Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Americans tend to see themselves in control of their fate, while Chinese see fate as something external,” Lam, the professor, said. “To alter fate, the Chinese feel they need to do things to acquire more luck.” In surveys, Chinese casino gamblers tend to view bets as investments and investments as bets. The stock market and real estate, in the Chinese view, are scarcely different from a casino. The behavioral scientists Elke Weber and Christopher Hsee have compared Chinese and American approaches to financial risk. In a series of experiments, they found that Chinese investors overwhelmingly described themselves as more cautious than Americans. But when they were tested—with a series of hypothetical financial decisions—the stereotype proved wrong, and the Chinese were found to take consistently larger risks than Americans of comparable wealth.

Boycotting the Beijing Games in the name of Tibet seemed as logical to him as shunning the Salt Lake City Olympics to protest America’s treatment of the Cherokee.

China reminds me most of America at its own moment of transformation—the period that Mark Twain and Charles Warner named the Gilded Age, when “every man has his dream, his pet scheme.

For Mao, culture was a “weapon for uniting and educating the people and for crushing and destroying the enemy.” The Party would make sure that art, literature, and other expressions of taste adhered to what it later called the zhuxuanlu—“the central melody”—of Chinese society, the Party’s distilled understanding of values, priorities, and desires. The

For the Communist Party, the return of class presented an opportunity: the Party came to believe that co-opting those with property would buttress it against agitation toward democracy. Officials took to quoting the ancient sage Mencius, who said, “Those with a constant livelihood have a constant heart, those lacking a constant livelihood lack a constant heart.” But relying on prosperity to ensure a “constant heart” posed a problem that would grow into the Chinese Communist Party’s essential paradox: How could the heirs of Marx and Lenin, the rulers of the People’s Republic, who had risen to power denouncing bourgeois values and inequality, baldly embrace the new moneyed class? How could it retain its ideological claim to rule?

Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.

I had come to expect that Chinese friends would make financial decisions that I found uncomfortably risky: launching businesses with their savings, moving across the country without the assurance of a job. One explanation, which Weber and Hsee call “the cushion hypothesis,” is that traditionally large Chinese family networks afford people confidence that they can turn to others for help if their risk-taking does not succeed. Another theory is more specific to the boom years. “The economic reforms undertaken by Deng Xiaoping were a gamble in themselves,” Ricardo Siu, a business professor at the University of Macau, told me. “So people got the idea that taking a risk is not just okay; it has utility.” For those who have come from poverty to the middle class, he added, “the thinking may be, If I lose half my money, well, I’ve lived through that. I won’t be poor again. And in several years I can earn it back. But if I win? I’m a millionaire!

In 1998 a local publisher translated Paul Fussell’s 1982 cultural satire, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, which makes such observations as “the more violent the body contact of the sports you watch, the lower the class.” In Chinese, the satire fell away, and the book sold briskly as a field guide for the new world. “Just having money will not win you universal acclaim, respect, or appreciation,” the translator wrote in the introduction. “What your consumption reveals about you is the more critical issue.

I once dropped by the home of Mao Yushi, a liberal economist who happened to live near the headquarters of China’s powerful planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission. He pointed out that the commission was surrounded by gift shops selling alcohol and porcelain. Citizens seeking help knew to stock up before going in for their meetings. “All these people from out of town enter the building carrying big bags and small bags, and they leave empty-handed,” the economist observed. “When the cadres get off work, they leave the building carrying all the big bags and small bags, but they can’t possibly consume everything, so they sell it back to the gift shops, who in turn sell them to yet more people on a mission to Beijing. That’s what our street has become.

It is more difficult to choke the mouth of the people than to block the flow of a river.

Liu Zhijun would eventually go on trial. The verdict was no mystery—98 percent of Chinese trials end in conviction—but a reliable predictor of Liu’s fate was that the Party had already embarked on one of its most enduring rituals. Just as technicians once airbrushed political casualties out of the archives, censors had already taken to the Web to begin excising years’ worth of glowing news reports and documentaries that hailed Liu’s accomplishments, leaving behind only squibs about his arrest. Before long, Great Leap Liu had been expunged so thoroughly from the history of China’s achievements that you might never have known he existed.

One-sixth of the world’s population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated glumly behind him. “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!” The crowd roared.

Paying for power was so common that in 2012 the Modern Chinese Dictionary, the national authority on language, was compelled to add the word maiguan—“to buy a government promotion.” In some cases, the options read like a restaurant menu. In a small town in Inner Mongolia, the post of chief planner was sold for $103,000. The municipal party secretary was on the block for $101,000. It followed a certain logic: in weak democracies, people paid their way into office by buying votes; in a state where there were no votes to buy, you paid the people who doled out the jobs. Even the military was riddled with patronage; commanders received a string of payments from a pyramid of loyal officers beneath them. A one-star general could reportedly expect to receive ten million dollars in gifts and business deals; a four-star commander stood to earn at least fifty million. Every country has corruption, but China’s was approaching a level of its own. For those at the top, the scale of temptation had reached a level unlike anything ever encountered in the West. It was not always easy to say which Bare-Handed Fortunes were legitimate and which were not, but political office was a reliable pathway to wealth on a scale of its own. By 2012 the richest seventy members of China’s national legislature had a net worth of almost ninety billion dollars—more than ten times the combined net worth of the entire U.S. Congress.

Some of the choices that Chinese consumers made did not translate easily to outsiders. A brand of stylish eyeglass frames appeared on the market, named “Helen Keller.” Reporters asked the company why it had chosen to advertise its eyeglasses with the world’s most famous blind person. The company replied that Chinese schools teach the story of Helen Keller primarily as an icon of fortitude, and sure enough, sales of the frames were brisk. Helen Keller glasses were selling under the slogan “You see the world, and the world sees you.

The age of ambition swept inland from China’s coast, reversing the route of migration; it moved from the cities to the factory towns, and from the factory towns to the villages. As it reached people who had long waited for a chance to escape their origins, the pursuit of fortune intensified into magical thinking. Farmers in remote villages embarked on audacious inventions, earning the nickname “Peasant da Vincis.

The commander of a mighty army can be captured, but the aspiration of an ordinary man can never be seized. —Confucius

The difference in life expectancy and income between China’s wealthiest cities and its poorest provinces is the difference between New York and Ghana.

The greatest difference between Internet dating in America and in China was conceptual: in America, it had the power to expand your universe of potential mates; in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, online dating promised to do the opposite.

The longer I lived in China, the more I sensed that the Chinese people have outpaced the political system that nurtured their rise. The Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history—and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.


The People’s Daily summoned the language of another era and warned that constitutionalism, the call to put the Party under the rule of law, was “a weapon for information and psychological warfare used by the magnates of American monopoly capitalism and their proxies in China to subvert China’s socialist system.

The story of China in the twenty-first century is often told as a contest between East and West, between state capitalism and the free market. But in the foreground there is a more immediate competition: the struggle to define the idea of China. Understanding China requires not only measuring the light and heat thrown off by its incandescent new power, but also examining the source of its energy—the men and women at the center of China’s becoming.

To assess a country’s true strength and prosperity, you can’t simply look at GNP growth and not look at the inner experience of each ordinary person: Does he feel safe? Is he happy?

To survive in China you must reveal nothing to others. Or it could be used against you … That’s why I’ve come to think the deepest part of the self is best left unclear. Like mist and clouds in a Chinese landscape painting, hide the private part behind your social persona. Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.

Traditionally, young Chinese couples moved in with the groom’s parents, but by the twenty-first century less than half of them stayed very long, and the economists Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang discovered that parents with sons were building ever larger and more expensive houses for their offspring, to attract better matches—a real estate phenomenon that became known as the “mother-in-law syndrome.” Newspapers encouraged it with headlines such as A HOUSE IS MAN’S DIGNITY. In some villages, a real estate arms race began, as families sought to outdo one another by building extra floors, which sat empty until they could afford to furnish them. Between 2003 and 2011, home prices in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities rose by up to 800 percent.

When a prince’s personal conduct is correct,” Confucius said, “his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed.

When a website run by the People’s Daily conducted a “Chinese Dream” survey, asking whether people supported one-party rule and believed in socialism, 80 percent of the three thousand respondents replied “no” to both questions, and the survey was abruptly withdrawn. People used to say that their censored work had been “harmonized.” Now they said it had been “dreamed away.

Within weeks of his arrival, the planet was hit by the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis posed a conundrum for Lin: Officials from the United States, Europe, and the IMF called on China to raise the value of its currency, to boost the buying power of Chinese consumers and make products from other countries relatively cheaper. Sen. Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York, told reporters, “China’s currency manipulation is like a boot to the throat of our recovery.” But Lin saw the issue very differently. Forcing China to raise its currency “won’t help this imbalance and can deter the global recovery,” he told an audience in Hong Kong, arguing that such a move would only depress U.S. consumer demand, because raising the value of the currency would make Chinese exports more expensive, and it would not help the U.S. economy, because Americans don’t produce many of the things they buy from China.

With so many thinkers “spending so much energy fighting over words and ink, we have forgotten to criticize government authority; we have forgotten to pay attention to social welfare. That should worry us.

Yu Dan,