April 25, 2020 ~ 9 min read

Age Of Ambition: Book Notes

High-Level Thoughts

This is the best book that I have read in recent memory. If you want to develop an intuition for how to better understand China - and thus the world, I highly recommend it. It is especially prescient in the time of COVID-19 during which I write this.

Summary Notes

There are a few (related) streams of thought that I found interesting in this book:

  1. Politics and how it relates to Economic Prosperity
  2. Macro & Micro Stories
  3. A framework for understanding China

Authoritarianism in a time of prosperity

“Income had begun to soar at a rate never experienced in a big country. The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a year—equivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States took fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.”

I think most of us are aware of how rapid China’s growth has been over the past few decades. But I still found this a bit shocking.

The U.S has spent a substantial amount of time fighting against the authoritarian regimes and censorship that exists in China. And yet China has risen to a certain level of prosperity faster than any other country in history.

Now... this is not to say that everything is lovely and growth solves all problems:

“China today is riven by contradictions. It is the world’s largest buyer of Louis Vuitton, second only to the United States in its purchases of Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, yet ruled by a Marxist-Leninist party that seeks to ban the word luxury from billboards.

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

And it is these contradictions that make China so enjoyable to study. I left this book with a better appreciation of how complicated and fragile economic theory is.

The way China does things is hard to grapple with for most of us that have spent our entire life being indoctrinated by the American way of running a country. But results don’t lie. Are there problems? Absolutely... but the U.S isn’t exactly free of its issues...

“Chinese people have begun to think, ‘One part is the good life, another part is democracy,’” Liu went on. “If democracy can really give you the good life, that’s good. But without democracy, if we can still have the good life, why should we choose democracy?”

Further related reading I’m hoping to check out: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Macro & Micro Stories

The author (Evan Osnos) does a fantastic job of forming tight-knit relationships with individuals in China and observing them over time, as well as covering the more macro view. The stories he paints with random humans, as well as cultural figures, are part of what makes this book so entertaining. And after all, China is incredibly broad and diverse in perspective. What is a macro perspective worth without individual viewpoints and contradictions?

“Usually when I see Li Yang, I feel a little nervous,” Michael told me as we sat outside in the sun. “He is a superman.” Michael’s enthusiasm was infectious. “When I didn’t know about Crazy English, I was a very shy Chinese person,” he said. “I couldn’t say anything. I was very timid. Now I am very confident. I can speak to anyone in public, and I can inspire people to speak together.”

Michael is perhaps the most random, but one of the most enjoyable characters that Osnos covers in the book.

“What is the English word for someone like this?” he asked. “Like what?” I asked. “Like me,” he said. I thought about it for a moment, and before I could answer, he volunteered an idea: “Low society?” he asked. “No,” I said. “We don’t really have a good word in English.” We walked on. “When I need some help in English, I always search the Internet. If I can’t find the answer, I ask you,” he said. I felt I owed him an answer to his question about himself. He was far better off than those in the countryside, but he was stuck on the margins of success. “I think we can call you ‘aspiring middle class,’” I said finally.

It was passages like this that made me wish there was a comparable book for almost every country in the world. Even a book written in a similar style about the U.S would be fascinating. We all live in a bubble. And Osnos seems to have a magical ability to jump between bubbles and take the reader along for the ride.

When we talked, Michael often seemed torn between wanting to present himself as a success and wanting to admit how difficult things were along the way. He oscillated between bluster and self-pity. One moment, he said, “I hate the English industry,” and cursed the people he thought were trying to take his ideas without giving him credit. The next moment, he said, “I want to teach English as a religion. I have a plan for my career: five years, ten years.” After a moment, his confidence wavered. “Chinese people are so dirty,” he said. “At least forty percent of them.”

The full range of stories is impossible to capture in summary. But they are precisely what makes this book so good.

A framework for understanding China

Bill Bishop of Sinocism likes to say when it comes to China; you need to watch what they do, not what they say.

This book not only provides the evidence for not only why this is true but also how to interpret the sparse signals that China gives us.

I don’t think I’d fully internalized how little we can trust what China says before reading this book:

“In May 2008, when a powerful earthquake struck the province of Sichuan, papers across the country proclaimed in near-perfect unison that the earthquake had “tugged at the heartstrings of the Chinese Communist Party.” The next morning, I rounded up the local papers and marveled at their consistency.”

“When the country had suffered a previous enormous quake, in 1976, the government silenced news of the death toll for three years.”

Things seem to be slowly improving, but you can still be thrown in jail for trying to discover or spread the truth.

This first Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, a writer, was put in prison in 2010! What. The. Fuck.

Or the scale of political corruption:

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.

The U.S is FAR from perfect when it comes to corruption, but China is on a different scale.

The second thing we need to understand about China is that growth trumps everything:

“The focus on growth was relentless. Whenever the Party faced a choice between growth or the environment, growth won; between social security and growth, growth won. The costs of transformation were harsh. Health insurance and retirement funds evaporated; environmental pollution ravaged the landscape; urban real estate developers demolished large sections of cities to put up new housing. Public discontent grew, but the Party used force and the steady march of prosperity to keep discontent at bay.”

Whenever China takes an action that does not align with this principle, it should give us serious pause. When China shut down the economy due to COVID-19, it should have been pretty apparent to anyone that understands this principle just how serious this is. China taking an action that prioritizes the health of its citizens over economic growth, is incredibly rare.

Random Quotes I Loved

“These people who control the media say they are liberal, but they act like authoritarians. Alternative views are blocked.” For a second, I thought he was making a joke, but he wasn’t: the rising generation of Chinese nationalists was earnestly complaining about the lack of free expression.

A diary entry from Han Feng, a respected member of the communist party:

November 6th, Tuesday (11–25°C, sunny): I edited a speech about “Civilized Manners.” At lunch, Li Dehui and others from Xiamen came over and we drank. Then I rested in the company dorm for the afternoon … Went to dinner, drank heavily … At 10PM, Ms. Tan Shanfang drove over and dragged me to her house. We made love three times, and again at sunrise.

Work went better this year than any year before … My authority has grown among the workers … My son is doing well, and he’s been recommended for graduate school without even having to take the test. After two years, he’ll get a job with no problems. My photography skills have reached a new level, and I will try to keep learning forever. Womanizing is on the right track. Hooked up with Little Ms. Pan. Regularly having a good time with Ms. Tan Shanfang, and I enjoy my time with Ms. Mo Yaodai. It’s been a fine year, woman-wise, but with so many partners I need to keep an eye on my health.

At times, the institutional reflex to exert control was breathtakingly counterproductive. At one point, Chinese programmers were barred from updating a popular software system called Node.js because the version number, 0.6.4, corresponded with June 4, the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Fun Chinese Sayings

chefang yibei, which meant “car-and-home-equipped.”

xianfu qunti—the “Got Rich First Crowd.”

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 railway circles, the practice of substituting cheap materials for real ones was common enough to rate its own expression: touliang huanzhu—“robbing the beams to put in the pillars.”

But nowadays one of the running themes in the local papers was the dream to baishou qijia, to build a “bare-handed” fortune.

It was a fear that came with its own categories as specific as a pengci’r—a person who “blames you for breaking a piece of porcelain that was already broken.”

Maxi Ferreira

Hi, I'm Taylor . I'm a software engineer/maker/amateur chef currently living in San Francisco. You can follow me on Twitter , see some of my work on GitHub , or read about my life on Substack .