While policy makers and others can only extrapolate from current conditions in China to imagine what Chinese society might look like in the future, reporters provide firsthand experience and close observation of China. The four books reviewed here present journalists’ reflections on China’s prospects: Aging of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos; China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford; Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson; and The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann.
Based on eight years of reporting from China, Aging of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China is, Evan Osnos writes, “an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.” It is also an intriguing and worrisome portrait of a people who are extremely anxious about their identity, values, and future. Osnos depicts a China undermined by moral crisis, troubled by frustration, and facing desperate materialism. The CCP leadership, Osnos writes, is so morally and intellectually bankrupt that only “prosperity in exchange for loyalty” allows it the appearance of legitimacy. Even so, “the gap between the society’s meritocratic myth and its oligarchic reality was becoming clear and measurable,” Osnos continues. This book tries to persuade the reader that China has lost its way, citing examples such as the eighteen thousand corrupt officials who have fled the country with $120 billion since 1990. The Internet has altered China’s political scene by circumventing the government’s efforts to regulate information about public incidents. The huge efforts and expenditures that the government has committed to “maintaining stability,” Osnos concludes, are in themselves compelling evidence of the anxiety.
Like Osnos in Aging of Ambition, Rob Gifford in China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power notes that “China’s prosperity today is just a patina of wealth, accessible mainly to the corrupt and the very fortunate at the top, which disguises a seething mass of urban social problems, such as unemployment, crime and outdated housing.” In the countryside, Gifford notes, 750 million peasants “have ended up back at the bottom of the pile.” Moreover, China’s government is afflicted with official corruption, Gifford emphasizes, and is ruled by one party, which, despite its experiments with administrative reforms, remains committed to a Leninist system. Furthermore, social changes cause deep psychological and social confusion, as Gifford puts it in China Road. Accordingly, Gifford sees China as “fragile and brittle,” likely to be put in danger by an economic downturn. Such a depression could alienate peasants and laid-off workers and precipitate a major crisis. However, if economic growth endures, Gifford predicts that the Chinese government could carry on “without too much political reform.” But between these two alternatives, Gifford proposes the third possibility: in the near future “the combination of rising rural discontent and a new generation of leaders … could mean, should mean, that some political reforms will be instituted.” Gifford concludes with a faintly optimistic note: China will transform, in a manner that will change the current one-party autocracy. Gifford’s speculations relate to James Mann’s view of China’s futures but in a very different direction.
As a reporter writing about US-China relations for the Los Angeles Times for over twenty years, James Mann, in The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, argues convincingly that US policy toward China has been essentially based on the assumption that China will inevitably evolve into a democracy, a vision the author labels as the “soothing scenario.” Mann notes another competing vision of China’s future, the “upheaval scenario.” That is, if China’s economic growth is interrupted, it will suffer “some sort of disaster, such as an economic collapse or political disintegration.” Mann dismisses these possibilities as distant and introduces a third vision that he believes is the most probable. In Mann’s conjecture, China will remain a one-party Leninist autocracy that deprives its people of the fundamental rights basic in liberal democracies even if economic reform continues. Mann dismisses the possibility that China will follow Taiwan and South Korea in an economically propelled, democratic transition, based on the fact that China is much larger than either of those countries and is much less subject to American influence and pressure. In sum, Mann envisions an autocratic and powerful China for years to come. He is correct in noting the superficiality of the democratization scenario. The two very different books, China Road and The China Fantasy, converge in asserting that major changes in China’s governance are not likely to appear in the near future.
Ian Johnson is a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. His Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China is a sorrow-filled narrative of Chinese politics viewed from ordinary people’s perspective. The work depicts their everyday struggles to find justice and their unwitting collisions with a system arranged against them. Johnson, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his reporting on Falun Gong, recounts a daughter’s frustrating attempts to find out from the authorities what happened to her mother. She “has come to realize what all people who want to change China eventually learn: the current system is at a dead end, but its death is not in sight.” Johnson’s stories also reveal that Chinese citizens have developed great resources necessary to defend themselves against the state. These resources have made many Chinese undeterred and more willing than ever to challenge authority. Johnson’s descriptions give readers a sense that the beginning of a “slow-motion revolution” might eventually shake the CCP from power.