china focus

This piece is published in partnership with China Focus, a student run blog sponsored by the 21st Century China Program at UC San Diego.

You asked; New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos answered.

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Without further ado…

  1. What are your thoughts on the revision of China’s Environmental Protection Law and new political will (or rhetoric?) about “green development?” Where do environmental issues sit on the government’s priority list, e.g. security, GDP, environment? Is the environment now as high a priority as GDP? 

Environmental issues have moved up in the list of priorities, that’s clear, and the question, of course, is why? The more I’ve talked about this with people in China, the more I’ve gotten the sense that it’s driven above all by the risk to domestic security. Chinese officials these days say that the three largest sources of domestic protests are environmental problems, corruption, and the income gap. Efforts to clean up the environment will be long and halting, but I think we’re getting past the point when it was implicitly okay to pollute as much as necessary to maintain growth. 

  1. Are Chinese ideals based on culture from the past? Or are they creating new culture from the present? 

Good question. This has been a recurring issue facing Chinese intellectuals over the last century. In Age of Ambition, I described the effort to define and develop a “guoxue” (“national studies”) that would insulate China from the foreign pressures of the present. What’s considered a virtue? What version of history do students read? Which types of arts are important? The issue remains an open question: In Beijing at the moment, one of the current slogans says, in effect, “combine Chinese ancient thought and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” So, China is actively seeking to define what old culture it will retain and what new culture it will create. I have no doubt that ancient Chinese culture will be an essential part of its future.

Additional questions from Marika Heller, editor-in-chief of UCSD’s China Focus, who interviewed Mr. Osnos:

Q. In Age of Ambition, you present a pattern where you interview individuals in China who slammed up against the institution of the party. How did 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?

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 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 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.

One of the characters 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.

Q. 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?

That’s a fact of life as a writer in China. 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—someone like Ai Weiwei for instance—who are very cosmopolitan. 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 naïve about Ai Weiwei. And so, in a way, it feels completely appropriate to tell his story in all of its dramatic and risky detail. He certainly wants that to be the case. There is nothing to which 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.

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.

Q. It seems like recently there has been a spate 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 is the final realization of that?

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 leave, but I think some of that is generational. The people who were leaving were the people who were friends with reporters, so then it kind of got reported. There is data that looks at China’s middle class and the number of people who aspire to going overseas and want to be overseas. That’s a slightly more empirically grounded phenomenon. Nobody has—and nobody should—measure the number of expats who are packing up and going home.

I think what we’re getting at is this: 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, you don’t feel confident in the institutions to be reliable. I 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.

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.