Playing chess with a person from outer space

How on earth do you make sense of China? This vast country with the world’s biggest population defies explanation. It’s too big; it’s moving too fast; there are too many secrets; too many layers; too many contradictions; and too many stories for a 400-odd page hardback.

But Evan Osnos, with eight years under his belt (2005-2013) as the Beijing correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and later The New Yorker does his best. He slims China down into three almost bite-sized chunks – fortune, truth and faith. While not perfect, this schema does a pretty good job of arranging the pieces of the puzzle of the People’s Republic.

China, the cliché now goes, is a country of vast changes. But Osnos promises us in the prologue that he will be talking about the “other kind” of changes, those that are “intimate and perceptual” and “buried in daily rhythms”. And in this, he delivers. The book loosely follows the fortunes of around half a dozen main characters – some famous and some not-so famous – that Osnos interviewed at length and who mostly play a role in each one of the three sections.

First on stage is Lin Yifu, a former Taiwanese soldier who defected to China in 1979. He later became a celebrated economist, working for the World Bank, and championing Beijing’s state-orchestrated economics. Moving in the opposite direction is Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist lawyer who gripped headlines in 2012 when he escaped from house arrest, sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing, and then emigrated to the US. We also follow best-selling author and blogger, Han Han, Li Yang, the founder of Crazy English, a teaching guru who had love letters sent to him wrapped in knickers, Hu Shuli the battle-axe editor who pushed the boundaries of censorship with Caijing magazine, and Gong Haiyan, China’s No. 1 matchmaker who started the country’s biggest online dating site. Happily, Osnos portions off a decent slice of the book to dissident artist Ai Weiwei who has the best line in the book. Ai likens fighting the government over tax evasion charges to “playing chess with a person from outer space.” A challenge akin to Osnos’ task of interpreting the story of modern China for us in Age of Ambition.

Osnos also gets close to two young men who are worlds apart – Crazy English teacher Michael Zhang who studies religiously and struggles to make a decent life for himself and nationalist Tang Jie, who created an anti-West short video which went viral called 2008 China Stand Up! angered by western news media’s negative China coverage in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

There’s also a small cast of sometimes marvellous bit players who add substance and nuance – not least of whom are the Super King of Chinese Couplets, a Beijing street sweeper who studied classical poetry and wrote his own verses. and a malodorous weasel that made its home in the roof of Osnos’ courtyard home.

As its title suggests, Osnos is interested in the ambitions of the Chinese people -- “Heaven will never throw you a meat pie” warns Gong Haiyan, the matchmaker. He clearly admires many of the people whose stories we read in these pages. But countering their “Chinese dreams” is the authoritarian state with its censorship, its lies and its corruption. The system has destroyed all trust people have in each other that ”now even the fin on a fish can be fake,” as one middle-aged man tells Osnos.

Osnos’ prose is nothing short of what you would expect from a writer for The New Yorker. His writing is tight and sharp, fast and furious, with a barrage of facts and figures and curious details. Back in the late 1970s, he relates, China and Taiwan floated glass propaganda balls to each other, hoping to lure defectors. Taiwan sent pin-ups, underwear, and pop music cassettes while China proffered rice spirits and melons. The density and pace of his narrative is sometimes so fast that you have to take a break to digest it all.

Thankfully, there are quieter passages when he pauses to capture a moment in time. In his first visit to Beijing in 1996, for example, we learn that it “smelled of coal and garlic and work-stained wool and cheap tobacco.”

One of the most evocative moments happens when Osnos is in Shanghai waiting for the Olympic torch with an expectant crowd. “The air was stagnant and thick beneath a canopy of haze, but the mood was exuberant. Time was ticking down to the torch’s arrival, and the town was coming out for a look: a man in a dark suit, sweating and smoothing his hair; a construction worker in an orange helmet and farmers’ galoshes; a bellboy in a uniform with so many gold buttons that he looked like an admiral… All around us, people strained for a better view. A woman hung off a lamppost. A young man in a red headband climbed a tree.”

Osnos’ skill with language renders Age of Ambition into an energetic and satisfying read. His stories give depth to the news reports we’ve all read, humanity and plurality to a population that is so often stereotyped, and an analysis that is clearly built on painstaking research.

But by the end of the book Osnos leaves us standing at a rather depressing turn of events. His characters who all seemed to have been ascending in the first half – making their fortunes, pushing the boundaries, fighting for freedom – are faltering by the end. Ai Weiwei is shaken by his 81 day detention, Han Han has given up writing daring blog posts, Li Yang is now called a “superstar whackjob” and is an accused wife beater, Hu Shuli left Caijing and her new start-up magazine is haemorrhaging journalists, Chen Guangcheng seems to have lost his way back in the US and is now working for a right-wing think tank that opposes same-sex marriage; Michael Zhang is approaching 30, still jobless and living with his parents trying to write an English text book, while Tang Jie’s nationalist website is shut down, ironically by the government. Only the weasel seems to be thriving. As Osnos is packing up to leave Beijing, his furry lodger gave birth to a litter of four cubs.