June 3, 2014
Guest: Evan Osnos
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Twenty-five years ago Chinese military forces engaged in a brutal assault on protesters at Tiananmen square, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed civilians. Since then, China has remained a one- party state intolerant of political opposition, even as it has encouraged private investment and overseen a period of economic growth that rivals any in human history. Our guest, Evan Osnos, spent eight years in China - three for The Chicago Tribune and five as correspondent for The New Yorker. His new book explores the tensions between China's rapid expansion and economic opportunity, and its enduring commitment to authoritarian rule. His book is full of revealing personal stories and some telling statistics, like this one. In 2005 there were only 65 Chinese students in private American high schools. Five years later there were more than 7,000, as wealthy Chinese embraced American education to create opportunities for their children.
Evan Osnos is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker based in Washington. He was the magazine's Beijing correspondent from 2008 to 2013. He's the winner of two Overseas Press Club awards and was part of a team at The Chicago Tribune that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. His new book is "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." Evan Osnos, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin with a reading from your book, and this will give us a picture, maybe, of how much China has changed. And this gets back to one of your earlier visits there. You want to just set it up and read it for us?
EVAN OSNOS: Sure. This is about my first time going to China. (Reading) Once I became interested in China, I flew to Beijing in 1996 to spend half a year studying Mandarin. The city stunned me. Cameras had failed to convey how much closer it was in spirit and geography to the windswept plains of Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong. Beijing smelled of coal and garlic and work-stained wool and cheap tobacco. In a clap-trap taxi with the windows sealed and the heat cranked up, the smell stuck to the roof of your mouth. Beijing was cradled by mountains, high on the North China plain. And in the winter, the wind that rose in the in the land of Genghis Khan whistled down and lashed your face. Beijing was a clamoring, unglamorous place. One of the nicest buildings in town was the Jianguo Hotel, which the architect proudly described as a perfect replica of a Holiday Inn in Palo Alto, California. China's national economy was smaller than that of Italy. The countryside felt near. Most nights I ate in a Muslim restaurant known as Xinjiang Village, which belonged to the Uighurs, an ethnic group from far-western China. Their tiny, gray brick restaurants had jittery sheep tied out front and the animals vanished in the kitchens one-by-one at dinnertime. After the crowds thinned out each day, the waiters and cooks climbed onto the tables and went to sleep.
DAVIES: And that's Evan Osnos from his book, "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." That gives us a picture of the China of 1996. Give us some sense of the scale and speed of China's growth and how much things have changed.
OSNOS: China's transformation - it's extraordinary economic growth - to put in perspective is 100 times the scale and 10 times the speed of the first industrial revolution which transformed Britain. So, in practical terms what that feels like up close is that in 1978, for instance, your average Chinese person made about 200 dollars a year and last year they made about 6,000 dollars a year. I mean, in the most elemental ways their lives are different. So, in the mid '70s compared to today - a person in China today eats about six times as much meat as they did back then, and, you know, I mentioned that hotel that was such a fancy place to go in 1996. Well today, 40% of the skyscrapers under construction worldwide are in China.
DAVIES: Wow. And how different is Beijing?
OSNOS: It's unrecognizable. That was the thing I don't think I was prepared for when I moved back to China in 2005. I actually went off looking for where I had gone to school and I could not find it. I mean, the dormitories had been moved. The area was transformed. And, you know, I think in some ways it's - it can be disorienting because you go to these places that made total sense - there was a sort of physical logic to the city 15 years ago and now it's been raised and rebuilt. And it can be, sometimes - it can be literally hard to figure out where you are.
DAVIES: Now, of course, it remains a one-party state. An authoritarian state. Just remind us, sort of, what the change in policy was that got all of this going back in the '90s.
OSNOS: Well the crucial moment in understanding how China became this, sort of, hybrid between an authoritarian state and a free market economy came in 1979, you know, after 30 years of socialism. Ever since the Communist revolution in 1949 the party had adhered basically to orthodox, Marxist, Leninist economics. And those had been ruinous. By 1979, Chinese people were poorer, on average, than North Koreans. I mean, your average per-capita income in China that year was one third of sub-Saharan Africa's. And so, Deng Xiaoping, who was the leader of the country, and the men around him made a judgment, which was, if they were going to survive politically, they had to get rid of socialist economics and that's what they did.
So, they embarked on this radical transformation. They basically set aside, in a sense, the scripture of socialism and they held on to the saints of socialism. Chairman Mao, for instance, whose portrait still hangs in Tiananmen square. But for people on the ground, the effect was transformative. All of a sudden they started to unravel the old collective farms and the factories, and people were basically told to go off on their own and begin to find work for themselves and begin to decide what they were going to do with the little bit of money that they were accumulating. I mean, for people it felt so elemental that the word they used in Chinese was, (Chinese spoken), which is to literally untie a prisoner or an animal. All of a sudden people felt that they had been unfastened from the system and were sent out on their own.
DAVIES: And of course, in the years since we've seen hundreds of millions who have moved from rural life to factories and cities. And you tell some interesting stories which convey the change and I wanted to talk a bit about this one woman, Gong Haiyan. She grew up in a rural village in Hunan Province, which I think is where Mao Zedong came from. First of all, she sowed - showed early signs of entrepreneurial spirit - went to a factory, eventually got schooling and she got into the matchmaking business. And the way she got into it was kind of funny. You want to tell us that story?
OSNOS: Yeah, she - like a lot of people her age, I think - had this strange problem she was confronting, which was that her parents were back in the village and the only people that they could introduce her to were people from their circle. And she said, no, I live in the city. I've got an education. I live a completely different life and I need to find people just like me. And she actually signed up for an early dating service and it turned out it was a scam. They had - she'd been given a list of photos and names and contact information, and it turned out that they were all, basically, fake dates. They had been cobbled together - just sort of these composites. And when she contacted the company and said, well, why did you cheat me like this? They said, well, it serves you right. Take a look at yourself. You're not beautiful enough to be going for the types of men that you're after. And this offended her. It offended her in a way that I think previous generations would never have felt. But she said, I deserve better than this. So she decided to start a company. And that's around the time I met her. She was just out of graduate school and she was living in a tiny one-room apartment in Beijing and she started the Chinese equivalent of match.com. And actually, it turned out there was a huge market for what she was interested in doing. There was a lot of people like her. And even though they didn't really have the computers to make it work, people were actually mailing in, by post, their photos and stats. It turned out there were a lot of people facing a similar quandary. And she took her company public on the NASDAQ and she made 77 million dollars.
DAVIES: Well, this is a fascinating, kind of, window into Chinese life. First of all, what was the scale of the Internet dating, here? I mean, how many people were interested in her services when it really got going?
OSNOS: There were millions of people who were interested because they were facing basically the same situation that she was in. These are people who had moved to the cities from the countryside and, you know, they had - all of a sudden the Internet was a huge part of their lives. And for them it was entirely logical to go online and to tailor to their own desires, essentially, what it was that they wanted out of life.
DAVIES: And you learned something about their preferences, I mean, they could be very specific, right?
OSNOS: Yeah, I mean they - in some sense after so many years of having no choices it was almost as if people embraced the power of choice. I started collecting online personals ads that people placed and - I'll give you an example. There was a young woman in the city of Wuhan, for instance, who placed an ad looking for a husband with the following qualities. She was looking for somebody who was not only a non-smoker and a non-gambler and was athletic, but she wanted somebody between five-foot-seven and five-foot-nine inches tall, making over 50,000 yuan per year, who was willing to guarantee eating four dinners at home each week and had a track record, she said, of at least two ex-girlfriends but no more than four. She also said no Virgos and no Capricorns.
DAVIES: (Laughter) You described going to dinner at her house. You want to just share a bit of that with us?
OSNOS: Yeah, I went to visit her at home and she had moved into a villa on the edge of Beijing, out in the new sort of prosperous suburbs out there. And when I arrived, actually, to my surprise, the first thing I saw in the front hall was a motorcycle - the family motorcycle was inside and I asked her why it was inside. And she said, well it's just safer to keep it there. And I said, well - you know, this was sort of the way you do it in the village, after all - this was the old village tradition. But, I said I think you're probably okay. I think your next-door neighbor is the Swiss Ambassador. But in some ways, you know, she was - she had gotten - her life had transformed even faster than her own habits could keep up. And for me, at least, that really became a reflection of so much about China today which is that the place was moving even faster than its own participants could comprehend sometimes.
DAVIES: Now, the woman we just described was a classic entrepreneur. I mean, she was smart, hard-working - she found, you know, an opportunity and seized it. How much of the newfound wealth is connected to the power and privilege of party associations - Communist Party associations?
OSNOS: On paper the plan was that the people in China who were going to - who moved the fastest and seized the most opportunities - that they would become these pioneers. And that, for a while, was the mythology. And certainly that's what you saw on the front page of the newspaper everyday. You'd see a story about somebody going from a dumpling stand to owning a huge chain nationwide, but I think running beneath that - underneath the surface there was this growing sense - and it's taken hold more strongly in the last few years - that actually the way to get ahead in China was to be born into the right family or to have the right connections or to pay the right bribe. And that became, really, a fundamental challenge to this bargain at the center of Chinese life, which is, we'll let you get rich if you let us stay in power.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Evan Osnos. His book is "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Evan Osnos. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He spent eight years in China and has a new book called "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China."
China, of course, is a country that's transformed radically economically. And there's this incredible growth of new businesses and prosperity. But it is still, at its heart, an authoritarian state. And we're, of course, upon the 25th anniversary of the military suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square. Do Chinese even know about the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square?
OSNOS: They know remarkably little. It's dependent largely on how old you are, how much you know. You know, for anybody who's grown up in the last 25 years - so anybody who's going to school during the last generation - the textbooks, the educational materials they have access to make almost no mention of the event in 1989.
And, you know, it's worth remembering that this was an enormous moment in Chinese history. You had students pouring into the center of the capital, occupying, really, the citadel of party power for close to two months. And you had demonstrations across the country. And eventually, the military moved in the night of June 3 and opened fire on the students and on onlookers around the city. But if you open up a Chinese textbook today, there really is almost no mention of it. The only mention is, typically, that this was a time of great turmoil and that the party restored order and set China back on a course of economic development.
DAVIES: You know, you write a lot in the book about the contradiction between the government encouraging innovation and mobility and its attempts to suppress speech and assembly. And you write about a building in Beijing - an unidentified building that
s kind of at the heart of censorship and suppression. You want to explain what this building is, what goes on in there?
OSNOS: Yeah, I got very interested in this building. I mean, it's right in the center of the city. It's on Jong-Ansia (ph), which is this broad boulevard that runs right through town. Right next to the Chinese equivalent of the White House is this enormous office building with a pagoda roof on it. And the first time I asked what this building was - I asked the guard and he said, I can't tell you that. And it was odd, there was no number on it. There's no sign on it.
And it turns out that the building is home to the Central Propaganda Department. The Central Propaganda Department is the highest-ranking censorship agency in China. And it has control over everything from the appointment of newspaper editors to university professors to the way that films are cut and distributed. And so it has this extraordinary impact. There was one scholar once compared it to the impact of the Vatican over the global community of Catholics. It's almost impossible to overstate how powerful it is in people's lives.
DAVIES: And do people in Beijing - are they aware of the building? Do they know what goes on there?
OSNOS: They're aware that it's there. It's part of the strange - this strange - you know, it's this sort of paradox of the propaganda culture, which is that everybody knows that it exists. It's been an essential part of the Communist Party approach to power, which is to control, in the end, the information that people have as a way of shaping their reality. And yet it also goes undiscussed. You know, that building appears nowhere on organizational charts of the party.
And so the party has a very kind of self-conscious relationship with its own use of propaganda because on the one hand, it believes that it's vital for holding onto power and for maintaining political stability. And yet it also realizes that there's something completely antiquated about having that in the year 2014. So a few years ago, they actually changed the name of the Central Propaganda Department in English. They changed it to the Central Publicity Department. But I've always found it ironic that the Central Publicity Department has no sign and no address.
DAVIES: Well, and you're right that, I mean, when Deng Xiaoping and the leaders back at the time decided they would retain the authoritarian structure while they encouraged free enterprise, that they also changed their approach to propaganda. I mean, it's not just thundering loudspeakers and big marches and giant posters of heroic workers, right?
OSNOS: No, that's what's really interesting about it. There was a point right after the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square when the party realized, you know, our propaganda is not working, otherwise all these young kids wouldn't have come down to the middle of the capital and held demonstrations for weeks and weeks. And in fact, for a time, they talked about getting rid of the propaganda system completely. And instead they did they opposite, and they doubled down on it.
And what they said was, we need to become much more sophisticated about how we conduct what's known as Chinese as thought work. And so they began to study the masters, really. They began to study the United States and the origins of public relations culture. So they went back and they actually - if you look in the textbooks for Chinese propaganda officials today, some of the things that they cite are the success of Coca-Cola. They say, if you can sell sugar water in effect to people, well, then we can sell anything at all.
They also looked very admiringly at the way that the Bush administration dealt with the press in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They think this is an example of a successful relationship with the press. They also look at the way that Tony Blair's government in Britain handled the media around the issue of mad cow disease. And so there's been this real effort to study what's been done in the West and to take from it the best attributes - or at least the most efficient and effective attributes of the free-market public relations industry.
DAVIES: So can you give us an example of them putting this to use - a campaign that's sophisticated and aimed at talking to people in a smart way?
OSNOS: Well, most recently, the Chinese government has adopted a message which sounds like the kind of thing that a brand would use, which is they've started telling people that the purpose of the government, the purpose of the nation these days is the pursuit of the Chinese dream. And, you know, it's a very smooth - very kind of - it almost sounds like a familiar brand line.
And, you know, for years they used to say things like - you know, that the government was dedicating itself to a scientific outlook on development, which nobody really understood at all. So they decided instead that by telling people that the purpose of the state was to help people achieve their Chinese dream, they were putting it into words that they could understand and they hoped would make it much closer to people's lives and would, in a sense, reflect and draw energy from this deep well of aspiration out there.
They sort of recognize that, you know, people in China today have things that they want. And by associating the party with this idea of the Chinese dream, what they hoped was that they would be able to piggyback on this sense of aspiration. You know, my own sense is that when they came up with this slogan of the Chinese dream they had a - the party had a very specific idea in mind of what that meant. What they said was, it's the great renewal of the Chinese nation. That meant it was basically a call to the public to rally around the flag underneath the Communist Party and pull together.
And yet when I went around Beijing, I talked to people about it. I said, well, what does the Chinese dream mean? Everybody seemed to have a different answer. I mean, my next-door neighbor, who's a widow, named Yeun Biao-ju (ph), I said, well, what does the Chinese dream mean? And she said, my Chinese dream is to beat your landlord in the lawsuit that we're in. And so, you know, I sort of feel like, you know, the party mastered the apparatus of modern public relations. But beneath that, people have interpreted the messages in their own ways.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos, we'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about China, 25 years after the assault on protesters at Tiananmen Square with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, who spent eight years in the country. His new book tells personal stories that illustrate the rapid social and economic changes sweeping the country and the efforts of the one-party state to suppress dissent and maintain its authority. Osnos' book is "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China."
You know, it's interesting that you write about the extent to which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are confident that they're going to be able to sustain their role. I mean - what?- 80 million members in the party, right? It's still a very hierarchical organization. And you write that President Xi Jinping embarked on an anti-corruption campaign. Give us a feel for kind of what was going on there and how it was promoted.
OSNOS: Well, when Xi Jinping came into office at the end of 2012, he realized - I think correctly - that the party was facing a tidal wave of corruption. I mean, it had grown steadily over the course of the last generation, ever since the country had embarked on free-market reforms. And all of a sudden, you had people who were accumulating an enormous fortune under the table.
I mean, an example that I encountered was a regional railway boss who decided that he was going to take a little piece of every ticket that was sold in his region for himself. And the money started accumulating so fast and was piling up in cash in his home at such a rate, that in fact the money was beginning to molder and turn to dust. He couldn't get rid of the money fast enough. And all over the country, there were stories of that kind in one form or another, not as extreme. But in people's lives it became a dominant fact of life. It was this kind of byproduct of China's rise, was this extraordinary surge in corruption.
DAVIES: But, you know, this corrupt railway boss was put on trial, and he confessed and wept. But I think there was a feeling that the investigation didn't go as far as it might have. And then the government embarked upon the I Made A Bribe campaign - an attempt to encourage people to report corruption wherever they found it, right? I mean, we're really going to come clean. Things are going to be different. What became of that?
OSNOS: Well, people took the government at its word, and they got enthusiastic about this possibility of being able to report corruption for the first time and to contribute, in a sense, to this new government campaign. But the problem was, that as people adopted this and began to do it on their own - so for instance lawyers, who began to report incidents of corruption. They began to propose legal reforms, like income disclosures that would require local officials to report how much money they were earning. Well, the more that this happened, the party began to realize that they were losing control of the anti-corruption effort that they had created. And so they had to rein it in. And so all of a sudden, the party which had so enthusiastically launched the country onto this anti-corruption campaign began to arrest some of the people who were trying to root out corruption. And so all of a sudden, they decided that it really wasn't up to ordinary people to be doing this. The party wanted to be doing it itself on its own terms.
DAVIES: Right, because if in fact they attack the privilege of those in the party, they're undermining the base of their own political support, which is the 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.
OSNOS: Yeah. This was really the conundrum that the party faces, which is, you know, if they go after all of the privileges and the - and the opportunities that have been created for party members, well, then what's left? You know, they've gotten rid of socialistic economics. The party today exists almost like a professional organization. You know, it's helpful for networking and recruiting and things like that. But how much could they rein in the privileges without undermining the party's legitimacy entirely?
DAVIES: So we have a situation where in China, you know, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people have seen enormous increases in their income. And they're better off than they've been in generations. And yet, at the same time, there's official suppression at every hand. There's no real representative democracy, and corruption that really pretty much goes unchecked. Do we know anything about how people regard socialism and the one-party state? I mean, is there poll data on this?
OSNOS: There is. And if you look at some polling data - for instance, there's a poll that asks people if they approve of their government. And what you'll find is that the numbers are very high. I mean, in many cases, more than 80 percent of the people that they call will say that they approve of the government. And this is higher, certainly, than it is in the United States. It's higher often than any other country in the world.
But I think there's also reasons to be a little skeptical of some of those numbers. For one thing, if somebody calls you up on the phone and you live in a authoritarian country, and they ask if you like your government, it's not hard to come up with the right answer.
I think it's also important to recognize that there are differences within the population. So for instance, older people who have grown up in which they remember the worst days of the cultural revolution, the political turmoil, the poverty that came with that - for them, China today is an extraordinary improvement, I mean, just in terms of the sheer quality of life. And yet younger people are much less satisfied because they have no memory of the bad, old days. And so young people in China today are growing up in this environment where they've been raised to believe that your income's going to continue growing every year, that if you buy into the system, you get a college education, that you'll have a job waiting for you. But that's getting a lot harder. It's gotten a lot harder in the last few years, and it's going to continue to get harder. And I don't think that that population is as satisfied, and the government is actually very aware of it. They're acutely aware of it.
DAVIES: Do you have any insight into the debates at the higher levels of the party? I mean, you know, they watched the Soviet Union unravel. I mean, they surely think - about avoiding a repetition of that.
OSNOS: Yeah. The government is immensely aware of the Soviet experience. They talk about it all the time. In fact, Xi Jinping, the president, says that he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev. In his case, he says that when there were protests, when there was calls for reform in the Soviet Union, that Mikhail Gorbachev did not stand up to it. And he's determined to avoid that experience.
The president, Xi Jinping, though, is also facing something of a predicament because in being so determined to avoid undertaking the kinds of reforms that he believed led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it also has closed off the sorts of avenues that people have had in the past to register their dissatisfaction in China. And so as a result, you have this tension, which seems to be growing over the years rather than dissipating. And so in his determination to hold the country together, to hold the party together, I think he is also running the risk of actually increasing the pressure that eventually will become impossible for them to manage.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Evan Osnos. His new book is "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. He spent eight years in China. His new book about his experience there is called "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China."
You know, you write that during the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, you know, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack on traditional Chinese spiritual beliefs that was really pretty effective; and that when this new ethos of progress and self-enrichment didn't really kind of fill the spiritual void, there was a need for something; and that there's now a more permissive attitude towards religion in China. And you write that you wanted to understand Chinese citizens quest for meaning in their lives. What did you find?
OSNOS: Well, over the course of a generation, people had gone from living almost a religious experience in their devotion to Chairman Mao. I think it's easy for us to forget that after all, you know, they held up his book, and they waved it over their heads. And people would literally confess their sins at the foot of his statues. And then all of a sudden, that disappeared overnight. Socialist economics was finished. And all of a sudden, people were left to figure out, well, what do I want out of life? What am I here for? What am I a part of? What is the basis of public morality?
And so it's really been an extraordinary awakening over the last few years, where all of a sudden, you have people going off and looking for philosophies and religions to the point that today China has about as many Christians as there are members of the Communist Party.
I lived in a neighborhood in Beijing that had a whole bunch of temples right next to each other. And oftentimes it seemed like people were hedging their bets 'cause they would go from the Tibetan Buddhist temple. And they'd go across the street to the Confucius temple. And then on the way home, they might stop at a Protestant church just to be safe. But they were looking for answers about what it means to be Chinese in this day and age.
DAVIES: And the government tolerates it as long as it's not what is thought of as a cult, right?
OSNOS: It tolerates it but very, very warily. I mean, there is this constant tug-of-war over who's going to control the boundaries of faith in China. And just recently you've seen that they have toppled some unofficial churches that hadn't received official approval. So, you know, we see this constant process of opening and then closing again.
But fundamentally, the government recognizes that it can no longer prevent people from choosing where they want to devote their own spiritual lives. It has to allow people some kind of spiritual satisfaction. And it's - in a sense, it's trying to manage that flood of energy. You know, oftentimes, I think of it - instead of saying, perhaps, that the government is allowing people to pursue faith, actually, it's more like the government is simply trying to keep up with them.
DAVIES: You know, in the Arab Spring, we've just seen cases where mass protests, you know, brought down governments and led to armed conflict. And I wonder if you've reflected on why - I mean, the protests in 1989 which, you know, involved millions, I guess, at their height - were so effectively suppressed, why it's so different?
OSNOS: Yeah, I've thought a lot about it. I used to live in Egypt before I moved to China. And in a way, I guess, I look at China, and I'm reminded of the fact that in 1989 when these protests happened, you know, the country was so close to the experience of poverty and the experience of political turmoil during the cultural revolution - and I think that really was an enormous ingredient because what the government said in putting down these protests was not simply that we had to do this in order to protect the Communist Party. But what they said to the public in China was, if we did not put these down, all of you will go back to the turmoil that defined the first 30 years of the People's Republic. And none of you want that.
And that message was incredibly powerful. And I'll meet young people in China today who will still say that. They say, had, you know - what they'll say is, I admire the courage of that young man who stood in front of the tank. But I'm glad that he failed because if he had not failed, then I wouldn't be sitting here with the opportunities that I have. That's what they've been educated to believe, and, for many of them, they have believed it.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's easy to forget that, I mean, there was starvation in a lot of Chinese territory.
OSNOS: There was. There was starvation within our lifetime in China on a wide scale. I mean, in the 1950s, there was a famine that killed between 30 and 45 million people, more than all of the deaths in World War I. And so anybody who was living in 1989 was balancing these two very powerful desires. One was, sure, the desire for greater autonomy and control in their lives, but also it was the desire not to go backwards in history. And they were acutely afraid of that.
DAVIES: Well, Evan Osnos, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
OSNOS: Thanks very much for having me.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book is "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: We've put a man on the moon, harnessed the atom and built supercomputers that handle quadrillions of calculations per second. But try to get five people with telephones talking to each other and we're quickly exposed as technical klutzes. FRESH AIR Tech contributor, Alexis Madrigal, considers the conference call and how our communication with co-worker's has changed.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, BYLINE: Every day, at 6:30 a.m., I join a conference call with colleagues on the East coast. I call an 800-number and then enter a six-digit conference room number, then a pin number. And despite the group remaining largely unchanged, once a week, something goes wrong. When I conference with outsiders, there's a problem every other call. There's the, oops, I got the wrong dial-in problem, there's the pin number is too long to remember problem, there's the is so and so on the line problem, and the someone hasn't muted the line and is a mouth breather problem.
MADRIGAL: Meetings are convened to bring people together, and yet our conference calls prevent communication as often as they enable it. So what's going on? Why hasn't some tech startup fix this? The key problem with conference calls is that they attempt to connect various telecom networks that have been built on top of the legacy phone network, which is as old as Alexander Graham Bell. We're all trying to hack this nearly century old system of communication to fit the needs of a world that wants everything to act like the Internet.
Work and work communication have changed in the gig economy too. Think about what it actually looks like these days. Some people are calling in via cell phones, other via traditional landline, still others through the Internet. Some in traditional offices, others in cars and coffee shops. And yet we expect everyone to connect smoothly because each can be reached via the 10-digit identifier we call a phone number.
In some ways, the conference call, for all its foibles, is a miracle in interoperability. It's like if you could send a message to an e-mail address, a Twitter user, a Facebook account and a MySpace page all with the same tool. The phone system is also not configured to pass along your identity easily. So while we might be able to log into a website using a Facebook account, when we call into a conference it doesn't tell the other people, oh, hey, Alexis just joined from Oakland. Instead participants have to verbally explain themselves.
That might have been OK in the past, but our expectations for these things have changed. On the Internet we are used to our communications being clearly heralded. Now, several startups are trying to change the way that conference calls work. They want to make it easier for people to join calls, and know who's on the line and someday perhaps kill the pin number. Two direct contenders are Uberconference and Speek, spelled with two Es, the latest in a long line of strange spelling decisions by startup companies. Both services do away with pin numbers if you want to, have full-featured mobile apps, can connect with document sharing sites like Evernote and Box and can easily integrate people dialing in from their computers or through Google+. Users can also choose to have the conference service call them on a landline or mobile phone and of course if you prefer, you can dial in the old way too. Our virtual meetings, though, don't have to revolve around telephone handset anymore. As our personal lives go, so do our work lives. We talk less on the phone now and text more because it gets the personal or professional job done. So now most of my work communications actually occur in an instant messaging tool called Slack, which allows us to meet and share ideas without having to pick up the phone. We can paste in links, photos, tweets and anything else we might want to remember and it automatically creates an archive and integrates with our calendar tool. Work has changed, it's more important to save our never-ending scroll of ideas than it is to hear the timbre of each other's voices.
But if we do need a more sensory experience, Google Hangouts allow for easy and simple video conferencing, providing a much richer interaction than one can get from voice calls alone. And though I think most people think they're a joke, there are so-called telepresence robots like the Vgo, a screen, microphone, camera and speakers mounted on a tall wheeled robot. Its maker claims it can see, hear, talk and move as if you were there.
But that these other options have not already replayed the traditional conference call is a testament to the one thing that conference calls are good at - interoperability. And not just between technical system but also between generations of people. While the youngest people I work with are fluent texters, the oldest prefer face-to-face communications. But we can all meet in the de-technologized zone of the conference call. Where one can use the latest Samsung or a rotary dial antiquity. And yet we are all equal in the eyes of the telephone network. And maybe that's worth something. Perhaps even the hassle of having to remember to un-mute your line when it's your turn to talk.
DAVIES: Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society. And a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the tech section of their website. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new punk Klezmer album. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The New York City band Golem described their music as punk klezmer. Music critic Milo Miles says that on the group's new album "Tanz," they managed to find new ways to balance urban irreverence with folk tradition.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
GOLEM: (Singing) Roll the tape. (Singing in foreign language).
MILO MILES: In the 1970s, when the American music market was fascinated by roots, the Eastern European mix of styles known as klezmer awoke from a 50 year sleep. Klezmer was meant to be party music, for dancing all night at Jewish weddings. But revival klezmer had a careful preservationist atmosphere. And no matter how expertly done, a party designed by your grandparents can't be all that exciting. The New York band Golem has spent 14 years injecting punk attitude into the Klezmer cadences. They are persistently funny, irreverent, varied in subject matter, and at one moment heartbroken, the next deranged. Golem have put together their tightest program on their fourth album "Tanz." The title track that offers an irresistible command to dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TANZ")
GOLEM: (Singing) Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. You could be the last woman. And maybe no more men. There may be no tomorrow. We got through Yesterday. You could be the last woman. There may be no more men. There may be no tomorrow. We got through yesterday. So let's dance.
MILES: Golem does not feature a clarinet, the traditional lead horn in klezmer. "Tanz" presents Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone. Plus, some wiggly guest guitar from Brandon Seabrook. All of them emphasizing the chattering quality in their up-tempo solos. But while Golem can wham you from the stage, parts of earlier studio work sounded distant, even anemic. New producer Tony Maimone to the rescue. Finally, Golem sounds electric, till they play acoustic. As full of beams and tiers as they need to be. Here is singer Aaron Diskin explaining how he talks to animals and people in different languages.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HORSE")
GOLEM: (Singing) With my dog, I speak in Russian. See? (Russian spoken) With my cat, I speak in Polish. Kitty, kitty, kitty. But with my faithful horse, I speak (foreign language spoken). Unlike all other men, my horse is a firebrand. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. With my children, I speak English. Go clean your room, you brats.
MILES: It's clear Diskin can deliver comic relief, but he also relishes the sardonic spin of a trickster narrator. The song "Poletim" suggests a whacky B-movie airplane hijack caper. The Jewish perpetrators screw up the crime. The pilot screws up where they want to go. Everybody ends up in Siberia. You're amazed to find it is a cover of a tune by the Russian saloon singer Arkady Severny and based on true events. The lyrics are co-translated by singer Annette Ezekial Kogan, who also writes most of the words for the band's original songs. She is the sly star of Golem. Here she blends an obsessive lover with an overly protective mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLETIM")
GOLEM: (Singing) Don't you catch a cold, I want you to get very old. Button up your overcoat when you're on a boat. Put on your seatbelt 'cause you make my heart melt. Watch when you cross the street, don't forget to eat. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. All the time.
MILES: But that isn't her most ingenious mixture of moods. That would be the brooding mikvah bath, about the ritual cleansing of a bride before an arranged wedding. Here Kogan finds the sweet spot right between rote ceremony and the intrigue of a mystery assignation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIKVAH BATH")
GOLEM: (Singing) Up to my shoulders in the water. Washing every hair before I wed. A mikvah bath will purify me, before I lie down in my wedding bed. Will he close his eyes before we kiss? Will he run his fingers through my hair? Will he undress in the other room or watch as I say the evening prayer?
MILES: However, the performance entente is Miskayt, a duet by Diskin and Kogan that's a playlet in song. Two uglys meet - features of each other, then notice that he smells lovely and she has a great figure and love conquers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISKAYT")
GOLEM: (Singing) She was a miskayt. Someone so ugly you could cry. A miskayt, someone you pray will pass you by. He was a miskayt, a mother's love, the rest are lies. Oh, such a miskayt, a grotesque before my eyes. Her eyes were crossed, her hair a frizzy mess.
MILES: Listening to these capers, you think how apt the name Golem is. It refers to the legend of a clay humanoid, brought to life to defend the Jewish ghetto of 17th century Prague. A wild, even depraved creature with a warm heart, offbeat and charming as Golem the band.
DAVIES: Music critic Milo Miles reviewed "Tanz," the new album from the punk klezmer band Golem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOU ALL THE TIME")
GOLEM: (Singing) Always stand up straight, try not to be late. Lather on the sunscreen, easy on the caffeine. Don't mix your alcohol, don't smoke menthols. Stay away from doctors, and helicopters. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time, all the time.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOU ALL THE TIME")
GOLEM: (Singing) I always think the worst, if you're not home first. Scared if I'm knocked down, somewhere in this big town. If you're not feeling fab, then please take a cab. 'Cause I don't know what I'd do, if I didn't have you. I love all the time. I love you all the time.
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