China's rapid evolution is giving citizens the chance to demand what they want

To the Point
Evan Osnos at KCRW's To The Point

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the bloody military crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Some Chinese citizens will be marking the occasion — but will we even know? Or will government censors scrub out any discussion of the events of June 4, 1989?

New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos lived in China from 2005 to 2013. He says many Chinese have only a vague understanding of what happened 25 years ago, but it will be discussed around dinner tables, regardless.

“Sometimes we imagine that it’s just this blank spot in their understanding, and actually it’s a little more interesting,” Osnos says. “They know there was — as it’s often described in Chinese history — 'turmoil.' There was a disturbance and what they’ve been taught in school is: Had those events turned out differently, had there not been a crackdown by the military, China’s economic gains would have been impossible.”

Government censors have already started to isolate code words people are using to talk about Tiananmen Square and blocking them from social media sites, Osnos says. The words “fire” and “troubles,” for instance, are heavily restricted.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Macmillan Publishers

This “cat and mouse game” between Internet users and the Central Publicity Department (also called the Central Propaganda Department) is a major part of Osnos’ fascinating new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in New China.

“At one point a couple years ago, I noticed that one of the code words people were using was ‘the truth.’ So all of a sudden you got this very odd message if you tried to search for “the truth.” You got a message that said ‘Information about the truth is currently unavailable.’”

Osnos says that’s just one of many examples where technological growth has outpaced political change. In his book, he tells the story of this “warp speed transformation” through the lives of young bloggers, ordinary workers, dissident artists and millionaire entrepreneurs.

One of his subjects: Gong Haiyan, who founded Jiayuan, an online dating service in China. Osnos visited her palatial home after she earned $77 million by taking her company public in the US in 2011.

But even her online dating clients tell the story of “New China,” Osnos says. You just have to look at the very specific demands they can make about the height, romantic history and salary prospects of their potential dates.

“After all this time in which you couldn’t demand anything in China — you didn’t deserve to demand anything as an individual — all of a sudden you can be incredibly demanding. And if you think about what that does to a country, to a society, and ultimately to a government that’s a transformative effect.”

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