Age of Ambition – Notes Part 1- Fortune

ambitionAge of Ambition
by Evan Osnos
2014 / 417 pages
rating ___ / nonfiction

China has changed, is changing, will change more. The changes, according to Osnos, involve a collision of two forces,  aspiration and authoritarianism.  I see the starting point as being a necessary choice for China looking at Cuba, the USSR, and other Communist countries which resulted in rising expectations on the part of the citizens.   We’ll see how this goes.

From the Prologue:

** “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.’” (pp. 3-4)

** “The Party no longer promises equality or an end to toil. It promises only prosperity, pride , and strength. And for a while, that was enough. But over time the people have come to want more, and perhaps nothing more ardently than information.” (p. 5)

** “The difference in life expectancy and income between China’s wealthiest cities and its poorest provinces is the difference between New York and Ghana.” (p. 6)

** “China reminds me most of America at its own moment of transformation— the period that Mark Twain and Charles Warner named the Gilded Age, when “every man has his dream , his pet scheme.” (p. 6)

** “The book is an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.” (p. 7)

– and this is from my own highlights as I wonder if he’ll succeed in this:
“I have tried, above all, to describe Chinese lives on their own terms.” (p. 7)


Chapter 1 tells the story of Lin Zengyi, a young Taiwanese military man who defects to the mainland where his family was originally from.  He succeeds but is arrested.  There is also a chunk of history related to China in this chapter including how privatization got started this time round which is rather interesting.

Chapter 2 mentions a group of Islamic Uigars in Bejing.  I just read about them earlier this month but living in their native area in far western China in “The Emperor Far Away.”

It also examines the increased consumerism of the Chinese – Osnos: “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.”  (p. 24)

The changes in China are amazing in areas ranging from leisure time to consumer items, health care to income levels, internet to marriage and of course, entrepreneurship.   Reading this I am astonished.  But likewise, the necessity of “loyalty” continues – the laws about sterilization and unauthorized information (the internet) are in tact – anything which threatens the state (or is perceived to threaten the state) is not tolerated.

In Chapter 3 Lin Zengyi, the man from Chapter 1,  is interviewed and apparently will be discussed from time to time through the book.

“To survive in China you must reveal nothing to others. Or it could be used against you … That’s why I’ve come to think the deepest part of the self is best left unclear. Like mist and clouds in a Chinese landscape painting, hide the private part behind your social persona. Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”  (p. 38)

The ambitious young villagers leave for school and the city and then they have to *choose* their own mates and careers!  OMG!  This is a huge change for them and parents still push their own choices but “arranged” marriages have been illegal for along time.

Osnos picks up the story of Gong Haiyan, a bright and ambitious teenage girl who in spite of some serious set-backs, started a dating service (totally marriage oriented because this is China.)

Chapter 4 explores the job and marriage markets now that it’s a choice –

Men outnumber women about 3 to 1 which is more pronounced in the rural areas and the competition to find a bride who will have you is stiff – your personal future is more important these days than your family’s past.   Dating services and marketing schemes using the internet abound.

Chapter 5 – now to the nitty-gritty, “some Get rich” and some were fast about it.  Deng Xiaoping declared that it was time to “let some people get rich first,” and that’s what some people did.  (p. 60) That was back in 1985, though – it took awhile.
See the Washington Post – 

And in 1992 Deng extolled development saying that it was “the only hard truth.” (Btw, Socialists question Deng’s communist credentials/ideas.

There’s a big push to “Get Rich First,”  Gong Hiayan now offers shares of  her dating service company on Nasdaq and Osnos visits her at her home.   Public jobs were closing down pushing more people into the job market.  People got second jobs,  made business cards,  did “independent” things and made “individual” choices.  This was a  whole attitude which was abhorred by Mao and his followers.  But the combination of “Get Rich First” and the new “independent thinking”  resulted in new music, film, fashion, consumer items,  etc.

And the Communist Party changed it’s image – the phrase “middle class” was a bit  too much,  but “New Middle Income Stratum” was okay and even spoke of morality.  Also,  instead of being the “revolutionary party” the party was now the “Party in Power.”  ( p. 61)

The people had little choice but to accept the changes – the party was now “conservative” in its approach.   And Cheung Yang made her fortune in trash collection.  (p. 68).  There were lots of people with money -now you needed “class” (beyond money)  to stand out.  So many of these newly rich studied up on that!

Some decided to learn English and the whole school boom was on. The English part was a huge break with the past.  Another “character” is introduced to the reader – Li Yang is China’s most popular English teacher who teaches by shouting and calls his company Li Yang Crazy English.  It makes a lot of money and the students seem to enjoy it but is it effective?  – hmmmm…  His wife is pretty down to earth, though.   There’s a distinct “Chinese” feel to his sessions – big posters of himself around and slogans.

One of Li’s teachers is named Zhang Zhiming (called Michael) and apparently not terribly happy in his job although he says and does all the right things.  His brother has gone to the US to make a lot of money but it’s not working out as planned – nevertheless, they believe.

Chapter 6  – so after the “got rich first” crowd has got their’s how do the others catch up?  It’s choppy waters – many errors like small time medicine makers distributing tainted products.   Some try short-cuts like gambling in Macao.  And we meet Siu Yun Ping, a barber turned professional gambler, and his friend Wong a restaurant owner,  who invested in other gamblers.  Siu hit a really hot streak so Wong won, too,  but Macao had turned into a hotbed of international crime, money laundering and weapon purchasing. The FBI knew and conducted an ingenious little sting.

Gambling is historically a part of Chinese social scene but Macao is way over and beyond anything any Emperor dreamt of.  Even Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, American millionaires in casinos, are involved operating at a level of luxury unseen almost anywhere. And much of this is because the Chinese have a different attitude toward risk – it’s really fate with a lot of superstition involved – from Lin Yifu to Siu Yun  Ping –

“What do you want to be, and what will you pay to be it?” (p. 84 – with italics)

But there’s really big money and  corruption involved – very dangerous – “junkets”* and gangs and organized crime or “triads”  are involved.  (Wo Hop To was involved in San Francisco, too – it’s an old group.)

* From The Economist: “Junkets are middlemen who lend high-rollers money, arrange accommodation and are paid around 40% of the casinos’ take in return. (In Las Vegas casinos carry out background checks on gamblers and lend to them directly.)”

So Siu Yun Ping and Wong were in big trouble because the gangs suspected him of cheating at baccarat. The plot to kill Wong was foiled and the conspirators put in jail but the scandal reverberated up to the FBI and the offices of Adelson.  (See Osnos’ article in the New Yorker for more info.)  Many government officials skimmed their budgets and lost it in Macao – yet the Chinese government decided to leave Macau alone and let local band national governments handle their own problems with corruption – Macau brought foreign investment and “development.”   And Osnos finishes up with Siu  Yun Ping.

Chapter 7
Some of these “Got Rich First” folks wanted “class” – so they bought the new art which was liberated from Mao’s dictates and from artists who wanted in on making money. Ai Weiwei may be the most internationally famous of the new artists – he’s also very political, probably criminal –  (See also Wiki on Ai Weiwei.)images

The newly rich Chinese seeking “class” also travels to Europe which was off limits not too long ago due to Confucius, Buddhism, Mao and poverty,  but is now a major attraction –  It was fun reading about the Chinese point of view visiting Europe – a visit to Marx’s home in Trier Germany is a perennial favorite: – lol –


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

2 Responses to Age of Ambition – Notes Part 1- Fortune

  1. Gabriel Njonjo says:

    I am yet to choose a book, writer or topic for my MA. Thesis.This book has caught my eye


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