Age of Ambition – Notes Part 2 – Truth

ambitionAge of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
by Evan Osnos
2014 / 417 pages
rating ___ / nonfiction


Part Chapter 8 – “Dancing in Shackles” – propaganda is alive and well in a rather plain building in central Bejing, near the central government’s Zhongnanhai.  It doesn’t exist on maps or government charts – nevertheless – there it is.  And it functions as the Central  Publicity Department.   The heads of the department studied Coca-Cola and other organizations with successful public images.  They used surveys and research and the internet and film with emotional content to “standardize people’s behavior.”  (p. 119)

Newspapers were especially vulnerable to the Publicity department’s control – they reported the same things the same ways.  Except for Caijing which was doing some investigative journalism  under the muckraking leadership of Hu Shuli, a shrewd and very powerful woman editor.

(It’s not all that surprising to find China slotted at number 167/173 on the Reporters without Borders scale but the US is down at number 48 – that’s behind Romania!   Gads!)

Under the Cultural Revolution with it’s Rustication plan of training in the rural areas, Hu and a guy named Wu Si both found that profound laziness and other corruption had overtaken the farmers.  Both became involved in the newspaper business.  Hu went back to college later and got into journalism where she was both lucky and adept at making connections. Travel in America broadened her and she returned just in time for the Tiananmen Square uprising which she bravely reported on and was suspended (luckily) for 18 months.

Eeks!  This book reminds me of how old I am –  on page 124 it says that Gao Xiqing, a reporter, worked in the office of Richard Nixon while in the US.  ??? –  I had to check that, a Commie in the office of Tricky-Dick?  Yup – but it was in the very late 1980s and Gao was an “associate” in the same firm.  –  lol!  Times have changed!

Back to the basics – while working for the China Business Times Hu became professionally involved with a group of financiers and stock market developers one of whom later wanted to start a magazine that was not state-run.  Financial markets require information and good information so a more-or-less free press is vital.

But although Hu was a bit of a renegade,  she had the good sense to stay away from serious “corruption in government”  stories – she had to keep her friends who probably kept her out of trouble because they need her, too.  But she reported the reality of the SARS virus and the results of the 2008 earthquake without penalty.  Not so others.

** Chapter 9 “Liberty Leading the People”  looks at scholars and internet users and makes the point is that China has access, can get news and send it – also send responses – it’s  their “first taste of the sacred rights of freedom of speech.”  (p. 138)   So the younger generation of Chinese who know perfectly well how to beat the firewall, saw the reaction to China’s actions in Tibet which affected their Olympics and almost immediately nationalism raised its head along with the knowledge that the internet in the West might not be accurate. And a film is made to combat the propaganda –


Tang Jie

Tang Jie

Then comes a little historical note focusing on thescholar who made the patriotic film, Tang Jie, and his education in the 1980s and early 90’s.   Good stuff –

So a small group of intellectuals focus on China’s classics and historic values – similar to neo-conservatives like Leo Strauss, Abram Shulsky and Paul Wolfowitz,  in the US – 2003.  These Chinese students and their professor, Ding Yun, were pushing back at Westernization.  These new conservatives want a “natural right” conservatism,  not  a “status quo” conservatism.  (Interesting distinction – )

Nationalism can be dangerous – Tibet, Olympics, Japanese history books, the internet –

** Chapter 10:  Miracles and Magic Engines

Lin Yifu and wife

Lin Yifu and wife

Back to Lin Zhengyi (who escaped from Taiwan): – he changed his name to Lin Yifu, was educated at U of Chicago where he reunited with his wife then returned to China and went to work for Deng Ziaoping’s group.  China was in a slump and the chosen option was to give more economic freedom rather than to give them democracy.  Lin became a very successful and honored workaholic.

He argued for a “soft” industrial policy in which a clamorous free market produced new industries and firms, and the government spotted the best prospects and helped them grow by giving them tax breaks and building infrastructure such as the ports and highways going up all over the Chinese mainland. It was the marriage of Chicago and Beijing: to rise out of poverty, he and Monga wrote, markets were “indispensable ,” but government would be “equally indispensable.”  (p. 154)

That reminds me of how America grew so fast – the government put up the roads and assisted the railroads and electrical and telephone and other infrastructure necessary – they made the land ready for the investments.  Osnos mentioned the Gilded Age – that’s the same time frame.

Liu Xiaobo – literary critic and political dissident, is in jail for “counterrevolutionary propaganda” (p. 158) “disturbing social order,” (p. 159) and became the country’s leading dissident.  –

Computers are the Magic Engine mentioned in the chapter title – Liu discovered the computer when he got out of jail in 2008.

Chapter 11 “A Chorus of Soloists”

As the housing boom boomed,  unemployment rose and little mom-pop stands lost business. But internet cafes were doing well and getting past the censors was common. The users found pop stars and places to criticize the government, they were informal and disclosure. The government tried to contain it but too bad.

And here comes Han Han – race car driver and author of a book called Triple Door. The internet opened the world to him – and he posted:

He said the scale of China’s growth obscured the details of how the spoils were being divided. “For rally races we travel widely, because they’re on dirt roads, often in small, poor places . Young people there don’t care about literature or art or film or freedom or democracy, but they know they need one thing: justice. What they see around them is unfair.”  (p. 172)


Han Han racing

Han Han went beyond blogging to a magazine called “A Chorus of Soloists.”  News of him beyond racing was censored but he made Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. Han Han posted more and grew more followers.

Meanwhile Michael the English teacher from a prior chapter and a devoted fan of Han Han,  started his own English teaching business. He’s still not married.

Chapter 12: The Art of Resistance

A cartoon based on the mud horse and river  crab  was designed and passed around on the internet – then it went to t-shirts and other things.  Ai-Weiwei posed naked with a photo covering his genitals.

grass mud horse and river crab

grass mud horse and river crab

Ai-Weiwei went on to other forms of resistance – like sending Chinese to Germany, objecting to the Olympics, and demanding an accurate count with names of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Ai Weiwei has asked the courts for documentation – he really wants to show that the system is not working.  He is a provocateur –

We get little taste of his background story – father a writer who was ousted from the writer’s guild and Ai Weiwei struggled through childhood, a New York education and connections,  back in China he pursued architecture and politics,  eventually blogging but that was shut down.

Chapter 13: Seven Sentences

LiuXiaobo - protest

Liu Xiaobo Nobel protest

Who are the dissidents and how are they dealt with?  The internet produced new challenges to censorship and but it was very hard to control the dissidents. Liu Xiabo spent was sentenced to 11 years in jail for demanding change (seven sentences were objectionable), Ai Waiwai protested, people responded and the government tried to censor the internet. The Chinese people wanted more and more information – Hu Shuli left her magazine to start another and the Nobel Prize winner (for human rights activism)  was not allowed to pick it up prompting more dissident behavior.

Chapter 14 The Germ in the Henhouse


bumper sticker to free Chen Guangchen

Back to the blind peasant lawyer in Dongshigu – continues to protest one-child system.  I suppose he is the germ from which the disease of dissent spread. People took to the courts as well as the streets – a strolling protest including “middle income” people. Ai Weiwei gets involved as the government uses new techniques of infiltration. But more dissent grew as the government closed off the avenues of dissent.   Even bumper stickers were now used – the middle income folks were involved.

Chapter 15  Sandstorm

It was forbidden to sell jasmine one spring (?)  because it was regarded as a symbol of dissent due to the death of an Tunisian seller slapped by police whereupon he set himself on fire.  Arab Spring was scary to Chinese leaders.  China’s response to opposition was to clamp down.  The protestors increased and included Ambassador Huntsman from the US (by accident).  Tang Jie reported the demonstration but in a different way from Han Han – Han Han only says the government is bad,  Tang is specific about improvements.

The dissidents who were arrested were subject to imprisonment, confinement and interrogation, with their whereabouts unknown. Ai Weiwei said it was like being in a “sandstorm.”  His incarceration (for economic crimes) produced international attention –

The truth was that I struggled with the question of how much to write about Ai Weiwei— or , for that matter, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng or the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. How much did their ordeals really tell us about China? If the average news consumer in the West read (or watched or heard) no more than one China story a week, should it be about people with dramatic lives or typical lives? …  the problem of proportions: How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression? From far away it was difficult for outsiders to judge, but I found that up close it wasn’t much easier, because it depended on where you were looking.  (p. 227)

How far can the individual go in this situation? Han Han disagreed with Ai Weiwei, and the censors censored and the question is not readily answerable.  Ai Weiwei was eventually released from prison but it was a stalemate in terms of “win.”  It looked like the powers of government would win again.

Chapter 16 – Lightning Storm

Harmony Express is hit by another train.

Harmony Express is hit by another train.

On July 23, 2011, after a lightning storm which messed with the signals,  the Harmony Express also known as D301, collided with D3115 and 40 people were killed. The government naturally, wanted the trains moving again a lot more than it wanted this incident known.

The crash generated online criticism and it was finally investigated – 54 heads rolled for their alleged parts in the poor design, safety,  bidding and testing processes. Osnos describes the depths of corruption with the peasant born Liu Zhijun,  his brother, and Ding Shumiao, a contract intermediary – also from peasant background. Millions of dollars were known to vanish and end up stockpiled in cast somewhere.  Reporters were stymied and stories were deleted from the Web.

China’s high speed railway was shaping up to be ‘the biggest single financial scandal not just in China but perhaps in the world.” (p. 243)

The web of corruption in that deal was deep and wide – Liu was on trial at the time of the crash and got a death sentence and reprieve.  The archives and the web were purged.

Chapter 16 – All that Glitters

So how does corruption work? Hu Gang is apparently an old master at the bribe-biz.  Lots of corruption throughout the entire history of China. It’s not gone away – graft, fraud, embezzlement and patronage, kickbacks, and bribes are doing Kweichow Moutaiso well that Kweichow Moutai stocks went up due to so many people buying it as a little gift for an official.

Apparently there is a fine art – first get to know your target, this is about “friendship.”  Second,  after the gift is given and accepted, don’t expect a quick fix. Third,  loyalty and skill are expected in addition to gifts.  Fourth, understand that you have competition – corruption in the form of bribery is everywhere except, perhaps, the tourist industry.

In 2012, a year of political transition with pomp and ceremony, Wang Lijun, the chief of police in Chongqing, sought protection at the American Consulate as he had discovered a the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman.  Wang blamed the family of the highly place politico,  Bo Xilai and although Wang was “disciplined,” Bo’s wife was convicted of poisoning Heywood and Bo of corruption. The myth of the humble civil servant was dead.

Bloggers reported more and more scandals and the government tried to keep them off the internet but to no avail. Osnos had to just stop bothering with all the sex scandals. Meanwhile, the other corruption was resulting in “the intersection of modern media and gangland politics.” (p. 259)

The history of both China and the US is rife with corruption – see Credit Mobilier – but where we’ve outgrown the rampant corruption, China has not – yet – will it?

Chapter 18 – The Hard Truth –

Back to Li Yang of Crazy English who was really becoming a bit crazy and lost his reputation when his wife accused him of spousal abuse – a no-no to admit in China.  His former  student Michael had moved with his family when his business went bust. Now he was trying to write an English textbook. He’s still hopeful, buying an apartment, looking to get a wife later on. The apartments sell for 8 to 10 times an annual income.

The disparity between income levels had widened considerably  – 2009 was not a good year – see the Gini coefficient:– China and the US are about the same,  fwiw.

But therein lies the problem.  After the suicide of the Foxconn workers sociologists came to find out that the new generation is not as happy to work in a factory as their fathers were. These new workers look to the people who are advancing economically at a pace which way outstrips their own.  They feel stuck.  Comparative happiness level of 112 on the UN World Happiness Report – (the US was ranked 17).  This info was obviously suppressed.

But the search for Truth (see title) goes on and although corruption and censorship are alive and well, so to is the internet and the level of acceptance of unknowing has diminished.   That said,  a web search for “the truth” will “not be displayed.”


>>>>NOTES Part 1>>>>
>>>>NOTES Part 2>>>>
>>>>NOTES Part 3+ >>>>

5 Responses to Age of Ambition – Notes Part 2 – Truth

  1. Gabriel Njonjo says:

    what’s the genre of this book? Is it fiction or non-fiction?


  2. BAPblogs says:

    Where is the hyperlink to Part 3?


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