The Contest for China's Soul

Will ambition or authoritarianism rule the day in modern China? 

Within the U.S. foreign-policy community, the debate concerning China’s trajectory can be lively and enlightening. But as with any policy issue, the debate can grow stale as a result of too much or too little information or a dearth of interesting new analysis. Luckily the field is diffuse and open to anyone with new and interesting ideas. And a fresh pair of eyes can help enrich the discussion about where China is headed.

With his new book, The Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos, a New Yorker writer, has jumped in with aplomb. The author spent eight years reporting from China, and has put his keen insight and intrepid research skills to use in his exploration of the internal intellectual and spiritual infrastructure of China’s rise. He has provided a set of answers to a crucial question: how have various subcultures in China responded to the country’s explosion in wealth, power and prestige?

His thesis is simple and profound: China is a very ambitious country that has unleashed the individual ambitions of its enterprising people. But the country’s ambitions are undermined by the country’s authoritarian politics. The big question Osnos poses is whether ambition or authoritarianism will win in China.

In searching for his answer, Osnos wades into some of the most important ongoing China debates in the analytical and policy-making communities. Here are a few:

Leadership Succession, Xi Jinping and Chinese Reform

According to Osnos, the idea that the Chinese Communist Party leadership is an efficient meritocracy is fantasy. Seasoned Chinese-leadership watchers were able to predict the new leadership lineup by watching backroom deals among Party elders, powerful factions, and important families—the so-called “red aristocracy.” Those who came out on top did not do so based on merit. Nepotism, corruption and horse-trading, not leadership skills, played decisive roles in deciding who would rule China.

The new leaders are not the reformers some in the West imagine either. For example, top Communist Party official and president of the Central Party School, Liu Yunshan is a “seasoned propagandist” and Zhang Dejiang, the third-highest-ranking official of the Standing Committee of the Politburo “received his economics training in North Korea.” Indeed, so entrenched is the red aristocracy that President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan instructed his colleagues to read The Old Regime and the French Revolution, which soon became a bestseller in China. It struck a resonant chord among Chinese, with its tale of “a frustrated merchant class” and a middle class whom the regime thought it could always count on—until they helped behead the king. Wang sees parallels he is trying to head off through his anticorruption drive.

While the anticorruption drive may be about restoring the CCP’s prestige, however, it is also about Xi neutralizing political opponents and centralizing his power. The campaign does not seem to target political or economic reform as its endgame. To the contrary, Osnos notes that in an important speech to Party members, Xi castigates the fallen Soviets for not being “man enough” to stand up for the Soviet Communist Party’s ideals. Xi does not intend to make that mistake. At the same time he roots out corruption, he is pushing back hard against “ideological threats” to the party. A leaked directive, Document No. 9, called for stamping out such things as Western constitutional democracy, and the notion of “universal values”, such as human rights. Xi, Osnos concludes, is shoring up the status quo, even if that means destroying part of the party in order to save it.

Nationalism, Religion and the Great Void of China

The conventional wisdom about China goes something like this: The CCP cut a grand bargain with the Chinese people after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is something of a “money for freedom” program: the people could get rich if they did not ask for basic freedoms (speech, voting, association). And if making money became more difficult, China would fall back on stoking the flames of an aggrieved nationalism. The CCP argued that it would right historical wrongs inflicted upon the nation by outsiders. The implication behind this thinking is that Chinese citizens could be sated with either guns or butter. But something else happened along the way—neither money, nor nationalism is satisfying the Chinese urge for the good life.

Osnos quotes Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author, on nationalism being akin to “cheap liquor…It get’s you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical….but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.” There is a spiritual and moral void in China. People do not trust the institutions around them: the Party is corrupt and hypocritical, business is corrupt and political patronage is rampant, and the media is censored or bought off.