Striving for Wealth and Truth in China, in Face of Monolithic Government
May 28, 2014
Evan Osnos appears to be almost as entrepreneurial, intrepid and creative as the strivers whose linked portraits underpin his book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.” During eight years of remarkable reporting from China, much of it for The New Yorker, Mr. Osnos ferreted out interesting people to interview, from the billionaire “Queen of Trash” Cheung Yan to a poet sweeping the street outside Mr. Osnos’s home in Beijing. His network included the popular blogger Han Han, whose website has had more than a quarter of a billion visitors, and the dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Others were unknowns, like Michael, who hopes to make his fortune by writing English textbooks; his dreams and self-doubt capture China’s historical moment.
“Age of Ambition” is, Mr. Osnos writes, “an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.” It is also a riveting and troubling portrait of a people in a state of extreme anxiety about their identity, values and future. Mr. Osnos paints a China rived by moral crisis and explosive frustration, whose citizens are desperate to achieve wealth, even as they are terrified of being left with nothing. The Communist Party leadership, Mr. Osnos writes, is so morally and intellectually bankrupt that only the uneasy bargain to provide “prosperity in exchange for loyalty” allows it to retain a semblance of legitimacy. Even so, “the gap between the society’s meritocratic myth and its oligarchic reality was becoming clear and measurable.”
This book focuses on the quest for wealth (“fortune”), the suppression of dissent (“truth”) and spiritual seeking in the face of moral crisis (“faith”). To illuminate these themes, Mr. Osnos is up for almost anything. He joins a Chinese tour group and experiences Europe through the eyes of his companions, noting their “fierce curiosity about the world and a defensive pride in China’s new place in it.” He travels to the gambling mecca of Macau to document money laundering and the spoils of government corruption.
His eclectic portraits are drawn from across the political spectrum: He befriends a nationalistic, neoconservative videographer who turns out to be a philosophy student in Shanghai. He travels to Shandong to try to interview the cantankerous blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a defender of women resisting the one-child policy, whom he finally meets after Mr. Chen escapes house arrest and finds his way to New York. He hangs out with the fabulously wealthy Gong Haiyan, who made her fortune with a dating website. (Mr. Osnos has fun deciding whether he would choose to describe himself as a “penny-pinching family man” or “a cool guy.”)
Some of these characters appear several times, giving the book a cumulative impact that helps persuade the reader that China has lost its way. The remarkable story of Lin Yifu, the Taiwanese defector who swam across the strait to become the World Bank’s chief economist and later a cheerleader for China’s economic prosperity, provides a strong narrative thread. So, too, does the story of the persecuted artist Ai Weiwei, who tried to push the limits of the possible by turning his own life into artwork and was then beaten, jailed and accused of tax evasion when authorities sought to muzzle him.
People seem willing to grasp at almost anything for a chance to succeed. Li Yang, the inventor of a shouted language-learning technique called Crazy English has rock-star status, so central has English become to “the promise of self-transformation.” Consumption and corruption go hand in hand: The majority of email spam advertises the sale of counterfeit expense receipts, while Communist Party malfeasance is typified by the Shanxi official with four wives and 10 children and by the statistic that, since 1990, 18,000 corrupt officials have fled the country, with $120 billion.
Mr. Osnos has a keen grasp of how the Internet has transformed China’s political landscape, circumventing the government’s efforts to manage information about public incidents. He pursues the story of the Shenzhen toddler Little Yueyue, whose death — she was hit by a van and a truck and then ignored by passers-by — caused a national soul searching on the Chinese blogosphere. (An elderly, illiterate scrap-metal recycler finally stopped to help Yueyue, but too late.) He tells the story of the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed rail crash, news of which the government tried to censor and which eventually revealed astonishing levels of corruption, kickbacks and illegal subcontracting among railway officials, becoming an “iconic failure of government performance.”
The online world of bloggers and censorship evaders and their “parallel language system” offers more trustworthy versions of events; some evasions of banned words and concepts can be quite funny, as the Chinese language lends itself to puns and double entendres. The phrase “grass mud horse,” a homonym for doing something unspeakable to your mother, went viral in response to the censors’ 2009 efforts to rid the web of vulgarity. Netizens say that they have been “harmonized,” a reference to the official goal of building a “harmonious society,” when their postings are excised.
Text messages (buzzed to Mr. Osnos’s cellphone via the California-based China Digital Times) convey the Central Propaganda Department’s latest censorship directives for news organizations. “All websites are requested to remove immediately the article entitled ‘In China, 94% Unhappy with Wealth Disproportionately Concentrated at the Top,’ ” warns one text. And, during the Arab Spring: “Draw no comparisons between political systems in the Middle East and the system in our country.”
Many of the people who figure prominently in “Age of Ambition” are well known in the West but little known in China. In a moment of introspection, Mr. Osnos writes that he struggled with how much to write about these dissenters. “How much did their ordeals really tell us about China?” he asks. “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.” The vast efforts and expenditures that the government committed to try to keep these people unknown, Mr. Osnos concludes, are in themselves compelling evidence of their importance.
Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women” offers a very different, if equally chilling account of the pressures on Chinese strivers. She is particularly interested in young urban Chinese who seek to cement their arrival in the middle class through the purchase of an apartment. A sociology Ph.D. student at Tsinghua University, Ms. Fincher studied residential property transactions, which alerted her to structural economic discrimination against women in the post-socialist era.
Ms. Fincher argues that women are pressed to accept unsuitable marriages while in their mid-20s. The state, alarmed by gender imbalances and the potential for unattached men to create social unrest, has allied with insecure parents to describe them as “leftover” if they delay, she says. The women are systematically deprived of homeownership because of parental and spousal pressure to put real estate in the husband’s name, even if the woman, or her parents, has contributed significantly to the purchase.
A third of Chinese marriages now end in divorce; a recent Supreme Court decision awards property according to the name on the deed. Chinese women are thus in severely disadvantaged financial positions both during marriage, making them vulnerable to abuse, and after its dissolution. One hopes that “Leftover Women” will soon be translated into Chinese, as it is likely to resonate deeply with urban educated women. It seems the party has forgotten the Mao-era dictum: “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.”
AGE OF AMBITION:Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
By Evan Osnos
403 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.
LEFTOVER WOMEN:The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China
By Leta Hong Fincher
213 pages. Zed Books. $24.95.
歐逸文(Evan Osnos)的書《野心時代：在新中國追逐財富、真相和信念》(Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China)中描繪了一些有事業心、勇敢無畏、富於創意的奮鬥者，而他本人似乎也有同樣的品質。他在中國做了八年引人矚目的報道，其中主要是為《紐約客》 撰稿；他努力找出有趣的人物進行採訪，從億萬富翁、「垃圾女王」張茵,到清掃他在北京所住那條馬路的一位清潔工詩人。他的關係網中有大受歡迎的博主韓寒， 他的網站擁有超過2.5億的訪問者；也有異見人士和諾貝爾和平獎獲得者劉曉波。還有很多不出名的人，比如邁克爾(Michael)，他希望靠寫英語教材賺 錢，他的夢想和自我懷疑正好吻合中國當下的歷史時刻。
歐逸文寫道：「《野心時代》是在描述抱負和權威這兩種力量的衝 突。」此外，它也為一群為身份、價值與未來而極端焦慮的人群勾勒了引人入勝而令人憂慮的畫像。歐逸文筆下的中國被道德危機與激增的挫折感所撕裂，它的國民 極度渴望獲取財富，擔心到頭來一無所有。歐逸文寫道，共產黨的領導地位已經在道德上與智識上破產，其表面上的合法性只是建立在「繁榮換忠誠」這種不穩定的 交易之上。即便如此，「社會精英階層神話與寡頭政治現實之間的鴻溝日益顯形，愈發巨大。」
CHINATOPIX, via Associated Press
這本書關注對財產的追求（「財富」）、對異見的打壓（「真相」）， 以及面臨道德危機的精神追求（「信念」）。為了闡明這些主題，歐逸文幾乎竭盡所能。他參加了一個中國人的旅行團，通過同行者的眼光去體會歐洲，注意到他們 「對世界狂熱的好奇，同時對於中國在這個世界上的新地位充滿防禦心的驕傲」。他去賭徒的聖地——澳門，探訪洗錢業與政府官員的腐敗。
他選擇的人物有着廣泛的政治立場：他和一個民族主義者、奉行新保守 主義的電視節目製作人交朋友，後來此人去上海就讀，成了哲學系的學生。他曾試過到山東採訪脾氣暴躁的盲人律師陳光誠，他幫助女性反抗獨生子女政策，後來陳 從軟禁中脫身，來到紐約後，兩人終於相見。他和富有的龔海燕結識，她因創辦相親網站而發財（究竟該說自己是個「一毛不拔的顧家男人」還是「酷小伙」，為歐 逸文帶來很多樂趣）。
書中有些人物出現了若干次，令讀者產生一種漸漸增強的感覺：中國已 經迷失方向。其中關於林毅夫的故事格外引人注目，這位台灣逃兵游泳橫渡台灣海峽，當上了世界銀行的首席經濟學家，後來又為中國的經濟繁榮唱讚歌，他的故事 構成一個有力的敘事線索。受迫害的藝術家艾未未的故事也是如此，他試圖把自己的生活變成藝術，推動現實可能性的底線，後來當局試圖鉗制他的言論，他遭到毆 打、囚禁，還被控告逃稅。
人們似乎樂於捕捉任何成功的機會。李陽是「瘋狂英語」的創始人，主 張用大喊的方式來學習語言，有着搖滾明星般的地位，他認為英語非常重要，以至於成了「令人脫胎換骨的希望所在」。消費和腐敗密不可分：大多數垃圾郵件廣告 都是關於銷售假髮票的，與此同時，共產黨的不正當行為從一個山西官員身上可見一斑——他有四個老婆、十個孩子；此外，據統計，自1990年以來，有 18000名腐敗官員攜帶共計1200億美元的巨款潛逃。
歐逸文敏銳地捕捉到互聯網是如何改變了中國的政治面貌，抵制了政府 在公眾事件上操縱信息的努力。他追蹤報道了深圳兒童小悅悅的故事，她被一輛麵包車和一輛卡車碾過，但路人卻對此完全無視，她的死在中國的博客世界引發了一 場全國性的深思（最終一位大字不識、收破爛的長者停下來幫助小悅悅，但已經太遲了）。他講述了2011年溫州高鐵事故，政府試圖審查相關新聞，這件事最終 暴露出鐵路官員中程度驚人的腐敗、回扣與非法的工程轉包，成了「典型的政府績效失敗」。
博客寫作者和逃避審查者們的網絡世界，以及他們的「平行語言系統」 為事件帶來更可信的版本；有些使用中文雙關語來逃避禁用詞語的方式非常有趣。比如「草泥馬」這個詞的諧音是「對你的母親做不能說出口的事」，2009年， 它開始在網上廣泛傳播，作為對審查者試圖清除網絡低俗內容的回應。網民的帖子被刪了，就說自己被「和諧」了，這是指「創建和諧社會」的官方目標。
他通過短訊收到中宣部對新聞機構下達的最新禁令（由總部在加利福尼 亞的《中國數位時報》[China Digital Times]發送到歐逸文的手機上）。有一條是這樣的：「所有網絡必須馬上刪掉如下文章《中國94%的人對財富高度集中表示不滿》」。之後，在「阿拉伯之 春」事件中，有一條是：「禁止將中東政治體制與我國政治體制相對比」。
《野心時代》里的很多重要人物在西方都很有名，但在中國卻罕為人 知。在某個反思的時刻，歐逸文寫下自己曾經為應該讓那些異見人士佔多大篇幅感到猶豫。「他們的不幸命運到底告訴了我們多少關於中國的情況？」他問「有多少 是由於環境，有多少是由於壓迫？對於一個局外人來說，從遠處觀看是很難判斷的，但我發現從近處看也未必會更容易，因為這有賴於你的視角。」最後歐逸文得出 結論，政府付出大量努力和開支，試圖讓這些人不為世人所知，這本身就是一種有力的證據，證明這些人的重要性。
洪理達(Leta Hong Fincher)的《剩女》(Leftover Women)對中國的奮鬥者們所面臨的壓力提供了一份非常不同，但同樣令人驚心的描述。她對渴望通過買房來鞏固中產階級地位的年輕都市女性特別感興趣。洪 理達是清華大學社會學的博士生，專門研究住房產權交易，這令她注意到後社會主義時期對女性結構性的經濟歧視。
洪理達認為，女人在25歲左右感受到壓力，接受不適宜的婚姻。她認 為，性別失衡、單身男人可能造成社會不穩定的潛在可能性，乃至沒有安全感的父母的焦慮導致了這一局面，如果她們延遲結婚就會被稱為「剩女」。由於父母與配 偶的壓力，這些女人被系統地剝奪了房子的所有權，必須把不動產記在丈夫名下，就算她們或她們的父母在買房中有很大貢獻也是如此。
在中國，三分之一的婚姻以離婚告終；最近一項最高法院的決議決定按 房契上的名字判定房產歸屬。中國女人在婚姻中，經濟上處於嚴重的不利地位，令她們容易受到虐待，在婚姻解體時也是如此。人們期望《剩女》能很快被翻譯成中 文，因為它似乎在受過教育的都市女性中很有共鳴。共產黨似乎已經忘記了毛時代的語錄：「婦女能頂半邊天。」
403頁，法拉·斯特勞斯與吉魯科斯出版社(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)，27美元。
213頁，澤德出版社(Zed Books)，24.95美元。Judith Shapiro是《中國的環境危機》(China\'s Environmental Challenges)和《毛對自然的戰役》(Mao\'s War Against Nature)的作者。