Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (London: Vintage, 2014)
Where do we start? Here is a country with traditions that stretch back millennia, which is modernising faster than any other on the planet. With a communist government, yet dedicated to economic prosperity and wealth. With hyperconnectivity on the web, and an internet firewall which blocks news outlets like the BBC. With bloggers and activists, and secret government buildings and state censorship. With a political caste corrupt to its core.
China is a traditionalist country in the midst of massive turmoil, which the Party is trying to ride and control.
One element is the need for meaning: the roots with the past were cut (most notorious by Mao), but theyl have been allowed to regrow, to some extent. The Party cannot give moral meaning or cultural depth, so so provide those it has been necessary to allow a version of the past to provide them. Something to fill the jingshen kongxu, the ‘spiritual void.’ Sanitised, and made Chinese. That’s code, but the way – as so much is. Christianity is Western, so it has to be made indigenously Chinese in order to be allowed. If you’re thinking that that’s what all missionaries learn to do – think again. It’s called printing an approved ‘translation’ of the bible, with some stuff edited out, and some stuff (more in line with the Party) put in, in its place.
A second is the pace of technological change. China is urbanising rapidly, and the countryside, once the source of the wealth of rice and wheat, now just an increasing irrelevance. Wealth comes from the city, connected by quickly built infrastructure. It’s sleek, impressive, new, and arguably dangerously flawed in its design (corruption is endemic). Inevitably, with the twenty-first century, comes the web, but this is only available on the Party’s terms. Blog posts are searched and quickly taken down; Osnos ( a journalists) reports on the daily texts he and all writers receive about which stories may or may not be covered, which words may or may not be used. Like ‘luxury’.
So the Party is unnerved. One moment it allows religious expression, the next it has installed surveillance cameras in churches, with facial recognition software. It will enforce internet blackouts for months to cover over a horrendous train crash, or the flawed building plan that caused thousands of deaths in an earthquake, or its own bloody response to uprisings. Although the stories still get out, somehow.
Because China leaks. Here’s the third trend: I bet you couldn’t name a living Chinese novelist, blogger, composer or film-maker – but I reckon you could name its most famous artist. Who filled the Turbine Hall in London with a hundred million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. To make a political point. Ai Weiwei typifies a problem for the Party – he attracts the admiration of the world, but at the price of his message being heard at home: he is successful and wealthy, but that means his dissidence must be portrayed as a result of tax fraud, and punished.
This fascinating book chases the search for money, meaning and truth though the current dilemmas of China. I’ve no idea what Osnan believes, but he’s a journalist reporting current affairs. He has conversations with young bloggers, party faithful, activists and loners. Some of them are straws in the wind, others are mayflies born to die.
He has conversations with Christians, too, and he reports (as do so many) that churches are the largest non-governmental grouping in the country
And he is realistic. If you think the Party is losing its grip, think of the Uighar Muslims and their internment camps. The Party is brutal, and in no mood for a thaw. When in 2010 the Human Rights activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, he was placed under arrest, his house surrounded by fences, and the BBC blocked for reporting on the story. The Nobel committee placed his medal on an empty chair in Oslo. The Party blacklisted the phrase ‘empty chair’ on the internet.
If we are to understand China, we need to face it as it is, not as it was, nor how we might wish it to be.
If we are to understand China, we need to face it as it is, not as it was, nor how we might wish it to be. The Party will allow journalism, but police it ruthlessly. They will bring down their most faithful and promising new generation, if there is a hint of change or criticism. They watched the fall of the Soviet system, and are determined to learn the lessons.
The Party will allow engagement with the West: Chinese tourists were no strange sight in London, and the narrative is clear – all prosperity comes at the price of the loss of political freedoms, and they are (or are expected to appear) willing to pay it.
So what do we do?
Do we care enough to criticise China for its human rights abuses? Or are we in awe at its apparent wealth and success? The Party is trying to ride the dragon of increasing wealth and global reputation, but aware that goes alongside increased openness to ideas and criticism, from within and without. They are determined to ride it with success, but at the price of fierce control. And there are strong indications that they keep losing control, so then tightening their grip again.
We pray. That spiritual void is massive, and nothing the party can do will fill it. Ironically, they are creating the context of materialism without meaning which makes people reach out for deeper issues. And that they have failed to control