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Evan Osnos: A rare Western reporter with China fans

“I’m gonna describe a country. It’s a big powerful economy, in which the biggest issue today is the inequality between the rich and the poor, about who has access to political power and who does not.

“What country am I describing?” Evan Osnos asks Shanghai Daily with an intriguing smile.

To most Chinese and foreigners, Osnos is known as “The New Yorker’s China correspondent after Peter Hessler.” His recent speech at the Shanghai International Literary Festival was a sold-out event, very rare considering he hasn’t yet published a book.

Evan Osnos Photo: shanghai.talkmagazines.cn

He was published in The Chicago Tribune, which brought him to Beijing in 2005, and The New Yorker, for which he started working in 2008.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with his colleagues at the tribune for a series on flawed government regulation of toys, car seats and cribs; the articles resulted in extensive recalls.

Osnos’s debut book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China,” will be released in May and is already widely anticipated by many Chinese and Westerners as the next great China book, now a hot genre.

The answer to the big-power question is both China and the United States of America.

The similarities between the two countries is a point that Osnos has made throughout his career, writing vivid features that dig deep into the cultural, political and historical aspects of contemporary China.

He masterfully draws comparisons between the two countries that make the complexity of China more accessible to average American readers. For example, he described Beijing South Station by comparing it with the Empire State Building and the New York’s Penn Station.

“I don’t go looking for those similarities,” he says. “They just jump at me. For instance, Americans are always most interested in what other people think about us, and Chinese are also interested in that.”

He adds that “we are both big, and we believe we are at the center of the universe, and we are proud of ourselves and all we have accomplished. We are also aware that other countries sometimes don’t think we are as great as we think.”

Born while his father, Peter Osnos, was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in 1970s, Osnos has continued to find China more different from the former Soviet Union, and more similar to the US, as he spends more time here.

He also makes sure to emphasize the differences and not to underestimate the sophistication of contemporary China.

He has approached that sophistication by describing the lives of Chinese people. They include celebrities such as award-winning film director Jia Zhangke, Chinese media tycoon Hu Shuli and the most popular personal blogger Han Han — and ordinary people such as those in the Canaan Market of African merchants in Guangzhou and the so-called “angry youths” (fen qing), Chinese neoconservative nationalists, in Shanghai.

“Angry Youth: The New Generation’s Neocon Nationalists” was one of the first articles he wrote for The New Yorker in 2008. It featured Fudan University graduate student Tang Jie.

It was also the first piece that drew attention from Chinese translators, who voluntarily translated and distributed the article on websites such as yeeyan.org, whose founders are devoted to making good contemporary articles in other languages available to Chinese.

Later, Zhang Lixian, founder and editor of Duku, a bimonthly Chinese journal that selects in-depth articles from Chinese and other languages, started a long-term collaboration with Osnos to translate and distribute articles in his China journal. They were very well received.

When Zhang organized a little-promoted speech by Osnos in Beijing in 2011, the venue was packed with enthusiastic fans who even filled the aisles and corridors.

Zhang considers the collaboration “only natural since we started with Peter Hessler before.”

At the 2011 lecture, moderator Zhang explained how many great local journalists felt outperformed by Osnos when they covered the same subjects. He also expressed his total confidence in the professionalism of Osnos and The New Yorker, so much so that he would sometimes translate and distribute Osnos pieces that were less appreciated in China.

Bookish fen qing

Tang, the “angry youth,” was among the young Chinese who were angry about inaccurate reporting and criticism of China by Western media in 2008, the year of Beijing Olympics Games. That was when China first presented itself on the world stage.

Osnos, like many foreign correspondents in China, has received anonymous threats and demands that they do justice to China and the Chinese people. And so he decided to talk to fen qing, the angry youths, to find out who they really are.

Osnos described Tang as somewhat bookish, with a baby face, a very polite young Chinese who reads English and German easily, seemingly a not-very-angry Chinese youth, not exactly fitting the stereotypical image of fen qing.

It was a similar first impression Tang came to about Osnos, a not-very-angry American youth.

“He was somewhat bookish, polite and humble. That bookish feature of him is very much like ourselves, and his background in political sciences from Harvard also provided a shared knowledge background that made our communications go smoothly,” Tang, now teaching philosophy at a Chinese university, says in a phone interview.

“I was impressed by how meticulous he was. He spent more than two months and met with us a few times before he finished the piece. His Chinese is very good and his reporting experience in the Middle East has provided him a globalized view, making it interesting for our conversations”

Tang is not in 100 percent agreement with Osnos’s published piece, but “I respect our different opinions, and I respect his efforts trying to understand and bridge the gap.”

Such humbleness and efforts, as well as his professional practice and vivid writing style, have resulted in many China features in The New Yorker that tried to explain contemporary China through personal lives and changes.

“Every institution and every person I’ve written about, I always feel that the negative things written about them are out of proportion,” he says. “That’s the same as when I write about Americans.”

Osnos has soon engage both Western readers, who have long been influenced by a fixated idea about China, and Chinese audience, who held suspicion about Western media. Many of his Chinese followers are or have been journalists themselves.

It doesn’t mean he only praises China, a country that he has been interested in since a contemporary Chinese politics class in his freshman year and where he wanted to be allocated since he first became a reporter in 1999.

Osnos has received e-mails from both Chinese and Westerners, and interestingly, sometimes it is the Chinese who accuses him for being too positive about China and Westerners saying he was being too negative.

“There have been a lot of books about contemporary China published in the US in the last 10 years, but they tend to approach the subject from the top down — focusing on grand historical shifts in the economy, or the political system, or China’s relationship to its neighbors or the United States,” Eric Chinski, editor in chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publisher of “Age of Ambition,” talks about the appeal of Osnos’s writing style.

“What I love about Evan Osnos’s writing, both in The New Yorker and in his first book, ‘Age of Ambition,’ is that he tells the vivid stories of everyday people — artists, entrepreneurs, vacationers, students, lawyers, workers, journalists, and many others. These very human stories are often very moving, sometimes funny, and they are always revelatory of the extraordinary changes in China today.”

The editor is confident about the book’s sales also because “Americans want to understand China, a country with a long, rich history and a very important role to play in the world today.”

Osnos explains the keywords in the book’s title — fortune, truth and faith — in the order of chronological progress. He starts the book at the year of 1979, when Chinese first got access to the pursuit of fortune. As more of them got prosperity, the more they began to look for information, and the information led to pursuit of faith.

After covering China for 8 years, the correspondent moved back to the United States last summer, to cover Washington DC, where he is often asked about his opinions on everything in China.

“I try to answer the questions with stories of real people,” he says. “The more time you spent on the ground, the less certain you become about this place.”

“Age of Ambition” is Osnos’s long answer to China questions, filled with stories of real people, from updates on those he has written for The New Yorker to those whose lives took dramatic changes that he didn’t expect before.

“It’s the passion that ties them together, passion about something, and it might be artistic, criminal, idealistic, but every one of them gets up in the morning, and is devoted to pursuing something,” he explains.

“That’s what attracts me, the kinds of people that I spent most time with in China are the people who are so devoted to trying to accomplish something that often times it makes their lives complicated.”

One book he frequently goes back to read is “To Change China: Western Advisers in China” by Jonathan D. Spence, one that recollects stories of foreign soldiers, doctors, diplomats, missionaries, and merchants who try “to change China,” from Matteo Ricci in the 16th century to Mao’s soviet advisers half a century ago.

“The reason I go back to that book is humiliating,” he repeats. “Humiliating. The lesson I take away from that book is to be humble about what you hope to accomplish as a foreigner. I think the people who have done the most meaningful work in China are those who say all I’m going to do is to contribute what I have to contribute.

“I’m not here to be accepted or rejected. I’m not here as an adviser. I’m here as someone trying to learn and trying to make my observations as honest as I can,” he concludes.


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