Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

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In the past forty years China has grown exponentially, driven by people’s ambition to remake a life for themselves. But people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats. Some who tried succeeded; many others did not.

In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2014, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives. The authoritarian government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.

China today is riven by contradictions, on one hand the Party gave people more freedom to foster growth, on the other hand, it still severely and forcefully limits what Chinese people can say or do.

Book Notes

The greatest fever of all was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life. Some who tried succeeded; many others did not. More remarkable was that they defied a history that told them never to try. Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern author, once wrote, “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.”

China is the world’s largest consumer of energy, movies, beer, and platinum; it is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.

In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2014, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives.

“The commander of a mighty army can be captured, but the aspiration of an ordinary man can never be seized.” —Confucius

China today is riven by contradictions. It is the world’s largest buyer of Louis Vuitton, second only to the United States in its purchases of Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, yet ruled by a Marxist-Leninist party that seeks to ban the word luxury from billboards.

China has two of the world’s most valuable Internet companies, and more people online than the United States, even as it redoubles its investment in history’s largest effort to censor human expression.

This book is an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism. Forty years ago the Chinese people had virtually no access to fortune, truth, or faith—three things denied them by politics and poverty. They had no chance to build a business or indulge their desires, no power to challenge propaganda and censorship, no way to find moral inspiration outside the Party. Within a generation, they had gained access to all three—and they want more. The Chinese people have taken control of freedoms that used to be governed almost entirely by others—decisions about where they work and travel and whom they marry. But as those liberties have expanded, the Communist Party has taken only halting steps to accommodate them. The Communist Party’s commitment to control—to ordain not only who leads the country but also how many teeth a train attendant shows when she smiles—contradicts the riot of life outside. The longer I lived in China, the more I sensed that the Chinese people have outpaced the political system that nurtured their rise. The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history—and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.

The story of China in the twenty-first century is often told as a contest between East and West, between state capitalism and the free market. But in the foreground there is a more immediate competition: the struggle to define the idea of China. Understanding China requires not only measuring the light and heat thrown off by its incandescent new power, but also examining the source of its energy—the men and women at the center of China’s becoming.

In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, attempting to vault his country past Britain in just fifteen years. Some advisers told him it was impossible, but he ignored and humiliated them; the head of the national technology commission jumped out a window. The propagandists hailed one fantastical harvest after another, calling them “Sputnik harvests,” on par with the success of the Soviet satellite. But the numbers were fiction, and as starvation spread, many who complained were tortured or killed. The Party barred people from traveling to find food. Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the world’s worst famine, which killed between thirty and forty-five million people, more than World War I.

When change came, it came from below. The previous winter, in the inland village of Xiaogang, the local farmers had been so impoverished by Mao’s economic vision that they had stopped tilling their communal land and had resorted to begging. In desperation, eighteen farmers divided up the land and began to farm it separately; they set their own schedules, and whatever they sold beyond the quota required by the state, they sold at the market and reaped the profits. They signed a secret pact to protect one another’s families in the event of arrest. By the following year, they were earning nearly twenty times as much income as before. When the experiment was discovered, some apparatchiks accused them of “digging up the cornerstone of socialism,” but wiser leaders allowed their scheme to continue, and eventually expanded it to eight hundred million farmers around the country. The return of “household” farming, as it was known, spread so fast that a farmer compared it to a germ in a henhouse. “When one family’s chicken catches the disease, the whole village catches it. When one village has it, the whole county will be infected.”

The model they created endured for decades: a “birdcage economy,” as Chen Yun called it, airy enough to let the market thrive but not so free as to let it escape. As young revolutionaries, the elders had overseen the execution of landlords, the seizure of factories, and the creation of people’s communes. But now they preserved their power by turning the revolution upside down: permitting private enterprise and opening a window to the outside world even if it allowed, as Deng put it, “a few flies” to get in. China’s reforms had no blueprint. The strategy, as Chen Yun put it, was to move without losing control—to “cross the river by feeling for the stones.”

All over the country, people were exiting the collective farms that had dominated their lives. When they talked about it, they said they had been songbang—“unfettered”—a term more often used for a liberated prisoner or an animal. They began to talk of politics and democracy. But Deng Xiaoping had his limits. In March 1979, not long before Lin Zhengyi embarked on his adventure to the mainland, Deng spoke to a group of senior officials and demanded, “Can we tolerate this kind of freedom of speech which flagrantly contravenes the principles of our constitution?” The Party would never embrace “individualist democracy.” It would have economic freedom but political control. For China to thrive, there must be limits on “emancipating the mind.”

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