Saturday, March 28, 2015

Evan Osnos: Age of Ambition

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Although this book isn't by Peter Hessler, I highly recommend reading his new article in the New Yorker: "Travels with My Censor." I read it last weekend on the plane home from Portland right after I finished Age of Ambition. Hessler, the author of Country Driving, gives a wonderful, brief (for the New Yorker) and nuanced account of his recent time in China and how the changing and conflicted information landscape in China looks to Westerners both from afar and to those who actually experience it close up. He notes (as does Osnos) that the current state of affairs in China vis a vis information and how it is received, processed, understood, censored, etc. should not be painted with a broad brush as it is constantly changing and being changed. He also does not come to the same conclusion as Osnos does as to how Western authors should react to the Chinese government's attempts at censorship: Hessler was in China on a book tour and describes in detail how his contract with his Chinese publisher worked. Osnos, on the other hand, did not agree to publish his book in Chinese, and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about this. From the Hessler article:
Evan Osnos, my colleague at The New Yorker, wrote an Op-Ed in the Times last year about his decision not to sign a Chinese contract for his book “Age of Ambition.” He warned against writers justifying censorship by the percentage of a book that is left alone, explaining, “It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins—a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact—but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world.” Most articles in the Western press have been critical of the practice; the Times described foreign authors engaging “in an Orwellian embrace with a censorship apparatus.” But the same quality that makes Chinese censorship so obvious—the fact that there’s an extensive apparatus whose work is crude—might actually make it less insidious than foreigners imagine. Even George Orwell would probably agree with this. In the original preface to “Animal Farm,” he warned against the complacency of assuming that censorship is the primary threat to freedom of information. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he wrote. His book had been rejected by four publishers. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”
Censorship in China, Hessler goes on, is "easy to document" in China. It's not so easy in the US where all kinds of pressures can make or break the publication of just about anything. Anyway, the reason I go into all of this about Hessler (besides the fact that I find it absolutely fascinating to think about what else must go on between two China specialists at the New Yorker) is that, if you're not going to read Osnos' book (which I suggest you do if you're interested in China), this piece gives you an interesting glimpse into some of the very same issues that Osnos discusses, even if they come to opposite conclusions about where to publish their books. The thing that ties the second section of Osnos' book (Truth) together is this unnamed benign looking building in Beijing that technically doesn't exist. It has "no address, no sign, and it appear[s] on no public charts of the Party structure." It is the Central Publicity Department in English and in Chinese, much more honestly, it is the Central Propaganda Department- the place that takes care of deciding and enforcing what Chinese can and can't, do and don't know. (Or at least they try.) Osnos describes the text messages he gets on his phone about messaging to include (or not include) in the media, and how this affects what gets published. Words that can and cannot be typed into the internet and will be excluded from searches are decided here. Osnos gives the example of how after an earthquake, newspapers all over the vast country published the exact same headline thanks to the Propaganda Department sending them the same messaging.

Osnos has divided his book into three sections: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith. He uses individual Chinese people to demonstrate how the new China looks as money, information and religion/philosophy/belief (it's not really religion) plays out. Just as Hessler's article says, it's not a clear uniform picture, and Osnos really wants us to understand that .There's no way for Osnos to depict that in a short book, but it's hard because, by using individuals, Osnos is forced to streamline the conversation somewhat. In a country of so many people, it's also hard to know if the 10 or 12 people that the readers get to know are outliers or good examples or something else entirely. It's also a great book, and if you don't overthink it, helps to remind us that China is not just Cold War communist gone free market, or just that place that we look can't help looking at through a stale Cold War lens, or an exotic place we might never understand. It's a real place with real people, going through a very real and very big transition. Recommended, for sure.


thb said...

Hessler has written a great China travel book: Country Driving; listened to this one while on our own country drive in Utah and Colorado. Very good on China!