Evan Osnos is a reporter for The New Yorker and author of The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. He recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell about the new generation in China, the Chinese Dream, Xi Jinping and reform.
The story of Modern China is immense and exasperating. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty over the course of three decades. Bustling mega-cities. High-speed rail networks. New possibilities, new social realities. Who is this new generation?
The physical changes are what we see most easily in China. They are cast and real. Even when we see ghost cities that reflect overbuilding and poor use of resources, the broader fact is that the country is steadily transforming itself. But, after living in China for a long time, I concluded that the physical changes in China can distract us from a deeper, more consequential transformation that is harder to see on a quick trip, or a few months on the ground. Those are the perceptual changes, the altered sense of sense, the new expectations that people have for themselves and for their country. If you’re a young person growing up in China today, you have known it to be anything but relatively prosperous and peaceful; that is a blessing, of course, but it is also a brittle sense of reality. In Age of Ambition, I describe members of a generation who are proud of Chinese gains, acutely sensitive to criticism from abroad, ambitious for themselves and their families, critical of their government when it does not fulfill their expectations, and unwilling to be sacrificed in the name of an unexamined collective goal.
President Obama just finished up his four-nation tour of Asia. His trip raised eyebrows in Beijing, and was interpreted in a way that portrays the so-called pivot to Asia as a covert effort to counter, if not diminish, China’s wealth and power. Obama has made it very clear that this is not his intention. China has also sent a clear message to both its Asian neighbors and Washington that it wishes to promote a good neighbor policy and has no intention of upsetting the status quo. Yet uncertainty remains regarding China’s aims and intentions. The message is muddled on both sides. Why?
Part of the problem is about style and part of the problem is about substance. On the style side, the simple fact is that the Chinese and American governments have very different ways of describing their intentions in the world. I often think that China’s diplomatic language – which can emphasize “hurt feelings” and “core interests” – is not up to the job of explaining China’s increasingly sophisticated interests and demands. If one measure of the effectiveness of language is whether the listeners understand, then it is not achieving its intended result. On the other side, the U.S. has not succeeded in reassuring Chinese leaders that America’s ultimate aim is not to prevent China’s rise. Some of this is, let’s face it, substantive: The U.S. is not exactly sure what it wants to do with China’s rise. I don’t see American policymakers scheming to prevent China from becoming a more prosperous and confident place; on the contrary, they believe the alternative would be more threatening to the global order and stability. And, yet, I don’t sense a clear, persuasive American answer to the question, for instance, of what happens when China wants the U.S. to stop conducting surveillance flights along its shores? Or what happens if Chinese and American ships collide in the East China Sea or elsewhere? Many of these issues will be litigated in real time, I’m afraid.
We often hear about the Chinese dream. What is it? An ideal? Or is it an attainable reality?
The Chinese Dream will either end up being a masterstroke in political marketing or an excuse to expand the challenges to the Communist Party. When the new generation of leaders arrived in 2012, the Party recognized, rightly, that it needed a new, more accessible, more appealing way to talk about itself. The old esoteric political Latin – about “scientific outlook on development” and so on – did nothing to bring the Party closer to people or explain what it hoped to achieve. The Party introduced the idea that the government’s animating purpose would now be the pursuit of the Chinese Dream, by which it means the “great renewal” of the Chinese nation. But that is a narrow vision that does not necessarily allow people to adapt it to their own lives. For the moment, the Chinese Dream remains a tantalizing piece of language – a sense of possibility and promise – but allowing people to realize their aspirations will require structural changes that run deeper than language.
Xi Jinping projects confidence, but he and his party face the most pressing challenges: Corruption and state cronyism. A dire environmental crisis. A slowing economy. Trying to maintain domestic harmony. Can Xi bring about the change China needs?
Nobody – including Xi – knows the answer. I put a few things in the “promising” column: He has personal clout, political savvy, and a sense of crisis. He knows that if he fails to address corruption and rebalance the economy then his political future, and that of the Party, are in doubt. And that is his highest priority. I also put a few things in the “not promising” category: More than most leaders, Xi is a creature of the system that created him, because of his family background. He has an interest in maintaining the political status quo as much as possible, and this leads him to clamp down on political diversity and activism more harshly than his predecessor. That can seem like a rational strategy – why open up if it will lead to unrest? – but by closing down even existing channels for criticism and debate, he has raised the pressure for reform with no relief in sight. That is a tactical fix but a strategic risk.
As for you Evan, what’s next?
China is in my DNA, and I see no end in sight to my focus on it. After eight years of living in Beijing, I wanted to get some distance, to see it from a distance vantage point, and educate myself about another powerful country: my own. I’ve been living in Washington D.C. for a little less than a year, writing for The New Yorker about whatever seems interesting: a chemical spill in West Virginia, political figures. At some point, I will write about the experience of moving from the Chinese capital to the American capital, but that is a project still in gestation.