• Evan Osnos
  • March 2, 2021
    Read, recorded or researched
Evan first visited China in 1996. He returned 2 years later to study at Beijing University and then, in 2005, he moved more permanently to become China correspondent for the New Yorker. Based on his years of experience and research, told through the stories of people he came across, Evan delivers a powerful and moving portrait of a country that’s moving through seismic change.

The Best Points

Age of Ambition

Defining China

When I moved to China in 2005, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China’s metamorphosis told in vast, sweeping strokes involving one-sixth of humanity and great pivots of politics and economics. But, up close, the deepest changes were intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms in ways that were easy to overlook. The greatest fever of all was aspiration, a belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life. Some who tried succeeded; many others did not. More remarkable was that they defied a history that told them never to try.

I lived in China for eight years, and I watched this age of ambition take shape. Above all, it is a time of plenty—the crest of a transformation one hundred times the scale, and ten times the speed, of the first Industrial Revolution, which created modern Britain.

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.
  • China has two of the world’s most valuable Internet companies, and more people online than the United States, even as it redoubles its investment in history’s largest effort to censor human expression. China has never been more pluralistic, urban, and prosperous, yet it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.

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.”

The United States emerged from the Civil War on its way to making more steel than Britain, Germany, and France combined. In 1850, America had fewer than twenty millionaires; by 1900 it had forty thousand.

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.

Part I: Fortune

From Prosperity to Famine and Back

In the eighteenth century, imperial China controlled one-third of the world’s wealth; its most advanced cities were as prosperous and commercialized as Great Britain and the Netherlands. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was crippled by invasion, civil war, and political upheaval.

After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party conducted a “land reform” campaign that grouped China’s small family farms into collectives, and led to the killing of millions of landlords and perceived enemies.

In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, attempting to vault his country past Britain in just fifteen years. Some advisers told him it was impossible, but he ignored and humiliated them; the head of the national technology commission jumped out a window. The propagandists hailed one fantastical harvest after another, calling them “Sputnik harvests,” on par with the success of the Soviet satellite. But the numbers were fiction, and as starvation spread, many who complained were tortured or killed. The Party barred people from traveling to find food. Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the world’s worst famine, which killed between thirty and forty-five million people, more than World War I.

In 2012, the country became, for the first time, more urban than rural. China was building the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks. I began to sense something charged about entering an instant city, with its miles of unlined, untrammeled black asphalt, flanked by buildings with nobody yet inside. The endless churn was the only constant. When a Chinese friend asked which American cities to visit on his next trip to the United States, I suggested New York, and he responded as tactfully as he could, “Every time I go, it looks the same.”

In the seven years I had been gone (1998 – 2005), the language had changed:

  • The word for “comrade,” tongzhi, had been wryly adopted by gays and lesbians to describe one other. I was in line at the bank one afternoon when an old man, peering ahead impatiently, said, “Tongzhi, let’s hurry up!” and two teenagers cracked up.
  • The word for waitresses and shopgirls, xiaojie, had been repurposed to refer mostly to prostitutes. And the new kind of xiaojie were suddenly everywhere in a country overrun with cash-rich new entrepreneurs on business trips.
  • But the change that startled me most surrounded the word for “ambition,” ye xin—literally, “wild heart.” In Chinese, a wild heart had always carried the suggestion of savage abandon and absurd expectations—a toad who dreams of devouring a swan, as an old saying had it. More than two thousand years ago, a collection of political advice called the Huainanzi had warned rulers to “keep powerful positions out of the hands of the ambitious, just as one keeps sharp tools out of the hands of the foolish.” But suddenly I was seeing references to “wild hearts” everywhere—on television talk shows and in the self-help aisles.

Social Pressures in an Age of Abundance

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.

“I once watched a twenty-three-year-old woman search for dates in Beijing, where there are four hundred thousand male users,” Lu Tao, Gong’s chief engineer, told me. “She narrowed it down by blood type and height and zodiac sign and everything else until she had a pool of eighty-three men.”

When I signed on to Jiayuan to get a sense of Gong’s business, I answered thirty-five multiple-choice questions. The Communist Party had spent decades promoting conformity, but the questionnaire left little doubt that, now, a man was expected to be able to define himself as precisely as possible. After height, weight, income, and other vitals, I was asked to describe my hair, first by color (black, blond, brunet, hazel, gray, red, silver, highlights, bald, or other) and then by style (long-straight, long-curly, medium-long, short, very short, bald, or other). For the shape of my face, I had nine choices, including as oval as a “duck egg” or as narrow as a “sunflower seed.”

Shopping, or at least browsing, became a principal hobby. The average Chinese citizen was dedicating almost ten hours a week to shopping, while the average American spent less than four. That was partly because the process was less efficient in China—public transportation, cost comparisons—and partly because it was a novel form of entertainment.

A study of advertising found that the average person in Shanghai saw three times as many advertisements in a typical day as a consumer in London. The market was flooded with new brands seeking to distinguish themselves, and Chinese consumers were relatively comfortable with bold efforts to get their attention.

The greatest shock to the marriage tradition came from an unlikely source: in 1997 the State Council restored the right for people to buy and sell their homes. Under socialism, employers had assigned city workers to indistinguishable concrete housing blocks. When the government restored the market, Chinese bureaucrats didn’t even have an official translation for the word mortgage. Before long, the world’s largest accumulation of real estate wealth was under way.

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.

The pressure to keep up created a kind of language inflation. A few years earlier, a “triple without” was a migrant worker without shelter, a job, or a source of income. By the time I started hanging around Gong Haiyan’s office, a “triple without” referred to a man without his own house, car, or nest egg. If a triple without got married, it was called a “naked wedding.”

Learning How to Rush

David Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There was translated into Chinese in 2002, and it became a best seller. It describes a distant world—one of American bourgeois bohemians, who mix sixties counterculture with Reagan-era economics—but, in China, it captured the strivers’ self-perception, and “Bobos,” or “bubozu,” became one of the year’s most-searched-for terms on the Chinese Internet.

In the age of ambition, life sped up. Under socialism, there had rarely been any reason to rush. Except for Mao’s fantasies of leaping forward, people worked at the pace of the bureaucracy and the seasons.

Moving faster or more efficiently, taking greater risks, would add little to the dinner table. Like the imperial court in the days of the Drum Tower, the socialist central planners decided when to turn on the central heating in the fall and when to turn it off in the spring. But all of a sudden, China was gripped by a sense that the country was running late.

He Zhaofa, a sociologist at Sun Yat-sen University, published a manifesto in favor of speed, reporting that, in Japan, pedestrians were walking at an average speed of 1.6 meters per second. He criticized his fellow Chinese. “Even American women in high heels walk faster than young Chinese men.” He called on his countrymen to adopt an urgent appreciation of every second. “The nation that wastes time,” he wrote, “will be abandoned by time itself.”

Long before Westerners were reading about the habits of hard-driving “tiger moms,” the most popular Chinese parenting guide was Harvard Girl, in which a mother named Zhang Xinwu documented how she got her daughter into the Ivy League.

The regimen had begun before birth, when Zhang forced herself to eat a high-nutrition diet, though it made her sick. By eighteen months, Zhang was helping her daughter memorize Tang dynasty poems. In primary school, Zhang took her to study in noisy settings to hone her concentration, and kept her on a schedule: for every twenty minutes of studying, five minutes of running stairs. To build fortitude, Zhang had her daughter clench ice cubes in her hands for fifteen minutes at a time. It was easy to see it as absurd, but for a population still fighting its way out of poverty, virtually any sacrifice sounded reasonable.

Note: Steven Pinker talks of a similar phenomenon of cultural research in the developed world through history:

“Today we think of these books, like Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette and Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, as sources of handy tips for avoiding embarrassing peccadilloes. But at one time they were serious guides to moral conduct, written by the leading thinkers of the day. In 1530 the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, one of the founders of modernity, wrote an etiquette manual called On Civility in Boys which was a bestseller throughout Europe for two centuries. By laying down rules for what people ought not to do, these manuals give us a snapshot of what they must have been doing.

Habits of refinement, self-control, and consideration that are second nature to us had to be acquired—that’s why we call them second nature—and they developed in Europe over the course of its modern history.”

Cultural Attitude to Risk

Macau sits on a horn of rocky coastline where the Pearl River washes into the South China Sea. It’s about a third the size of Manhattan, covering a tropical peninsula and a pair of islands that look, on a map, like crumbs flaking off the mainland.

Chairman Mao banned gambling in China long ago, but it endures in Macau because of a historical wrinkle: for nearly five hundred years, the city was a Portuguese colony, and when it returned to Chinese control, in 1999, it was entitled to retain some of the flamboyantly libertine traditions that led W. H. Auden to christen it “a weed from Catholic Europe.”

The infusion of China’s new riches triggered an unprecedented surge in construction; by 2007, when Siu began to visit, Macau’s casino revenues had surpassed those of Las Vegas, until then the world’s largest gambling town. Within a few more years, the quantity of money passing through Macau would exceed that of Las Vegas six times over.

“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.

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!”

Gods or Wild Animals

“Chinese have never looked at foreigners as human beings,” Lu Xun wrote. “We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”

In 1877, when the Qing dynasty was decaying and Western powers were rising, Chinese reformers dispatched a young scholar named Yan Fu to England to investigate the source of British naval power.

He concluded that Britain’s strength lay not in its weapons but in its ideas, and he returned to China with a trunkful of books by Herbert Spencer, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and other Western thinkers.

His translations were not perfect—natural selection took on a harsher edge as natural elimination—but their impact was vast. To Yan and others, evolution was not simply biology; it was political science. Liang Qichao, one of China’s leading reformers, concluded that China must “make itself one of the fittest.”

Part II: Truth

Prosperity & Propaganda

Mao sanctified propaganda and censorship as essential parts of Thought Work, and he relied on them to reframe the Long March as a strategic triumph, not a crushing defeat. Five year after Mao died, his heirs’ final act of devotion was to issue an official declaration on Mao’s tumultuous reign. They said it was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong—an imponderable calculation that would be studied by schoolchildren for decades to come.

In 1989 the uprising at Tiananmen Square convinced some Party leaders that propaganda was growing impotent in the modern age. But Deng Xiaoping disagreed, and he made a fateful decision—the Party’s future survival, he declared, would rest, more than ever before, on two pillars: prosperity and propaganda.

Of China’s young people who took to the square, he said, “It will take years, not just a couple of months, of education to change their thinking.” But the Soviet approach to propaganda had failed them. Deng and his men urgently needed a new approach, and they found it in the holy land of public relations, America, and in a new, if unlikely, role model: Walter Lippmann, a leading American columnist for much of the twentieth century.

They overlooked his early anticommunism and hailed his efforts to prevent mass rule and to sway U.S. public opinion to enter World War I. They studied and cited Lippmann’s belief in the power of pictures to, in his words, “magnify emotion while undermining critical thought,” and they adopted his view that good PR can create a “group mind” and “manufacture consent” for the ruling elite.

To sculpt propaganda for the emerging middle class, they embraced another father of American PR, the late political scientist Harold Lasswell, who wrote, in 1927, “If the mass will be free of chains of iron, it must accept its chains of silver.”

Party image makers who began their careers denouncing capitalist stooges now studied the success of Coca-Cola, observing, as one Chinese propaganda textbook put it, that Coke proved that “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” To learn the art of modern spin, the Communist Party studied the masters: a five-day seminar for top propaganda officials made case studies out of Tony Blair’s response to mad cow disease and the Bush administration’s handling of the U.S. media after 9/ 11.

Tang was baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation were somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship. “Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed,” he said. “We are always eager to get other information from different channels.” Then he added, “But when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.”  

The Problem of Proportions

Some of the potentates, such as the king of Jordan, responded to the Arab Spring by promising to loosen up, in the hope of averting an explosion. But China’s leaders chose the opposite course. The lesson they took from Mubarak’s fall was the same they had taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union: protests that go unchecked lead to open revolt.

The Politburo sent out Wu Bangguo, one of its most orthodox conservatives, to dust off his theory of the “Five Nos”: China would have no opposition parties, no alternative principles, no separation of powers, no federal system, and no full-scale privatization. “If we waver,” he told a meeting of three thousand legislators in Beijing, “the state could sink into the abyss.”

The truth was that I struggled with the question of how much to write about Ai Weiwei—or, for that matter, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng or the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. How much did their ordeals really tell us about China?

If the average news consumer in the West read (or watched or heard) no more than one China story a week, should it be about people with dramatic lives or typical lives?

The hardest part about writing from China was not navigating the authoritarian bureaucracy or the occasional stint in a police station. It was the problem of proportions: How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression? From far away it was difficult for outsiders to judge, but I found that up close it wasn’t much easier, because it depended on where you were looking.

The stereotype of Western journalists was that we paid too much attention to dissidents. It was, we were told, because we sympathized with their hopes for liberal democracy, because they spoke English and knew how to give a sound-bite.

Indeed, the inherent drama of an individual standing up to the state was obviously seductive, and it helped explain why the most famous image from China in the past thirty years was not of its economic rise but of the man standing in front of the tank near Tiananmen Square.

I understood that: foreigners with no reason to probe could spend years in China without ever interviewing someone who had been tortured or locked up without trial, and to them, my focus was misplaced. Dissidents who were famous in New York or Paris were unknown to ordinary Chinese citizens, which suggested that the discussion of democracy and rights was at odds with the everyday concerns of ordinary people. But those arguments wore thin with me.

Popularity always struck me as an odd way to measure the importance of an idea in a country that censored ideas.

Understanding why Ai Weiwei was arrested—or why Gao Zhisheng was abused, or why Liu Xiaobo was in prison—was vital to understanding China. The degree to which it could accept a figure such as Ai Weiwei was a measure of how far China had or had not moved toward a modern, open society.


In 1992, when the government began to open up the distribution of land and factories for private ownership, the corruption boom was under way.

In the first year, the average sum recovered in corruption cases more than tripled, to six thousand dollars. Double Happiness cigarettes eventually gave way to Hermès bags, sports cars, and tuition for children studying abroad.

The larger the deal, the higher the cadre needed to approve it, and the bribes moved straight up the ranks. Officials and businessmen looked out for one another by organizing themselves into “protective umbrellas,” a step in what Chinese scholars called the “Mafiazation” of the state.

If the effects were abstract at first, they soon became vivid. In case after case, the disasters that enraged the Chinese public were traced back to graft, fraud, embezzlement, and patronage: The schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake had been compromised by kickbacks; the train that crashed in Wenzhou was managed by one of the country’s most corrupt agencies. In the case of the tainted infant formula that killed children in 2008, dairy farmers and dealers first bribed state inspectors to ignore the presence of chemicals. Then, when children fell ill, the dairy company bribed news organizations to suppress the story. With creativity, anything could become a bribe.

Businessmen arranged poker games in which the officials were guaranteed to win. Alcohol was such a reliable choice that the state media conceded that sales of the country’s most famous liquor, Kweichow Moutai, was “an index for China’s corruption.” It was selling so well in 2011 that the company paid the largest dividend in the history of China’s stock markets. Demand was heavy enough that the company had to ration it to stores.

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.

In most countries, the long-term effects of kleptocracy are easy to predict: economists calculate that for every point that a nation’s corruption rises on a scale of one to ten, its economic growth drops by 1 percent.

But the exceptions are important. In Japan and Korea, corruption accompanied each nation’s rise, not its collapse. There is no more conspicuous case than the United States. When promoters of the first transcontinental railroad were found to have secretly paid themselves to build it—the 1872 scandal known as Crédit Mobilier—the scale of plunder was described by the press as “the most damaging exhibition of official and private villainy and corruption ever laid bare to the gaze of the world.”

Between 1866 and 1873 the country put down thirty-five thousand miles of track, minting enormous fortunes but also, as Mark Twain put it, displaying “shameful corruption.” The excesses of the railroad boom led to the Panic of 1873 and subsequent financial crises, before political pressure to curb abuses gained momentum during the Progressive Era.

There were two basic views of how corruption could affect China’s future. The optimistic scenario was that it was part of the transition from socialism to the free market, and it nevertheless produced highways and trains that inspired envy even in the developed world.

“The Chinese are more successful,” then U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood told a reporter, “because in their country only three people make the decision. In our country, three thousand people do.”

The darker scenario held that the threat posed by Chinese corruption was not economic; it was political. In this view, the compact between the people and their leaders was fraying, the ruling class was scrambling to get what it could in the final years of frenzied growth, and the Party would be no more capable of reforming itself from within than were the Soviets.

Chinese leaders believed political reform would lead to instability, but did they believe that doing nothing would as well? When an economy thrives, citizens can tolerate even flagrant corruption. But when it slows, that same level of corruption can become intolerable.

I asked Hu Gang if he thought China would grow past its corruption boom, just as America and Korea did. He was quiet for a while, and then he said, “I see our society as an enormous pond. For years, people have been using it as a restroom, just because we could. And we enjoyed the freedom of that, even as the pond got filthier and filthier. Now we need someone who can stand up and tell everyone that the pond has been fouled and if you continue to pollute it, nobody will survive.”

Opportunity Inequality

As the years passed, I sensed that other young strivers like Michael were growing frustrated as well. Low-skilled jobs weren’t the problem—those wages were climbing—but there weren’t enough white-collar jobs to employ each year’s crop of more than six million new college graduates.

Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant workers had grown by nearly 80 percent, but for college graduates, starting wages were flat. When you considered inflation, their income had declined. The young Chinese strivers desperate to become “car-and-home-equipped”—to find a mate and elbow their way into the New Middle-income Stratum—now knew the truth: China’s new fortunes were wildly out of balance. By 2012 a typical apartment in a Chinese city was selling for eight to ten times the average annual income nationwide.

The income gap was not an abstraction: a child born on the remote Qinghai Plateau was seven times more likely to die before the age of five than a child born in the capital. The government was under pressure to act.

It could have reformed the tax system—it still had no capital gains or inheritance taxes—but instead it adopted a more immediate strategy: in April 2011, Beijing banned companies from using the word luxury in their names and ads. The “Black Swan Luxury Bakery,” which was selling wedding cakes for $314,000, had to call itself the “Black Swan Art Bakery.” (The ban did not last.)

Yet, for all the talk about income, it was becoming clear that people cared most of all about the gap in opportunity. When the Harvard sociologist Martin Whyte polled the Chinese public in 2009, he discovered that people had a surprisingly high tolerance for the rise of the plutocracy. What they resented were the obstacles that prevented them from joining it: weak courts, abuses of power, a lack of recourse.

Two scholars, Yinqiang Zhang and Tor Eriksson, tracked the paths of Chinese families from 1989 to 2006 and found a “high degree of inequality of opportunity.” They wrote, “The basic idea behind the market reforms was that by enabling some citizens to become rich this would in turn help the rest to become rich as well. Our analysis shows that at least so far there are few traces of the reforms leveling the playing field.” They found that in other developing countries, parents’ education was the most decisive factor in determining how much a child would earn someday. But in China, the decisive factor was “parental connections.”

The longer I lived in China, the more it seemed that people had come to see the economic boom as a train with a limited number of seats. For those who found a seat—because they arrived early, they had the right family, they paid the right bribe—progress was beyond their imagination. Everyone else could run as far and fast as their legs would carry them, but they would only be able to watch the caboose shrink into the distance.

Part III: Faith

Losing Trust

Chen and I talked for a long time. In the past, if you saw something, you knew it was true because who had the time or the money to make something fake?” he said, adding, “Now even the fin on a fish can be fake … In the past, if you didn’t have enough food, I would give you a bite. That’s how it was. But after Reform and Opening Up, it’s different. If you have one bite of food and I have one bite, I will try to take yours and have two for myself, and leave you with nothing. We’ve learned all these bad habits from countries like yours,” he said, smiling, “and we’ve forgotten our good traditions. Look at me: I didn’t even remember to serve you tea!”

He bolted up, looked around the shop for tea, and then gave up and sat back down. I asked him if he wasn’t overdoing it a bit on the ‘good old days’ routine. “Everyone has some cash in his pocket, but the money isn’t safe. You need a sense of security to be comfortable,” he said.

A Spiritual Revival

To live in China in the early years of the twenty-first century was to witness a spiritual revival that could be compared to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. The stereotype of the Chinese citizen content to delay moral questions until he was car-and-home-equipped looked increasingly out of date. The more people satisfied their basic needs, the more they uncovered the truth, the more they challenged the old dispensation.

For new sources of meaning, they looked not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting ambition.

What obligation did an individual have to a stranger in a hypercompetitive, market-driven society? How much responsibility did a citizen have to speak the truth when speaking the truth was dangerous? Was it better to try to change an authoritarian system from within, or to oppose it from outside, at the risk of having no effect at all? The search for answers awakened and galvanized people in a way that the pursuit of fortune once had.

Ai Weiwei

I asked him if he had cheated on his taxes. Frankly, it wouldn’t have surprised me—in China, people joke that tax evasion is the national sport. Government researchers estimated in 2011 that tax fraud cost the state ¥ 1 trillion—about $ 157 billion—and they found that the largest culprits were, in fact, state-owned enterprises. Several times a day I received spam text messages offering to sell me fake invoices for business expenses I could use to evade taxes. In answer to my question, Ai Weiwei said no.

His son was now three and a half, and I asked Ai how he planned to explain the family’s situation to him.

He was silent for a long time and his eyes reddened. Then he said that he nursed a strange fantasy about that problem: “I want my son to grow slower,” he said. “I don’t want him to be mature too soon, to understand.” It was the first time I’d heard Ai vote for ignorance over knowledge.

“The situation is not explainable. It’s not rational. It doesn’t really make sense to me. I cannot figure out why it has to be this way.” His mood seemed to startle him, and he changed the subject. For all his troubles, he sensed a broader change gathering around him. “I think almost every level of the society today realizes China is facing a great crisis in terms of trust, ideology, moral standards, and many, many other ways … It’s not going to last. Without change in the basic political structure, China has come to the end. This so-called miracle is not going to last.”

He said, “After ninety years of success, it is still an underground party. They can never really pronounce their ideas and they can never meet anybody who challenges them intellectually.”

Opacity of Public Opinion

In China, one of the most difficult things to do was to gauge public opinion. Polls provided some insight, but only up to a point, because anyone who spent much time in China was reminded that asking citizens of an authoritarian country for their views on politics, over the phone, did not produce candid answers.

Viewed from afar, the bursts of nationalism, the occasional violence, could make it appear as if China were boiling with patriotic anger. But, up close, it was not, and it was difficult to know how many people really shared that sentiment. The Party had always prided itself on articulating the “central melody” of Chinese life, but as the years passed, the Party’s rendition of that melody seemed increasingly out of tune with the cacophony and improvisation striking up all around it. I

t was impossible to know what “most Chinese” believed because the state media and the political system were designed not to amplify public opinion but to impose a shape upon it.

For all his vitriol, I sometimes sensed that Tang Jie envied certain things about the West. He said to me, “The first time I met you, I asked you what is the most fundamental value in America, and you said something like liberty. I thought, wow, this country has a state religion, and it has educated its citizens so well that everyone believes it.”

It was an idealized image, but I took his point. He went on, “You Americans have this basic belief—a common value—but for China, this is still a problem. There are different beliefs—liberal and traditional, Maoism, all sorts of things.”

I asked how he would describe his own beliefs, and he answered in geopolitical terms. “For several hundred years we’ve been a prisoner of this Western-centric view, which divided the world into two camps: West and East, democracy and authoritarianism, light and dark. Everything light belonged to the West, and everything dark belonged to the East. This worldview should be overturned.” That was as close as he came to faith. “This is my revolution,” he said.

Xi’s Party

Shortly after Xi took office, he acknowledged what many had come to believe: unless the Party beat back the tide of corruption, that corruption would “inevitably lead the Party and the nation to perish.”

Xi called for officials to forgo their motorcades, fresh-cut flowers, and long-winded speeches. Local bureaucrats raced to enshrine his orders into new rules, but this only, unwittingly, illuminated the prior state of affairs: The city of Yinchuan declared that officials must no longer “accept money in envelopes while celebrating weddings, moving into new houses, or during their children’s enrollment in school.”

The “Four Dishes and One Soup” campaign was followed by “Operation Empty Plate,” a campaign to encourage officials to finish what they ordered. It didn’t take long for the abrupt drop-off in gluttony to affect the economy: sales of shark fin (de rigueur for banquets) sank more than 70 percent; casinos in Macau recorded a drop in VIPs, and Swiss watch exports dropped by a quarter from the year before. Luxury goods makers mourned.

The Party’s long-term objective was no mystery: if Xi Jinping fulfilled his duty to lead the Party until 2023, China would surpass the record held by the Soviet Union as history’s most durable one-party state.

The Soviets had been in power for seventy-four years, and Chinese leaders openly feared the Soviet fate. Shortly after taking office, Xi Jinping gave a speech to Party members and asked, “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered. Eventually, all it took was a quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and the great party was gone. In the end nobody was man enough to come out and resist.”

The Party had reasons to be nervous: it was trapped in a predicament of its own creation. It had recommitted itself to the suppression of heretical ideas and the maintenance of stability, but that approach was producing more heresy and instability.

The Party was rightly convinced that China’s future depended on innovating ideas that would be felt around the globe, and yet it feared the reverse: absorbing “global values” was a threat to its survival.

Chinese leaders were facing a choice: to continue growing, they could adopt a more democratic form of government, as South Korea did in the 1980s, or they could recommit themselves to authoritarianism.

Historically, the latter approach was risky. Over the long term, authoritarian states do not grow as reliably as democracies; they are fragile, and they tend to thrive only in the hands of visionary individual leaders. “For every Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, there are many like Mobutu Sese Seko, of the Congo,” according to the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik.

From afar, China was often described as marching inexorably toward better days. But inside the country, people were more circumspect. Everything the Chinese had ever gained was by iron and sweat and fire, and they, better than anyone, knew the impermanence of it all — “the unreality of reality,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”