Life in China: Embrace the Mystery; Former New Yorker China Correspondent Evan Osnos Reflects on His Years There

Life in China: Embrace the Mystery

Former New Yorker China Correspondent Evan Osnos Reflects on His Years There

TE-PING CHEN

May 8, 2014 1:57 a.m. ET

Former China correspondent Evan Osnos is sure of one thing: The degree of confidence a person has about forecasting the future of the Middle Kingdom usually varies in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent there.

As Mr. Osnos lived in China for nearly a decade, don’t expect any heady theses in his new book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.” What the author does have is a rich store of narratives to draw on, with characters spanning singles in search of soul mates, hungry students who approach English learning with a religious fervor and entrepreneurs—and dissidents—who throw caution to the wind.

The Journal spoke with Mr. Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker, by phone from his home in Washington, D.C., about the impact of social media, President Xi Jinping‘s anticorruption effort, and the unpredictability of daily life in China. Edited excerpts:

How would you compare the mood in China when you first arrived in 2005 to that when you left last year?

When I got there, it was this buoyant moment when it really did feel like anything was possible. I spent a lot of time going around and would meet all these off-the-wall entrepreneurs. You could still go and meet civil-society activists who were staking out new terrain. They were beginning to feel new power in their limbs, there were all these efforts at judicial reform.

Eight years later, the mood was much more muted. The sense of possibility had been tempered by a sense of realism. For me, this sense of aspiration is in conflict with the forces of authoritarianism. If I’d written this book in 2005, it would have just been about the forces of aspiration, but writing it today, it’s about these two forces.

Your colleague Peter Hessler once wrote about how difficult it was to get people in China to tell their stories. What was your experience?

I found it was a divide in terms of age. For example, [the father of one character in the book] was a coal miner for 30 years. Being in a Chinese coal mine for 30 years is like an epic novel. It’s tragic. I asked, What was it like? Basically, what he said was, “I worked in a coal mine for 30 years. It was very difficult. I wasn’t paid very much.”

In contrast, his son can go down the street to buy a tomato and come back with a story of soaring inspiration and tragic disaster.

In China, now there’s a sort of arms race of personal narratives, where everybody else is out there reading everyone else’s Weibo, tweets and blogs. It’s one of the reasons I probably talked so much with young people—they were much more equipped to talk about themselves.

How did you see civil society change with the growth of social media in China?

The relevant change is not technological—it operates on the level of psychology. With censorship, people have become accustomed to being skeptical. I see that as a muscle. And you begin to flex that muscle and it grows and you become a little bit proud of your ability to be skeptical. It becomes chic and it’s very hard to give that up. Take the PM2.5 [air-pollution] issue as an example. It’s become a sign of middle-class sophistication to be aware of your own health and risks to your health. And if you don’t know how to check [PM2.5] on your phone, it shows you’re as behind the times as if you were wearing the wrong fashion.

What do you think is most misunderstood about China?

I’ve been amazed at how fast and herd-like opinions in the United States are. A couple years ago, I was talking at a conference. I warned I thought corruption was going to be a bigger issue—and was greeted with a vaguely hostile skepticism at the thought that this great economic juggernaut was not going to continue going from strength to strength. Then the mood in the U.S. caught up to Beijing, and people realized there are some significant problems: income inequality, pollution and so on. Now everybody is already on the other side and declaring the story over.

What struck you the most coming back to the U.S. after so long in China?

I’m totally mystified. There are elements of American political culture that strike me as off the wall. I have also been struck since coming back by the degree to which public service in America is now a guarantee—if you want it—of enormous wealth after you leave office. It’s a distortion of the way our political system is supposed to work and it exerts a destructive force on the way people reach decisions about what constitutes the public good. [But compared with China], there is a difference between getting rich while in office and getting rich while out of office.

The other difference is scale. After I moved back, the former governor of Virginia was indicted for taking bribes. I looked at details of bribes he [was accused of taking]. They said he received a Rolex. I looked it and I thought, one? A village official in China wouldn’t even get out of bed for one.

What do you make of President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign?

He’s obviously going about it with great public purpose. What he has done very effectively is gone after demonstrations of corruption and official extravagance—the French luxury brands are in a deep state of mourning. What he hasn’t done fundamentally is change the roots of the corruption, which are accountability and transparency.

I think he does hope and believe by going after big figures, he’ll have a chilling effect. But I think what you’ll discover is that strategy has temporary effects. People are expert at riding out crackdowns and riding out rectification campaigns.

What do you miss about China?

There’s a deep underlying unpredictability to life that is thrilling. In China, my wife would say you go out to buy toilet paper and you come back and something interesting or revealing or funny happened on the way. I can tell you, going out to buy toilet paper in the U.S. is a completely predictable experience.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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