Sinica: The Evan Osnos Exit Interview

On the Sinica podcast, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn talk to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos as he prepares to leave Beijing after eight years. Osnos describes his forthcoming book, due in Spring 2014, on “the power of aspiration” in China. One of the real-life characters populating it is Michael Zhang, a Crazy English devotee convinced “that if he could master English it would change his life”:

He’s kind of got his fingernails on the bottom rung of the middle class in China, and he sees people all around him moving up, and he’s desperate to join them … and if you read the book, you’ll find out what happens.

[…] The most powerful and the most appealing thing about China … it’s this incredible drive within the Chinese people to really make something of themselves individually and for their family or for whatever their community is, however they define it, and then there are these structural limits that they run up against … if you’re somebody trying to publish a magazine, you run into those limits, if you’re somebody trying to start a business and you don’t have the right connections, you run into those limits. And in a whole series of ways I’ve kind of watched that unfold in these lives.

[…] I actually think that the most interesting dynamic, and so many of the crises we see in China—these … however many acts of unrest it is, whether it’s an environmental reason or a land-taking or some other kind of precipitating reason—usually if you dig down what you find is that it was the collision between one person’s aspiration and the system, and that the system at that moment was unable to accommodate that aspiration.

Osnos talks about the three themes of urbanization, internationalization and the Internet that he feels set “his” China apart from that of his predecessor at The New Yorker, Peter Hessler’s; the issue of media bias and “setting the moral parameters” of coverage; how much the experiences of a Chen Guangcheng or an Ai Weiwei say about China’s overall trajectory; the “elemental” improvements in life expectancy and education China has seen over the past 25 years; and similarities between today’s China and the America of Mark Twain (and, previously, that of F. Scott Fitzgerald). The three also discuss some of the highlights of Osnos’ China writing, including his Grand Tour of Europe with a coachload of Chinese tourists and last year’s profile of ‘God of Gamblers’, former barber Siu Yun Ping.

Osnos admits, though, that “that this whole leaving thing is a bit of a charade, because I’m still going to come back to write stories when I find something that rings my chimes.”

See more reflections on leaving China from Fairfax Media’s John Garnaut, The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts and Al Jazeera English’s Melissa Chan, via CDT.