“The whole country is moving at warp speed…in a sense, it makes no structural sense that a country that is so large can actually make as many large pivots as it has over the last 40 years…
…One of the student protesters [at Tiananmen Square in the spring of ’89] said to a reporter…’I don’t know exactly what we want, but we want more of it.’ and in so many ways that’s the ethos of this moment in China. It’s kind of moment of enormous expectation and demand and energy that is free floating and attaches itself to things at various moments and it’s for that reason it’s uncertain and unpredictable” -Evan Osnos
In May, Evan Osnos, New Yorker correspondent and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in New China, sat down with Asia Society’s Orville Schell for an conversation presented by ChinaFile about how the eager dynamism and expectations of the Chinese people shaped contemporary China and pushes her forward and how rising expectations are reconciled with the country’s political system. We’ll share some highlights here.
Osnos and Schell first talked about the sense of opportunity in China and the effect economic growth has had on the Chinese outlook. Countless people have “navigat[ed] their own route to fortune, to prosperity of some kind”. A poor villager became wealthy after he discovered that fungi considered worthless in his village were in fact valuable truffles. Justin Yifu Lin (林正义 / 林正義), a model soldier in the Taiwanese military who decided his future was brighter in China abandoned his family, defected from the ROC to the PRC in 1979, and went on to become the first Chinese Chief Economist of the World Bank. Stories like these reinforce the narrative of the promise of economic opportunity and success. Then, as people become more settled in financial security, expectations are raised. They look to larger metaphysical issues, asking what their role is in their family, in society, and on this planet. “The dinner conversations in Beijing have moved from real estate to travel…onto ‘Who’s your guru?'”.
Next, they discussed whether the Chinese are dissatisfied with the system and whether the government should be worried. Osnos suggests that the country is not a tinderbox. While there is a disconnect between the party and the people, “[p]eople feel an enormous investment in what they have acquired so far. So, they’re not willing to chuck to system, but what they are and increasingly determined to do is to demand more of the system and to determine a better version of what they have today.” The party’s balancing of political interests against popular demands might actually become more difficult. After saying that he would not want to work in propaganda for the party, Osnos asked, “How do you shape a young Chinese person’s vision of their world with any confidence as you could 10, 15 years ago?”. However, in a sign that some discontent runs deeper and perhaps beyond the reach of propaganda and Xi Jiping’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign against “tigers and flies”, people are more offended by day to day institutional corruption that has been part of Chinese culture, finding it “out of step with the sophistication of [their] lives”.
Towards the end, Osnos made a statement that people who are just learning about China and those who can’t see China past the Communist Party should note well, “Everyday Chinese lives are becoming more like everyday American lives…the Chinese experience is something you can understand. It’s not as exotic as you might imagine it to be, and these are people whose lives you can empathize with.” While this may seem like nothing more than a disarming reassurance, it speaks to the future of China and of China-US relations both of which will be defined by the current generation of Chinese who have grown up with great expectations and some of whom will have lived in the United States.
Asia Society has made the complete discussion available online. It’s an hour-long, but the amiable discussion is worth watching in its entirety. We suggest also checking out Osnos’ interview on NPR and with The New York Times.
Image: Cover Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)