IN 2010, Harvard philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel went to China expecting to give a talk to a small group of philosophy students, much as he had done on a previous visit to the country. Instead, he arrived at his lecture to find a mass of listeners, some of whom had arrived close to six hours early to get seats. Videos of his lectures in the United States had recently been subtitled and posted online for Chinese viewers, creating a fervor that The China Daily wrote was “usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars and NBA players.”
Sandel’s Chinese reception, not unlike Thomas Piketty’s recent popularity in the United States, is surprising but not inexplicable. Academic rock stars are created in some part by the hope their theories may inspire in a time of seeming desperation. In the United States, Piketty’s Capital in the 20th Century proposes a solution to ever-widening wealth inequalities. And as Evan Osnos suggests in his latest book The Age of Ambition, the popularity of Sandel’s lectures on moral philosophy is yet another indicator that China’s economic model is about to undergo a major change.
Sandel, it turns out, is an opportune thinker for China’s chaotic contemporary moment. While China’s adoption of a market economy has not occurred at the uncontrolled speed that ex-Soviet countries experienced after the fall of Communism, today the country faces the consequences of its great opening: individualism and its less tolerable cousins, self-interest and corruption. Osnos describes one case of state corruption in which an official was found with so much hoarded cash in his house that the bills were moldering. A study cited by Osnos, meanwhile, found that while academic research has increased in China, much of it is of suspect quality: a third of it is tainted by plagiarism or fabricated data.
In Justice and other books, Michael Sandel writes about moral decisions, about where a society ought to draw the line of what’s right. His theoretical explorations of morality, grounded in realistic but hypothetical situations, push precisely against the worst excesses that plague China. Sandel’s lectures and books, Osnos writes, “offered Chinese young people a vocabulary that they found useful and challenging but not subversive, a framework in which to talk about inequality, corruption, and fairness without sounding political.” One woman tells Osnos that Sandel’s work was “a key to open my mind and doubt everything.” As a result, and much to the chagrin of this woman’s mother, she began to question everything, to see the moral dilemma in everyday activities. “I didn’t say it’s wrong or right,” she says. “I’m just questioning.”
The fact that it’s Sandel and his ideas that sparked such interest also has other potentially far-reaching implication. For Sandel, justice is a deliberative process, as it is for Amartya Sen, who in his book The Idea of Justice, argues that the concept is closely tied to democracy. The two are ultimately grounded on the same thing: “the exercise of public reason.” Democracy, Sen argues, is not a matter of elections and ballots but of several intertwined elements: a free media, the existence of opposition parties, and full freedom of speech — all necessary for a society to foster public debate. As a result, Sen writes, the existence of democracy “is centrally important for the pursuit of justice as well.” In the case of what Osnos describes in China, though, the opposite path is opening up. The hope is that by thinking about justice, China may be finding its way to democracy.
Osnos never explicitly predicts the fall of China’s authoritarian Communist Party; he is too prudent a reporter for such speculation. A former China correspondent for The New Yorker, his book draws on eight years of reporting he did for that magazine and the Chicago Tribune before moving to Washington, D.C. last year. For the most part he maintains the role of the objective journalist as he interviews both strident nationalists and radical activists for democracy.
But intermittently, in his most honest moments, Osnos hints at what all his reporting may indicate. He admits to being overwhelmed at the sheer scope of thoughts and opinions he encounters in a country, that for many, is defined by the ideological and political rigidity of Communism. The more Osnos digs, the more he finds a flurry of political activity and thinking underneath the country’s seemingly unflappable public face. The country can no longer be reduced to the image of a subservient work force, motivated by state propaganda and satisfied with the promise of having done their part: workers who do their best to only satisfy the needs of the whole, to become a “tiny screw” in the revolutionary machine. Instead, what Osnos presents is a nation of clashing ideas — a country filled with individuals etching out a place for themselves rather than plugging into a role predetermined for them.
Osnos reports on censorship, repression, and corruption as well, but the prevailing sentiment of his book — the underlying optimism — is that the Communist Party has become much like an aging giant attempting to rule over a bustling town: with a stomp of the foot the giant can strike fear into the people and briefly stop all activity, but it is too slow and lumbering to maintain control at all times. Writing about the government’s ceaseless updates to its list of banned words on the internet, Osnos gets at what he sees as a major weakness of the Party. Because it had to keep up with the terms that people persistently invented to evade censorship, Osnos writes, “the government was in a race against the imagination, and it was forever trying to catch up.”
Age of Ambition is especially important to consider in light of many recent arguments about China and its economic resurgence: that it represents a potentially fatal challenge to democracy. Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Democracy in Retreat that such economic power may be “the most serious threat to democratic capitalism since the rise of communism and fascism in the 1920s and early 1930s.”
The Economist put forward a similar argument recently in a long essay about the dispiriting decline of democracy over the past ten years. It noted how Freedom House, an NGO that performs research on democracy and political freedom, has reported eight consecutive years of decline in global freedom, a measure that Freedom House calculates based on changes to political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world. Many countries like Russia have kept the outward appearance of democracy, holding consistent elections, but have lost the other pivotal elements that many, including Amartya Sen, see as requirements for true democratic government. In others the parts of the world, such as the Middle East, democracy has appeared to be on the rise, but few actual signs of fundamental change have emerged.
In such a climate, The Economist argues, China’s three decades of growth proves an ominous example. “The Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress,” it writes, in part because “China’s leaders have been able to tackle some of the big problems of state-building that can take decades to deal with in a democracy.” That success has rightfully forced some to question the necessity of democracy. As a Chinese student studying in the United States tells Osnos, “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?”
The rapid increase in prosperity that China has experienced over the past thirty years may be unequal, may be unsustainable, but on a basic level it may also be irresistible. As Osnos writes, “in 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2013, it was $6,000.” Or as The Economist points out: “When America was growing fastest, it doubled living standards roughly every 30 years. China has been doubling living standards roughly every decade for the past 30 years.”
Internally, such rapid growth means any political change immediately gets pitted against the fear of diminishing returns. The people who have been afforded a middle-class existence by China’s growth “won’t bet their apartments, cars, television sets, washing machines and hopes on a prayer,” says one Chinese writer in Age of Ambition while commenting on Charter 08, a declaration headed by Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo which called for radical political reforms and led to Xiaobo’s arrest. Even if that growth has been vastly imbalanced — if, as Osnos writes, “for most of the Chinese people… the boom has not produced vast wealth” but rather “permitted the first halting steps out of poverty” — it offers the promise of example. In the face of the extraordinary financial possibilities that the current system seems to offer, any political change will require convincing people that the possibility of wealth won’t disappear as a result.
From an outsider perspective, China’s growth gets to the heart of a question posed in The Quest for Prosperity by Lin Yifu, whose life Osnos uses as a guiding narrative for his book. In 1979, Lin, then called Lin Zhengyim, was a Taiwanese soldier who defected to China at a time when most people were attempting to flee. By 2008, he had become chief economist at the World Bank. His question — “How can a developing country catch up to developed countries?”—continues to be a pressing one, and the fact that the Chinese economic and political model appears to offer an answer has given many countries a reason to take China’s example seriously.
In Democracy in Retreat, Kurlantzick writes about how China has begun aggressively advocating the benefits of its model by setting up training programs for foreign ministers from developing countries in which “the Chinese system and its ability to rapidly handle crises and successfully pursue long-term goals” are contrasted with slow and inefficient Western democracies. And for many countries, Kurlantzick writes, the pitch has been appealing:
Having analyzed surveys of political values in Southeast Asia going back a decade, [Indonesian scholar Ignatius] Wibowo concludes that people in many Southeast Asian countries share a willingness to abandon some of their democratic values for higher growth and the kind of increasingly state-directed economic system that many of these countries in fact had in their authoritarian days, and that China still has today.
Ultimately, the Chinese government is betting on economic prosperity by following the famous words of Deng Xiaoping, China’s reformist leader following Mao’s death: “Development is the only hard truth.” When necessary, however, the Communist Party has sacrificed growth for political stability. In 2009, Osnos writes, two ethnic groups, the Muslim Uighurs and the Hans, clashed in the western city of Ürümqi. Two hundred Hans died, after which Uighurs began to be targeted for revenge. To reassert control, the Party created a digital blackout, shutting off the internet, cutting long-distance phone lines, and disabling text messages. “The Party,” Osnos writes, “was willing to accept immense economic damage to smother what it considered a political threat.”
Adaptability for the sake of maintaining power has been the Party’s successful work model, whether that has meant allowing elements of the free market economy to take a foothold or, more recently, beginning to tackle corruption. The latter is, alongside environmental concerns, the largest current threat to its credibility. Both issues have continued to grow in importance because the numbers involved, sometimes reaching tens of billions of dollars, speak to a profound injustice, and because on a day-to-day basis they have ruined the sense that upward mobility is possible for everyone in China. Political positions are regularly sold for six figures and the possibility of a good education seems increasingly compromised: “Nationwide,” Osnos reports at one point, “46 percent of parents said in a survey that strong ‘social connections’ or fees were the only way to get their children a good education.”
Still, it’s important to remember that the evidence of a popular move to democracy remains only speculative. Osnos documents a lot of intellectual activity and a lot of frustration but no breakthrough in stemming the government’s arrest of dissidents or its fierce battle against free speech. Liu Xiaobo remains in jail and just last month the journalist Gao Yu was detained by police before publically apologizing for leaking a government document that listed seven subversive concepts inimical to the Communist Party, including Western democracy, human rights, independent media, and questioning China’s economic policy. As the activist Hu Ping once wrote: “Freedom of speech is both the first requirement for democracy, and also its last line of defense. With this inner sanctum protected, democracy can win the field, and the process of democratization will be unstoppable.” Hu wrote those words in 1980. Today, the field has not yet been won and the process of democratization is still very much in question. But the fact that such a question is being asked, that Osnos is able to even raise the possibility of a shift towards democracy, indicates that much has already changed in China.
It remains to be seen whether the Communist Party can change in a way that satisfies the Chinese people. Osnos is optimistic that the Party might be ending, or, at the very least, adapting. “The longer I lived in China,” he writes, “the more I sensed that the Chinese people have outpaced the political system that nurtured their rise.” He begins Age of Ambition by listing a series of China’s contradictions: a population buying Rolls-Royces in droves but whose government bans the word “luxury”; a country with two of the world’s largest internet companies, but where the state has devoted unprecedented resources to online censorship; a society told that political stability is the only way to continue economic growth, but where income inequality between some cities is equal to the discrepancy in wealth between the United States and Ghana. Given this context, Age of Ambition leaves you with the distinct feeling that, as Osnos writes with a nice twist on Marxist dialectics, “the Party has unleashed the greatest expansion of human potential in world history — and spawned, perhaps, the greatest threat to its own survival.”