John Osburg was an anthropology graduate student with no Mandarin language skills when he had an ambitious idea for a way to look at the rising power of China: to spend time behind the scenes with the country’s nouveau riche. He began studying the language and making connections through his job as the cohost of a Chinese television program in Chengdu, currying favor with executives whose firms advertised on the show. From his producer, the St. Louis native learned a key set of skills for elite entertaining in China: how to toast, how to drink, and how to flatter.
Osburg ended up staying in Chengdu for three years, and found himself taken into the confidence of powerful businessmen and gangsters, shadowing them night after night as they courted clients and government officials at karaoke clubs, saunas, and massage parlors. Osburg got access to the elite social networks that increasingly rule China but that outsiders almost never see. He found a deeply male world driven entirely by relationships, where police collaborated with organized crime to manage the underground economy. Mistresses and second and third girlfriends were standard, as were bottles of top-shelf liquor and Louis Vuitton wallets.
Over time, many of his research informants became friends and divulged secrets and anxieties about materialism, loss of trust, and corruption in post-Mao society. They sought out a foreigner’s perspective and at times, requested awkward favors of Osburg. Among other things, he was asked to pose as a Canadian doctor, a Mexican diplomat, and the fiancé of a Chinese businesswoman.
Osburg, now a 38-year-old professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester in New York, turned his fieldwork into his doctoral dissertation research and has two articles about his experiences coming out this fall. He recently published a book with Stanford University Press, “Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich.” To this day, he says, his Chinese informants don’t get Osburg’s fixation with academia and believe he will eventually seek his fortune and return to China. “They don’t understand why I wouldn’t pursue a more lucrative career,” Osburg said. “It seems irrational to them.”
He spoke to Ideas by phone from Rochester.
Ideas: Why were powerful businessmen willing to let a strange American student hang out with them all the time?
OSBURG: The joke that I tell my Chinese friends is that I was a “peijiuyuan”—a designated drinker. I would help them if they had a friend or a client or government officials they needed to wine and dine. They would call me up and say, “You’ve got to come out.” They would tell this person, “I have this foreign friend who speaks Chinese and knows how to drink.” They thought my presence would be enough to lure a reluctant client or reluctant government official out to dinner.
Ideas: How was your presence an attraction?
Osburg: Even in the early 2000s, in Chengdu, a Chinese-speaking foreigner was a bit of a novelty. Most couldn’t speak much English. Some felt they gained a bit of prestige in an entourage. This was especially the case when one of my research informants turned out to be a member of this mafia-like organization. He got this idea that I could become the personal assistant to an individual he referred to as the godfather.
Ideas: Were you a big drinker before you went to China?
Osburg: In China, I maybe discovered that I was able to hold my liquor reasonably well. But it was nothing superhuman or heroic by any means. There are Chinese spirits and most non-Chinese people find them disgusting. I kind of had a taste for them.
Ideas: Where did you spend most of your time with them?
Osburg: A lot of my time with them was in the evenings—it was dinner and in nightclubs. These nightclubs are not like in the US with a big open dance floor. The ones my research informants went to had their own private room with a TV where they could sing karaoke. There was lots of shiny metal, mirrors, and leather. The rooms had couches, flashing lights, and some had their own bathrooms. Sometimes they turn down the lights and get up and dance—there was usually an attendant who would operate the karaoke controls. And other times it’s nothing but drinking games and talk.
Ideas: From your book, I get a sense of profound loneliness at these clubs.
Osburg: Definitely. One guy I talk about, he goes to the clubs mostly by himself and surrounds himself with sometimes one or two, sometimes as many as 10 paid hostesses and spends the evening drinking with them. His other relationships with his friends and business associates are so complicated, and there is so much he has to think about and calculate, that it’s almost simpler for him to be surrounded by people who are paid to flatter him and serve him in some way.Continued...