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In the still-nascent 21st century, China has exercised the Western mind like no other country. The Middle Kingdom remains at once familiar and inscrutable. The fruits of the Chinese economic miracle—hyper-modern cities, American-style expressways and high-speed rail—elicit admiration, even envy. But alongside exists a political culture with deep-rooted Confucian notions of filial piety and deference towards the state, which shares little in common with the West and continues to confound its observers.

In 2005, Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, moved to Beijing. Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In New China—a product of the eight years he spent as a foreign correspondent in China—is a book vast in sweep and scale, narrating the extraordinary dynamism and energy of the country through the lives and struggles of its myriad protagonists.

Describing the mood in China when he arrived, Osnos writes of a time of ominous and far-reaching social transformations. “The greatest fever of all was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life."

In its early pages, especially in the first section titled “Fortune", the rhythm of the book is uneven; long passages of exposition find their way into the narrative as Osnos attempts to provide a context for his reporting. But much of it reads like pop sociology. “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty," Osnos writes in the second chapter. At another juncture, he writes: “In the age of ambition, life sped up." Dozens of such facile observations appear throughout the book, cluttering the narrative and diminishing the story Osnos is attempting to tell.

Age Of Ambition —Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith In The New China: Bodley Head, 403 pages, Rs699
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Age Of Ambition —Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith In The New China: Bodley Head, 403 pages, Rs699

The stories of the Chinese dissidents, like nearly all the others in the book, play out in an episodic, piecemeal fashion, over hundreds of pages. Characters disappear from the story, only to emerge 50 or 100 pages later. This does not seem an entirely successful approach, especially given the often-mechanical nature of Osnos’ prose. He is compelled to repeatedly reintroduce his characters, judging rightly that the reader has largely forgotten about them. Not infrequently, Age Of Ambition reads like an overlong—and not particularly entertaining—New Yorker piece.

In Osnos’ case, the transition from long-form journalism to book writing seems to have involved barely more than an expansion in length. Where a writer’s subjectivity is called for, one only finds a reporter’s meticulous, clerkish accumulation. Even when he possesses characters rich in narrative potential, such as Lin Yifu, a Taiwanese defector who rose to become the first non-Western chief economist of the World Bank—the very embodiment of the Chinese Dream—Osnos seems unable to sketch them with vigour or passion.

Osnos’ conversations with Lin Yifu, as with everyone else, are feats of oppressive boredom, meandering in a haze of quasi-profundity, more ponderous than illuminating. At least one interviewee shares that sentiment. When Osnos meets Guangcheng during the latter’s exile in New York, Guangcheng attends to his computer even as they speak. “When he found my questions vague or uninspiring, I sensed his impatience, and I found myself stumbling in Chinese" (Osnos reaches for Guangcheng’s rural antecedents to describe him as “stubborn", but does not consider the possibility that Guangcheng may simply have been bored).

Only very occasionally does Osnos emerge from his torpor, such as when he joins a group of Chinese tourists on a whirlwind tour of Europe. The Chinese mode of pleasure closely mirrors its work ethic, as Osnos describes the rigours of a militaristic travel schedule defined by unwavering punctuality: a China away from home. In its world of Chinese restaurants, Mandarin-speaking guides and exclusively Chinese fellow travellers, the tour allows a glimpse into the cautious baptism—always on Chinese terms—of the nation’s new globalized citizenry. Describing their stopover at yet another Chinese restaurant (this one located in the basement), Osnos muses, “It was a hive of activity invisible from the street—a parallel Paris."

If Osnos’ reportage is a steady and grinding affair, his regular attempts at political and cultural analysis are made up of neat, Manichaean opposition. Early on, he states that the book is “an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism". It is a claim so general as to be altogether banal, and unsurprisingly, is neither tested nor proven.

Age Of Ambition also suffers from a rather more fundamental flaw. Even as he seeks to illustrate its contours and many implications, Osnos never convincingly answers the question: What, in his view, is the Age of Ambition? What are its broad currents and peculiarities? What, roughly, is its timeline?

In a short introduction to the main narrative, Osnos briefly compares China’s present moment to America’s Gilded Age. But this, like most of his other overarching claims, is barely established, glazed over a page or two. Consequently, this comparison feels both too slick and inadequate, one that fails to take into account how China’s history of colonial degradation remains central to its encounter with the modern world (the “Century of Humiliation", an era of unequal treaties and invasions, defined by the Chinese as the period roughly between 1850 and 1950, still resonates deeply in the national psyche).

How, then, does one assess Age Of Ambition among the glut of China books in the last decade? To my mind, it has neither the immersive focus of Philip Pan’s exceptional Out Of Mao’s Shadow, nor the intellectual gravitas of Wealth And Power, Orville Schell and John Delury’s masterly treatise on the themes and odysseys that have culminated in China’s modern-day renaissance. Instead, Osnos’ book is a curious, unsatisfying mélange: part reportage, part sociology, without doing justice to either form.

Perhaps the most apposite critique of Age Of Ambition can be borrowed from one of Osnos’ contemporaries. In When China Rules The World, a meditation on the singular origins and implications of China’s rise, Martin Jacques lamented the inability of Western observers to understand China in the context of its own history and culture. “Having been hegemonic for so long, the West has, for the most part, become imprisoned within its own assumptions, unable to see the world other than in terms of itself. Progress is invariably defined in terms of Westernization, with the consequence that the West must always occupy the summit of human development since it is the most Western, while the progress of others is measured by the extent of their Westernisation."

Age Of Ambition, unfortunately, suffers from many of the same problems. Despite its formidable volume of detail and characters, Osnos struggles for the most part to illustrate, in any insightful or meaningful way, the complex web of internal dynamicsa potent mix of historical angst, mercantile drive and renewed self-confidencethat are fuelling China’s ascent towards the summit of global power. It is a prospect that, in a new Asian century, is increasingly key to the future of the West itself.

Vaibhav Sharma is a writer based in New Delhi.

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