Business, Finance & Economics

Evan Osnos' new book shows a China caught between rising individualism and authoritarian rule

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Credit: Sin Chi Yin (Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Girous)

Evan Osnos' new book sketches characters that defy stereotypes of today's China.

Chinese authorities are anything but shy when it comes to censorship.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

So when New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos thought about publishing his new book in China, he wasn't surprised to learn authorities had plans to censor about one out of every four pages he'd written.

So Osnos gave the idea a thumbs down. There is no Chinese edition of his book "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China."

Among the characters in the book that might have made the censors uncomfortable is Hu Shuli, the founder of a business magazine, who is known by some as "a female Godfather."

Osnos describes how Hu came up the journalism ladder "very much in the old-fashioned, party-run state newspaper system, where you were supposed to color within the lines, and never say anything the editors didn't approve of."

After Hu travelled to the United States to study, Osnos says she "came back inspired" and started a magazine devoted to covering high finance. That, Osnos says, is when Hu had a crucial insight — as China's economy had begun to balloon, there were "people who couldn't afford not to understand what was happening in corporate life and government — and she fed into that market."

While Hu learned that an independent media organization was possible in China, she also learned the price to be paid for speaking out. Hu covered the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, and was punished. Osnos says she was "sent down to the provinces and worked in obscurity for a few years" and learned an important lesson.

"She learned to do something the Chinese call 'playing edge-ball,' which is taken from ping-pong, which is to hit a ball just at the corner [of the] table so that you still win the point without missing the table entirely," Osnos says.  "And that's the way she's gone about her journalism."

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