Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson writes from Beijing and Berlin. He is writing a book on China’s beliefs and values. (May 2015)

  • Xi's China: The Illusion of Change

    November 24, 2015

    In the three years since he came to power, the only area where Xi Jinping has shown real creativity has been in coming up with new ways of legitimizing his rule.

  • 'I Try to Talk Less': A Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu

    September 12, 2015

    Ai Weiwei: I’m alive. It’s a symbol of my life. If I don’t talk about politics then it means I am dead. I try to talk less.

  • China's Invisible History: An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie

    May 27, 2015

    If you don’t go record it, these people will die and no one will know their stories. The government definitely won’t tell their stories, so if people don’t go do it, these people will die out and their stories will die.

  • China: What the Uighurs See

    April 13, 2015

    Xinjiang is one of those remote places whose frequent mention in the international press stymies true understanding. American photographer Carolyn Drake has come to know the region well, and struggled to break free from its clichés.

  • How to Be a Chinese Democrat: An Interview with Liu Yu

    February 3, 2015

    Liu Yu is one of China’s best-known America-watchers.

  • China's Unstoppable Lawyers: An Interview with Teng Biao

    October 19, 2014

    Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known civil-rights lawyers, talks about China’s rights problem and why the current government is unlikely to make any significant reforms.

  • 'They Don't Want Moderate Uighurs'

    September 22, 2014

    The moderate Uighur activist Ilham Tohti is on trial in Beijing on “separatism” charges. I talked to several Chinese intellectuals about his case.

  • Sex in China: An Interview with Li Yinhe

    September 9, 2014

    I have said they should get rid of laws against orgies, and the reaction was huge. You can’t advocate that in China.”

  • Wang Lixiong and Woeser: A Way Out of China's Ethnic Unrest?

    August 8, 2014

    “Can we start a real dialogue to avoid the bloodshed? We need a dialogue but the moment we start one, it’s cut.”

  • Beyond the Dalai Lama: An Interview with Woeser and Wang Lixiong

    August 7, 2014

    Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong are an activist couple who have devoted themselves to chronicling ethnic unrest in China, and to finding solutions to it.

  • Hong Kong Rising: An Interview with Albert Ho

    July 16, 2014

    Earlier protests might be described as struggles for freedom from something—censorship or brainwashing of our children. The protest a few days ago was a demand for something: the people want free elections in order to take charge of their own house.

  • 'You Won't Get Near Tiananmen!': Hu Jia on the Continuing Crackdown

    June 2, 2014

    Hu Jia spent three and a half years in prison in China for “inciting subversion of state power” and currently is under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre earlier this year.

  • Solving China's Schools: An Interview with Jiang Xueqin

    April 8, 2014

    Why are China’s high schools performing better than those of any other country? Jiang Xueqin, a Yale graduate who has advised on education reforms in Shenzhen, talks about the future of education in China.

  • Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

    March 24, 2014

    Far from showing that Chinese are less religious than any other country, a new Pew study might actually be confirming one religion’s growing reach in Chinese society.

  • China's Way to Happiness

    February 4, 2014

    The happiness level in China is diminishing. You still have people becoming fabulously wealthy, but that feeds into a deteriorating moral climate.

  • Unhinged in China

    October 25, 2013

    In A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke weaves in classical opera, rediscovered religious traditions, and the anomie of the migrant condition lived by millions of Chinese to expose what he sees as the epidemic of violence and amorality in modern Chinese life.

  • Old Dreams for a New China

    October 15, 2013

    A barrage of propaganda posters that have gone up across China reveal the aims of President Xi Jinping’s new “China Dream” campaign.

  • China: When the Cats Rule

    August 26, 2013

    Lao She’s satirical 1932 novel Cat Country describes a visit to a country of cat-like people on Mars. Just translated into English, it gives us a brutal look at a China we continue to see today.

  • 'Jews Aren't Allowed to Use Phones': Berlin's Most Unsettling Memorial

    June 15, 2013

    In 1993, artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock posted eighty signs about Nazi policies throughout a former Jewish district of Berlin. Twenty years later, this in-your-face memorial, integrated into the present-day life of a residential neighborhood, remains one of the most visceral and unsettling reminders of the Holocaust.

  • Faking It in China

    June 6, 2013

    One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. The city of Huizhou features a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt; while Hangzhou, a city famous for its own waterfront culture, now includes a “Venice Water Town” that has Italian-style buildings, canals, and gondolas.

  • China's Sufis: The Shrines Behind the Dunes

    April 25, 2013

    Lisa Ross’s photographs are not our usual images of Xinjiang, the turbulent autonomous region in western China. Instead of representing political conflict, they show a little-known religious tradition—its desert shrines to Sufi saints.

  • Dancing in Empty Beijing

    February 15, 2013

    The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million.

  • Blogging the Slow-Motion Revolution: An Interview with China's Huang Qi

    February 9, 2013

    Fueled by cigarettes and green tea, Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi listens to the stories of China’s farmers and lower middle class, cuts them off when he has to, gives curt advice, and types out a few lines for his website on the latest protests and beatings.

  • Beijing's Doomsday Problem

    December 21, 2012

    Over the past ten days, China has been riveted by accounts of what authorities say are its very own doomsday cult: the church of Almighty God, which has prophesized that the world will end today. Authorities claim the group has basically spun out of control, forcing them to arrest 1,000 members in the biggest crackdown on a spiritual movement since the Falun Gong sect was banned in 1999.

  • Han Han: 'Why Aren't You Grateful?'

    October 1, 2012

    When looking for Chinese reactions to the anti-Japanese riots that took place in late September, it was probably not much of a surprise that the Western press turned to Han Han, the widely read Shanghai-based blogger. In characteristic form, Han gave a riff on the protests that obliquely criticized the government, while at the same time insulated himself from making a direct accusation: “As far as looting and destroying things, this must be punished by law, or else I might suspect that there was some official backing behind all this.”

  • Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

    September 24, 2012

    This is a story that sounds familiar, that we think we know or can imagine: old houses torn down for luxury malls, ordinary people poorly compensated, an intimate way of life replaced by highways and high-rises. All of this is happening in Shanghai—and dozens of cities across China and around the world—but it’s not how Howard French and Qiu Xiaolong tell it in their unusual new book of photographs, poems, and essays, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

  • Jesus vs. Mao? An Interview With Yuan Zhiming

    September 4, 2012

    Ian Johnson: The Chinese government seems to recognize that there is a crisis of faith. How do you see its efforts to promote public morality?

    Yuan Zhiming: Everyone sees the crisis clearly. Everyone knows it. What China lacks the most is faith or a spiritual support. Look at Bo Xilai. He tried to use Mao’s idea to create a spiritual support for people in Chongqing by having them sing old communist songs. He recognized that people lacked a sense of community and wanted to create a model in Chongqing for all of China. But he made a mistake in that Mao isn’t a God.

  • The New Olympic Arms Race

    August 8, 2012

    You can follow the Olympics two ways. First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. You wonder about doping but try to believe that the sports agencies have it more or less under control and that Dick Pound is just another Canadian curmudgeon. Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy.

  • China's 'Fault Lines': Yu Jie on His New Biography of Liu Xiaobo

    July 14, 2012

    Yu Jie is one of China’s most prominent essayists and critics, with more than thirty books to his name. His latest work is a biography of his friend, the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Authorities warned Yu that he too would be jailed if the book was published and in January, he fled China with his wife and son for the United States.

  • 'Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots': An Interview with Chen Guangcheng

    June 26, 2012

    Ian Johnson: How do you account for Chinese officials’ frequent disregard of China’s own laws? Is it a lack of checks and balances—that officials think they can get away with anything so they do anything?

    Chen Guangcheng: It’s also that they don’t dare do the right thing and don’t dare not do the wrong thing. Chinese police and prosecutors, do you think they don’t understand Chinese law? They definitely understand. But these people illegally kept me under detention.They all knew [that what they were doing was illegal] but they didn’t dare take a step to rectify the situation. They weren’t able to. So you can see that once you enter the system, you need to become bad. If you don’t become bad, you can’t survive.

  • 'In the Current System, I'd Be Corrupt Too': An Interview with Bao Tong

    June 14, 2012

    Bao Tong: In America, if you’re corrupt you have to resign. Look at Nixon. He had Watergate and had to resign. In China does that happen? No. Why? Because everyone is in one boat. If that boat turns over, everyone ends up in the water. When I say “everyone” of course I mean the people in power…

    Ian Johnson: I think that group of men at the other table are watching us.

    Forget them. They follow me wherever I go.

  • Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

    May 29, 2012

    Few people in the West have heard of Bill Porter, a translator of Chinese poetry and religious works whose works in print rarely sell more than a thousand copies each year. For most of the past decade, he says, his annual income has hovered around $15,000. Several of his books humorously thank the US Department of Agriculture—for providing food stamps that have kept him and his family going. But in China, Porter’s writings about Chinese hermits have recently gained him hundreds of thousands of readers, book contracts, and celebrity status, thanks to a small but growing new publishing culture for foreign authors.

  • Debacle in Beijing

    May 3, 2012

    The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China’s future. This isn’t to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change.

  • 'Worse Than the Cultural Revolution': An Interview With Tian Qing

    April 7, 2012

    Tian Qing may be China’s leading expert on the protection of “intangible cultural heritage”—native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of traditional culture. As Tian notes, these are gaining in popularity but the nature of the revival is ambiguous: Are they being recovered as living traditions or as objects for urbanized Chinese to enjoy as tourists in their own land? I spoke to him recently at his offices at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which are stuffed with volumes of research, scrolls, recordings, and papers.

  • China's Falling Star

    March 19, 2012

    Just a few months ago, commentators were saying that Bo Xilai, the leader of the Chinese city-state of Chongqinq, was a serious candidate for the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the apogee of Chinese power. Suddenly, he has vanished from the heavens. How did this happen and what does it mean? After arriving in Chongqing, Bo had tried to turn it into a base for his triumphant return to Beijing this year at this fall’s Party Congress. To do this, he launched a sweeping package of reforms—and, departing from usual practice for mid-level party leaders, organized a large-scale media campaign to tout his program. But it was above all the fact that he was offering these measures as a kind of systemic reform that was a rebuke to the central leadership.

  • Learning How to Argue: An Interview with Ran Yunfei

    March 2, 2012

    One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.

  • Is Democracy Chinese? An Interview with Journalist Chang Ping

    January 27, 2012

    Chang Ping is one of China’s best-known commentators on contemporary affairs.

  • Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong's Quiet Return

    January 13, 2012

    The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate. In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion.

  • Do China's Village Protests Help the Regime?

    December 22, 2011

    Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public land and villagers get nothing. Anger builds and protests erupt. Inept local officials negotiate and then turn to violence, in this case encircling the town with police in hopes of starving the population into submission.

    What to make of all this? The overall sense in Western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding. And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up.

  • Are China's Rulers Getting Religion?

    October 29, 2011

    After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt with government support. And shortly after the Communist Party’s annual plenum this month, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?

  • The CIA's Islamist Cover Up

    August 30, 2011

    The tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will be accompanied by the usual solemn political pronouncements and predictable media retrospectives. But they shouldn’t distract us from a very precise and practical problem that hasn’t been addressed: the refusal of the CIA to disclose the details of its involvement with Islamist groups.

  • 'I'm not interested in them; I wish they weren't interested in me': An Interview with Liao Yiwu

    August 15, 2011

    Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.

  • China's Glorious New Past

    June 1, 2011

    Over the past few decades, Chinese cities have seen their historic centers erased by a generic vision of modernization: broad boulevards and highways, office towers and luxury flats. In Datong, that vision had its day in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, this old-fashioned coal-mining city is on the cutting edge of a new urban development strategy: recreating an imagined, glorious Chinese past.

  • China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei's Arrest?

    April 22, 2011

    Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into a digital recorder. In a country obsessed with walls, he is a living challenge to the political system.

  • Washington's Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood

    February 5, 2011

    As US-backed strongmen around North Africa and the Middle East are being toppled or shaken by popular protests, Washington is grappling with a crucial foreign-policy issue: how to deal with the powerful but opaque Muslim Brotherhood.

  • Finding the Facts About Mao's Victims

    December 20, 2010

    Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. But he is best known now as the author of Tombstone (Mubei), a groundbreaking new book on the Great Famine (1958–1961), which, though imprecisely known in the West, ranks as one of worst human disasters in history. I spoke with Yang in Beijing in late November about his book, the political atmosphere in Beijing, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.

  • Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

    October 20, 2010

    Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting didn’t exactly crush this hope, but it did put things in a much more sober perspective.

  • A Worldwide Reading for Li Bifeng

    June 4, 2013

    The exiled Chinese author Liao Yiwu, the International Literaturfestival Berlin, and a group of prominent international authors are jointly appealing for an international reading in support of the imprisoned Chinese author Li Bifeng.