua [the state news agency] wrote a story that described him and his friends as 50 Centers [a pejorative term for pro-CCP online commenters].

The idea that he was too radical for Xinhua made him laugh. But the deeper point about that is that throughout his life he was rewarded for standing out, for defining a set of ideas of his own. And when we talked earlier about the value of information and ideas—his life is a testament to that. But in the end, he became a casualty of the crackdown after the arrest of Bo Xilai, when the government reined in a lot of these websites, including his, that were entrepreneurial platforms for ideas and arguments. For me, this was such a powerful demonstration of the fact that this young guy, who had grown up in every way a believer in the system, was also constitutionally incapable of being a follower. He was a born leader, and it’s hard for somebody like that to accommodate the old pressures, to conform and follow the rules.

It’s very hard to persuade a young Chinese person today to mortgage their self-interest for the sake of some vaguer, broader goal.

Guernica: That relates to your arguments in the book about how young people in China have been imbued with this sense of self-empowerment, the ability to make changes. At what point will we see this affect the political structure? I wonder, when the vast numbers of Chinese students studying in the US go back to China and are in positions of power, ten, twenty years from now, what the effects will be, politically, socially, and culturally.

Evan Osnos: The rise of the “Me” generation, which is also how it’s described in Chinese, the 我一代, is an often overlooked transformation that’s going on inside Chinese life as opposed to the more obvious changes we see going on around us. In the short term it has a political and societal effect. Because if you’re a person who has to conceive of your own life as rising or falling based on your ability to carve out opportunities and resources for yourself—meaning to get the job, to get the house, to get the girl, which are all hallmarks of this more individualized period—well, then you have a lot less willingness to accept policies that you think are going to constrain your abilities to achieve that. It’s very hard to persuade a young Chinese person today to mortgage their self-interest for the sake of some vaguer, broader goal. That’s not to say they’re all selfish. But they see value in their own experience in a way their parents never had the luxury of doing.

Guernica: Speaking of getting the house and getting the girl, you, along with some others, like Leta Hong Fincher, have written about the pressures placed on Chinese youth with regards to marriage. How detrimental to society is the pressure on men to have a house and a nest egg and on women to expect these things from men?

Evan Osnos: In a way, what we’re talking about, this moment when men and women are evaluating each other in sometimes ferociously pragmatic ways, is really just a more blatant version of what happens in every society. In the West, we don’t necessarily ask each other on a first date how much money we make, but we do rely on other signifiers to be able to tell: you ask someone where they went to school, you pick up little hints about where that person grew up and what that might mean.

Sometimes when we read these accounts, it sounds to us like the relationships have lost the emotional core. But I think actually you have to look beyond that. Very few of them ever say, “Boy, I’m so glad that this is the way I have to evaluate potential mates.” They don’t; it doesn’t make it easier. It’s not that some people have woken up and become superficial, but it’s a reflection of the moment that they inhabit. They feel that the stakes are very large: if you are growing up in China today, the difference between being a winner in the system and being a loser is so profound. So for young people in China today everything feels very dire, meaning you have to take these questions of love and marriage seriously because they are probably the most important financial decisions you’ll ever make.

But I also feel that this phenomenon, like so much in China, is running its course faster than it would in the West. Even in the course of the time I was there you began to see people celebrate the idea of the “naked marriage,” which is where the bride and groom don’t necessarily have a house, a car, and a nest egg from day one. And that really is a part of this broader search in China for a return to greater meaning. For some people it’s religious, but for most people it’s about simply trying to get past this physical reality of their lives and get to some deeper sense of what matters.

Guernica: One of the more optimistic people in your book is Reverend Jin Mingri, who remarked on what he saw as a shrinking of government and a growth in civil society. What do you think he meant by that and do you agree with him?

Evan Osnos: He’s a guy who sees things with the long view. Jin Mingri was comparing the state of civil society today to twenty-five or forty years ago. When Jin Mingri was growing up in China, there really was no opportunity to build a religious community of your own. So he grew up, became a Christian, joined the Three Self Patriotic Church, and he was in many ways following the playbook. But he found it increasingly unsatisfying and he wanted to practice his religion in a way that the officially recognized church wouldn’t satisfy. He felt it was up to him to begin to carve out a world for himself, which is a very difficult and delicate thing to do. What was interesting was that when he faced that decision, it wasn’t the decision it would have been thirty years ago, which was: Do I become a dissident? Am I going to immediately put myself into confrontation with the state?

What he was trying to do, in much more of a gray area, was to exploit the border region between official and illegal organizations. So he built what was officially an unrecognized and illegal house church, but he did it in a way that was designed to be out in the open. He printed business cards, he called the local police station and said he was opening a church and encouraged them to visit. What he was trying to say was, “We are not within the system, but we are not actively against the system.” In that way it was a very modern decision. So when he talks about the growth of civil society today, he’s not doing that naïvely. He recognizes what we all know to be true: that there has been a narrowing over the last five years of the window of opportunity for activist lawyers, for non-governmental organizations involved in social justice issues, and others who are pressing for progressive legal reform. But that narrowing also comes within this broader context: over the course of a generation, there have been people who have figured out ways to try and walk that delicate line between being inside the system and being against the system.

But it’s getting difficult to be someone who walks that line. Xu Zhiyong is a great example of somebody who really believed you could work within that system. He was an elected representative in the Haidian District People’s Congress, recognized as an outstanding lawyer, was written up in the state-run press, and yet he was also interested in issues of constitutionality, transparency, and accountability. Eventually some part of the government—and this is always the hard thing in China, knowing whether it’s a strategic decision, or a tactical decision—decided that what he was doing was threatening, and he was arrested. That has a chilling effect because other people who have thought they were walking that line realized they could get into trouble. The lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who also believed he could stand up for independent ideas without putting himself into confrontation with the state, said to me in an interview in 2010 that he had no interest in being an enemy of the state. And if you look at his activity, he was hardly somebody who was trying to do that, and yet over time I think that the goalposts moved. The standard of what used to be safe political activity dropped, and all of a sudden he found himself on the wrong side of that standard, which led to his arrest.

In Washington, there’s propaganda all over the place, but it’s not coming out of one building, it’s coming out of a hundred buildings.

Guernica: You have to wonder who is actually willing to try and grow civil society when, as you say, the goalposts might move the next day. How and from where might a Chinese citizen find comfort and hope in a climate like this one?

Evan Osnos: I see right now this wrestling match going on in China. On the one hand, you have the Party’s efforts to define the moral aspiration for the country, which, for lack of a better term, is described as the “Chinese Dream.” What has been so interesting about Xi Jinping’s administration so far is that he has thrown himself into this moral language. He has said that he is trying to define what it is that people stand for. And then on the other side of that wrestling match is all these people who are trying to do it on their own, trying to answer for themselves what China stands for and what kind of country they want to become. So in some ways Xi Jinping is using a playbook that he knows and makes sense to him. After all, for most of the last sixty years, when you wanted to rally the Chinese public to pull together—to shore up its unity and look toward the future—you would rally them around a motto, a slogan, or a central idea. But I’m not sure that technology still works; I think people today are simply so different—the lives they inhabit, the information they have, the sense of their own identity as individuals—than their parents or grandparents. Even though Xi Jinping is trying to be a modernizing figure I think that he may be relying on a political technology that is not powerful enough.

Guernica: You’re in Washington, DC, now, and you just wrote an exhaustive piece about US Vice President Joe Biden for The New Yorker. How long did that take?

Evan Osnos: I wrote that story over the course of three months. I certainly learned a lot in that piece. Of course, it’s a very different experience than being a reporter in Beijing. If I was waiting for a chance to write about the Chinese vice president, I’d be waiting a very long time.

Guernica: Or it’d be incredibly stage-managed.

Evan Osnos: The thing that’s funny is that American politicians are absolutely experts at stage-managing and choreographing things. In moving to Washington, I had to rediscover a more fine-grained sense of judgment of when I was being spun with propaganda, because in China, it’s very easy to know what’s propaganda and what’s not. It comes out of that building on Chang’an Avenue, and it’s recognizable. In Washington, there’s propaganda all over the place, but it’s not coming out of one building, it’s coming out of a hundred buildings. And some of them are private, some of them are government, and some are individual politicians, but you have to be just as alert to the idea that you’re being fed bullshit as you do in Beijing. It can actually be a little more difficult to separate what’s true.

Guernica: What’s next for you?

Evan Osnos: I generally feel it’s bad luck to talk about a story before I write it. But one thing for sure is that I’m interested in exactly the same issue that I was interested in when I lived in China, which is how such a big, complicated country relates to the rest of the world, and now that just happens to be the United States. The reason I wrote about Biden and foreign policy was really about trying to understand how the United States sees its place in the world today. I’m working on another piece now about American foreign policy—our responsibilities as a country and to what degree we can try to shape the world in a way we want, and to what degree this is a useless and impossible thing to do.

Guernica: What kinds of issues do people in the American government seem to care about most with regards to China?

Evan Osnos: I think here in Washington, the thing people are constantly trying to understand about China is what it intends for itself and for the rest of the world. Because China obviously wants to be a greater power in East Asia than it is today. But on the opposite side, they recognize that China does not want to be put into the position of a superpower just yet. It still perceives itself as a poor country and it doesn’t want to bear the responsibility of being a power on par with the United States. I think the United States gets such mixed messages from China about whether we are friends or rivals or what. I just don’t think people in the United States have a very clear picture of that. And I would argue the same is true for Beijing.

The single question people in China—if I’m going to generalize for a minute—wonder most of all is: Will the United States allow China to continue growing and becoming a larger power? For all the communication we have between these two sides, they still have remarkably little understanding of each other. I went on a trip to Europe with Chinese tourists, which I wrote about in the book, and though that was three years ago, people still talk to me about that because it’s relatively rare that we get to see what the rest of the world looks like through Chinese eyes. So I consider it a failing of my own that I didn’t figure out more opportunities like that one, more windows into that kind of view. That’s something I think a lot about as a writer, the degree to which I’ll be continuing to look for these opportunities, to write about what the Chinese think about the United States and the rest of the world, and what the rest of the world thinks about China.

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