Evan Osnos is an American journalist and staff writer to The New Yorker who is best known for his work as The New Yorker’s China Correspondent from 2008 to 2013. His China coverage has been lauded by China hands and neophytes alike as some of the most comprehensive yet artful reporting on China of our time. His recently published book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in New China (2014) won him the National Book Award for non-fiction last November. The book tells the story of China’s current internal struggle, as individual ambitions surge while the Communist Party grapples for control. It chronicles the lives of contemporary real characters who are at once utterly dissimilar, yet all mavericks in their pursuit of singular aspirations. The New York Times said of The Age of Ambition, “A riveting and troubling portrait of a people in a state of extreme anxiety about their identity, values and future.”
Mr. Osnos began his journalism career at the Chicago Tribune in 1999, where he started out as a metro reporter and then became a national and foreign correspondent, covering the September 11th attacks from New York, and then the Iraq War from the Middle East starting in 2002. In 2005 he became the Chicago Tribune’s China Correspondent, and was a member of the Chicago Tribune team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2008. He has also won two awards from the Overseas Press Club as well as the Osborn Elliot Prize for Excellence in Journalism from the Asia Society. He has, moreover, been featured on many shows including The Colbert Report, NPR’s This American Life, and the PBS show Frontline.
I had the great privilege to interview Mr. Osnos when he came to UCSD to give a lecture on his latest book. Admittedly nervous to interview one of my idols of the page, he was incredibly generous in personality and in thought. Our conversation ran the gamut from the craft of writing, to politics, to waxing poetic about boiled dumplings. In the end, his down-to-earth nature was undermined by his brilliance as he nonchalantly shed light on China’s complex inner workings.
Marika: In Age of Ambition, you present a pattern where you pick individuals in China who often slammed against the institution of the party. What is the process of how you set-up your pieces and how do you choose your themes? Did you know the individuals you wanted to select beforehand, do research on them, and then choose a theme? Or was it more organic?
Evan Osnos: In some cases I would set out to get them and make them a part of my life, a part of my work, because I was interested in what they were doing, and I could sort of see it from very far away, because they were a public person. In the case of public figures, you have to seek them out if you want to get their stories. And typically it would be because I saw something in their story that struck me as evocative of broader themes, things that were going on in China that were on the one hand both larger than them, but also specific and idiosyncratic enough that their individual story would come through. But then other times stories find me, or find any writer, in the sense that one of the characters that is in this book who ended up becoming really hugely educational for me, was a young guy named Zhang Zhiming, who is known as Michael in the book. He was a very small figure in a piece that I wrote in the New Yorker about somebody else. But in some ways his story and his way of talking about himself and his way of being able to articulate quite masterfully the moment that he was in, made him just incredibly dynamic as a person just to be able to talk about what it felt like to be in China. So it was often, you’re trying to strike the balance between finding a person whose story is different enough that they stand out as a human being, the worst thing you want to do is describe someone as a type, but at the same time they have to tell you something broader. They can’t be such an outlier that in the end you don’t see anything beyond them.
In some ways [the people in the book] find very little in common with each other. You know, my wife and I sometimes joke what would it be like if we had a dinner party with all of the principal characters of this book in one place. It would be sort of be fascinating because they have very little in common with each other in a superficial sense, and yet my own view is that underlying their own experiences is this kind of groundwater of shared ideas, or certainly shared kind of energy.
Marika: When you were approaching individuals for the book, did you ever have any challenges with anyone? Were there some people that said, “Yes! Absolutely!” And other ones that decided “I’m not sure I want to participate in this”, because they would think it would be potentially harmful, or if not harmful, dangerous?
Evan: Sure, I mean that’s a fact of life as a writer in China is that in some cases you have to anticipate even if they don’t object to being written about, sometimes you almost have to object on their behalf, in the sense that they might say things to you know are actually going to put them at risk, and so you don’t publish those things. It’s a complicated thing because you don’t want to rob them of their agency. There are people who, someone like Ai Weiwei for instance, who is a very cosmopolitan person. He has a pretty rich understanding of what it means when he’s talking to me for a book, or for an article in the New Yorker. There is nothing naive about Ai Weiwei. And so, in a way, it feels completely appropriate to tell his story in all of its dramatic and in some ways risky detail. He certainly wants that to be the case. There is nothing [where] he has ever said “Don’t publish this.” In fact, I think he considers the sort of aggressive candor of his life to be a virtue, and to be a part of his argument. But there are other people that you know don’t truly have any way of understanding how fast a piece of writing in the United States can be translated and brought back into their world in a very threatening way. So you have to judge if they are giving you informed consent because they may have just sort of, you know, [seen you as] this pushy foreigner, and they may have been like “Okay, yeah, let’s talk.” But then in those cases, you have to be looking out for them a little bit more.
There is nothing naive about Ai Weiwei. And so, in a way, it feels completely appropriate to tell his story in all of its dramatic and in some ways risky detail. He certainly wants that to be the case.
Marika: Right, so just kind of educate them a little bit. Just say “FYI, where I’m writing is actually fairly well known, and so it could grab attention.”
Evan: Right, so I always found it was much easier to be totally upfront and very emphatic, like “This story is going to be on the internet, instantly, so, think about that. Is that going to cause complications for you?” And then let them work through it. But I was conscious of that balance, where you’re trying to make sure they know as much as you do, or as much as you can help them understand in as fast a time as possible, but at the same time, not being patronizing and saying, “Well, you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m not going to interview you.” Because I think that would be a real mistake too.
Marika: Perry Link brought up the criticism that many authors such as Rob Gifford, Louisa Lim, and Richard McGregor, they tend to only write their big books on China after they’ve left China. And it seemed to be a conscious decision, maybe trying to avoid potential trouble with the authorities there. When you were deciding to write your book, did you know that you wanted to write it after you got back from China? Was it a conscious decision or was it just the natural timing?
Evan: It wasn’t a conscious choice to wait until I left China to publish a book. In fact, initially I was planning to be there when the book came out, and then I ended up pushing it back and pushing it back, partly because I basically had to do my day job, which was to write for a magazine. And I couldn’t really do both. And so I needed to take a year off. But to get to the heart of the question, which is “Do western writers hold their tongues in order to say things after they leave that they wouldn’t say while they were there?” I think it’s a puzzling critique in my case. The thing that I was actually more worried about was that a lot of the things in my book are things that I had written about in one form or another, in the magazine, or on the internet for the newyorker.com. So the idea that there was something I was holding back, didn’t really resonate with me. Also I think in a lot of cases, I can’t speak to all of their cases, but, I certainly didn’t write a book that this was washing my hands of China.
Marika: China Focus hosted a debate in October between Barry Naughton and Victor Shih, with teams of students that joined them. The topic was ‘Will the Chinese economy collapse within 5 years?’. We were just wondering if you had a particular side that you would go on for that argument?
Evan: I don’t have a view. That sounds like a total punt, like I’m shirking making a hard call, but it’s because it’s a complicated question. And I think that having a sort of glib answer is probably not a particularly intelligent way to answer it. I can see how knowing both of those guys, how they could intelligently argue either of those sides very effectively. I think from my own perspective, if we ask the question a slightly different way, which is “What’s the Chinese economy going to look like in five years?” I mean, there are things that we know that we can see pretty clearly. Obviously, it’s slowing down, obviously it’s evolving in some structural and fundamental ways, which people like Barry and Victor have written about eloquently. One thing that in my own work has proven to be a useful principle, is that over and over again we have underestimated the degree to which the [Chinese Communist] Party is consciously and willing to renounce parts of itself that we think are essential. Meaning like in 1976, if you said the Communist Party was going to walk away from socialist economics in the next five years, you would not have found a lot of people that endorse that view. When they see an urgent threat to their political survival, the Party is more adaptable than we often expect them to be. So that for me at least, enforces at least a humility on my sense of prediction, because I think often times, it’s a luxury I don’t have to predict. It’s not my job, but I think it’s a tough place to predict with confidence.
One thing that in my own work has proven to be a useful principle, is that over and over again we have underestimated the degree to which the [Chinese Communist] Party is consciously and willing to renounce parts of itself that we think are essential.
Marika: Especially with the Third Plenum reforms, I mean they technically started being implemented, but it’s still a little early to tell how robust [they will be].
Evan: It’s all about execution as Barry Naughton would say. I mean, I think this is what we’re all waiting to see. But if the question is, “Is the Chinese economy going to collapse within five years?”, you know there’s like five things we would want to define, one of which is collapse. They’re prone to a lot of the pressures that look familiar to us from far away. When we look at their housing market, their credit markets, but it’s not the same as what we’ve encountered in the United States. I think there is a tendency to assume that what we’ve experienced in the United States is applicable to what is happening there. They have immense problems, but they are their own problems. They are not American problems.
I think there is a tendency to assume that what we’ve experienced in the United States is applicable to what is happening [in China]. They have immense problems, but they are their own problems. They are not American problems.
Marika: Yeah, I think they defined collapse as 4% of China’s GDP growth, because that’s the threshold the Chinese government themselves set.Â If it goes below 4% than that means the unemployment rate is at a point that’s just not sustainable in terms of maintaining stability.
Evan: One of the interesting things also is, sometimes they will revise these numbers. You remember Zhu Rongji saying if the gini coefficient gets above a certain point, than political stability is called into question. China’s well above that point now, and it has huge political instability. So it has this strange coexistence of factors, which is enormous inequality, high level of domestic instability, and yet the party remains in power. If anything that makes us have to say, “well, our models are constantly proving inadequate” in a weird way.
Marika: Yeah, no it’s true, China has always confounded us so far, haha.
Evan: Yeah, I know it’s a lame conclusion to offer, but it is true that, I feel I have enough trouble trying to describe the present in a way that feels faithful to it. That trying to write about the future is a very inexpensive exercise, and therefore not particularly valuable. Predictions are cheap, you know? That’s my own sense, haha.
I feel I have enough trouble trying to describe the present in a way that feels faithful to it. That trying to write about the future is a very inexpensive exercise, and therefore not particularly valuable. Predictions are cheap, you know?
Marika: It seems like recently, and you’ve talked about this in the Sinica podcast, there has been a spat of expats leaving China, kind of an exodus if you will. But what do you think the reasons are behind this exodus? Do you agree with James Mann, for example, with his idea of the China Fantasy? That what we are seeing now as the final recognition of that?
Evan: Well, I’m not convinced actually that there are more expats leaving now than there were before. I mean, it’s possible. Anecdotally we saw a number of people, but I think some of that is generational, in the sense that people who were leaving, were the people who were friends with reporters, and so then it kind of got reported. I mean, there is data that looks a China’s middle class and the number of people who aspire going overseas and want to be overseas. That’s a slightly more empirically grounded phenomenon. Nobody has, and nobody should, haha, measure the number of expats who are packing up and going home. I think what we’re getting at is foreigners in China are actually subject to the same impulses and pressures that are driving the Chinese middle class to look overseas. Meaning the environment, food safety, a sense of uncertainty about rule of law, the idea that if you end up in a dispute, a legal dispute. that you don’t feel confident in the institutions to be reliable. And so, in a way, I kind of put it all under the same heading of this general sense of the absence of security. And it applies to foreigners and applies to Chinese. That’s my own sense, but I’m absolutely convinced that for every washed-up foreigner like me who goes home after 11 years abroad, I kind of just wanted to come home and just be American again for a while, but for every one of us, there is, I hope, someone new who is coming in and having the same kind of process of discovery and education, recalibrating the assumptions they had at the beginning that were wrong. And all that learning that goes on.
Marika: Yeah, I certainly saw that when I was there. I mean, I wasn’t there for that long, in total three years, but two and a half when I lived there and worked there, but it felt like foreigners were always kind of coming in and you got the older generation that would talk about the “good old days”, when it was only five years ago. You know, “Oh, back then it was the wild west, foreigners could do anything. Foreign monkey jobs were plentiful.” Haha, “Now we actually have to work for a living. Teach English all the time. It’s terrible.”
Evan: Haha, yeah, I was kind of conscious of after a certain period of time, you do start to get set in your conception of a place. And I don’t think that that’s an asset as a journalist. Or as a writer, you’re always trying to calibrate how much does your body of experience help you, and how much does it actually impede your ability to see new things. In some ways you are at your best and at your worst when you’re in a new place. You’re at your best because you see things that other people don’t see. But the risk of misinterpreting, or not understanding the context is profound. But at a certain point, I was like “For the moment, I plan on going back to China. But for the moment it is someone else’s turn.”
In some ways you are at your best and at your worst when you’re in a new place. You’re at your best because you see things that other people don’t see. But the risk of misinterpreting, or not understanding the context is profound.
Marika: And then when you come back it would have evolved again. Probably you can see it through another set of eyes.
Evan: Yeah, I think so. I sort of hope so.
Marika: I know as someone who has lived in China for a little bit, and has been back for a while, one of the things that I always think about are the foods that I miss. So, I was just wondering if there is any particular Chinese dish [that you miss]. Which I know is completely different from the other topics we were talking about, but
Evan: No, no, it’s a completely legitimate question.
Evan: And friends of mine will recognize my answer, which is that I have a, a shameful and unhealthy addiction to dumplings.
Marika: Haha, oh really?
Evan: Yeah, I eat them multiple times a day.
Marika: Like “jiaozi” [Chinese dumplings] ? Like, Beijing dumplings?
Evan: Yeah, like “jiaozi”, like “Shui jiaozi” [water dumplings].
Evan: Just, like regular, good old, nothing fancy like “xiao long bao” [a kind of steamed bun], just really like, hutong level, “shui jiao” [water dumplings].
Marika: Steamed usually?
Evan: No, boiled.
Evan: And in Washington, I haven’t really found anything approximating an adequate dumpling. And this is the greatest challenge I face since moving back to the United States, haha.
Marika: Haha. Well, hopefully, I know I’ve tried buying some Chinese cookbooks myself, but it’s all about the ingredients too..
Evan: Well, I mean this is embarrassing, but I was in China for 8 years, then 11 because I was in other countries, but I never learned how to cook a damn thing in China. Because there is such wonderful food available, and people who knew what they were doing. And I had a fabulous “aiyi” [auntie – but basically translates to “housekeeper”], who cooked, and she was great. And I once asked her, “Can you help me learn how to “bao jiaozi” [wrap dumplings], or something useful?” And she was like “mm!” [general Chinese sound for agreement]. So then we started, but it was just, like, impossible. Because I was completely incapable of learning in any useful way.
Marika: Haha, because I’m sure she just said, “Oh! And then you just do this!”
Evan: Yeah, and then you just make the filling.
Marika: Right, as you do.
Evan: Haha, and then you make the skins. As you do.
Evan: So, I made a hash out of that, so then I gave up. And I was just like, “Naw, it’s important to know one’s proper role. And I’m more of an eater.” Haha
Marika: Yeah, that’s true. I baked a pumpkin pie once.
Evan: There you go.
Marika: In a tiny toaster oven, which impressed my Chinese friends, but I only mastered “fangqie chaodan” [tomato and fried eggs].
Evan: Okay, that’s pretty good though actually. I actually can do that too. That’s one of my only dishes.
Marika: Exactly, it’s the “go to” in terms of, when anyone asks for something authentic from China, I just make “fangqie chaodan”.
Evan: You’re like “Yeah, well, there’s this one dish.” Haha
Marika: Right, “I’ll just do it for you.”
Marika: Though then they just say it’s an omelette basically. Which, I agree.
Evan: Right, right.
Marika: But, I’m still working on “yuxiang qiezi” [fish-flavored egg plant]. Maybe one day.
Evan: Yeah, that’s a harder one.
You can buy Mr.Osno’s new book Age of Ambition at Amazon here. Mr.Osnos now resides in Washington, DC where he continues to write for The New Yorker.
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