Ian Johnson reports from Beijing and Berlin. He is writing a book on China’s beliefs and values. (April 2016)

Berlin: The End of a Museum Idyll

The Dahlem museums, Berlin, March 11, 2014

The transition of western Berlin’s Dahlem collections to the approximately $630 million Humboldt Forum near Museum Island is not driven by the needs of the collection. One gets an uneasy feeling that they are viewed as much as a way to bolster tourism than as works of complex beauty and history requiring diligent care, scholarship, and attention. Defenders of the plan have asserted that their current home in Dahlem is too far out of town, but in reality, the collections have simply been neglected.

‘My Personal Vendetta’: An Interview with Hong Kong Publisher Bao Pu

Bao Pu: I am interested in telling stories about human nature. The Communists are so against human nature….I’m going to demythify Chinese culture. My example is Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta. Our next book will be like that—a graphic non-fiction book on the Lin Biao incident [the probable attempted coup and flight by Mao’s most trusted aide in 1971, ending in his death in a plane crash].

Why Pollution is Good for China

A man in Jingshan Park, overlooking the Forbidden City, Beijing, China, December 8, 2015

For the first time, the Beijing city government has been pressured into announcing its first-ever “red alert” air emergency. It seems that a grassroots awareness of what humans are doing to the climate is slowly taking hold in China. As perverse as it might be, the Chinese capital’s airpocalypse may be in its best long-term interests.

Xi’s China: The Illusion of Change

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Manila, Philippines, November 18, 2015

Chinese president Xi Jinping has been credited with a vigorous foreign policy, economic reforms, and a crackdown on corruption. But his primary goal is to recreate the early years of Communist rule in the 1950s when, according to official mythology, the party was clean, officials upright, and the populace content. Returning to this imagined past means strengthening, not weakening party control.

‘I Try to Talk Less’: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu

Liao Yiwu and Ai Weiwei, Berlin, September 2, 2015

Ai Weiwei: My feelings are, actually are…how can I describe this situation? It’s like I was on arid land and thrown into water. I’ve been running for so many years and now have reached the shore. It’s that kind of feeling. Because I never felt I belonged in water. That kind of control. That kind of pressure. And every kind of threat. I was living under constant threats. And suddenly this thing, suddenly it vanishes, and everything returns to normal.

An American Hero in China

Peter Hessler with the Huangs, a local fishing family described in his 2003 New Yorker essay ‘Underwater,’ on the rising waters of the Yangtze River shortly after the gates of the Three Gorges Dam were closed, Wushan, China, June 2003
One night in September, three hundred people crowded into the basement auditorium of an office tower in Beijing to hear a discussion between two of China’s most popular writers. One was Liu Yu, a thirty-eight-year-old political scientist and blogger who has written a best seller explaining how American democracy works.

China: What the Uighurs See

 An apartment complex in Kashgar for Uighurs displaced by development projects, 2009 (click images to enlarge)

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. The summation of her work is Wild Pigeon, an ambitious, beautiful, and crushingly sad book.

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

The Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 2007

I think you Americans, your political agenda has become taken over by these differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. Every day, you fight about issues like taxation or abortion. But perhaps you have forgotten that the things the Republicans and Democrats share are much larger than what separates them.

China’s Brave Underground Journal

Young pioneers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, 1965; photographs by Marc Riboud, whose exhibition ‘Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia’ is at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City, until March 23, 2015
On the last stretch of flatlands north of Beijing, just before the Mongolian foothills, lies the satellite city of Tiantongyuan. This rootless suburb is home to Remembrance, an underground journal that deals with one of China’s most sensitive issues: its history.

China’s Brave Underground Journal—II

Ouyang Xiang, son of a denounced former Party secretary in Heilongjiang province, being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for sending an unsigned letter to the local revolutionary committee in his father’s defense, Harbin, November 1968. The sign around his neck bears his name and the date of his offending letter. When he tried to shout ‘Long live Chairman Mao,’ his mouth was stuffed with a glove. Several days later he was pushed out of a third-story window; the official report called his death a suicide.
Samizdat publications like the online journal Remembrance are setting off long-overdue discussions about how China should deal with its violent past, especially when many of the victims are dead. Is it best to forget, which the country has largely done, or is there merit in digging up the past? And is it possible to have a cathartic confrontation with the past in a country with no real public sphere?

‘They Don’t Want Moderate Uighurs’

Ilham Tohti lecturing in Beijing with a surveillance camera above him, June 12, 2010

Why was Ilham Tohti arrested? Wang Lixiong: The only conclusion is dark: they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.

The Chinese Invade Africa

Ethiopian and Chinese workers from the China Communication Construction Company attending Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to the site of the Addis Ababa–Adama toll road, May 2, 2014
In early May, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, made a trip to Africa that raised a central question about China’s rise: What effect will it have on the world’s poorer countries? As a big third-world country that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in just a few decades—and has …

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

Wang Lixiong and Woeser

Why has the Chinese government relied so much on suppression in Tibet and Xinjiang? Wang Lixiong: Simply put, it’s due to their politics, but they can’t say that. They say it’s due to hostile foreign forces. After troubles started in Tibet they said it was the “Dalai Clique.” You can see the situation getting worse year by year, so it’s only possible to say that it’s their policy.

Hong Kong Rising: An Interview with Albert Ho

A sit-in for democratic rights in Hong Kong's central district, July 1, 2014

Why are these protests happening now? Hong Kong’s people have been striving for democracy for over two decades, and the desire is now so strong that if Beijing breaches its promise and fails to deliver democracy in 2017, Hong Kong will likely become ungovernable.

‘You Won’t Get Near Tiananmen!’: Hu Jia on the Continuing Crackdown

Hu Jia

Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old and is currently under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre in January. But on his way back from a rare unsupervised hospital visit, I met up with him for a talk about his work and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen.

The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square

Chinese troops observing the Tiananmen Square demonstration in May 1989 before the army was ordered to attack
Should we think of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future? Two new books tackle the Tiananmen events from this vantage point. One is set in China and is about repressing memory; the other is set abroad and is about keeping it alive.

The China Challenge

Filipino crew members gesturing at a Chinese Coast Guard vessel that tried to block their supply ship from approaching the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre, where Filipino Marines are stationed to guard the disputed Ayungin reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, March 2014
In 1890, an undistinguished US Navy captain published a book that would influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases to project power around the globe. His work was so …

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

Christmas Eve services at the Xuanwumen Catholic Church, Beijing, December 24, 2012

According to a new opinion survey by the Pew Research Center, only 14 percent of Chinese think that belief in God is necessary for morality—the lowest percentage in any country. But if there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing number who are taking part in organized religion. Could it be that the Pew study asks the wrong question?

The Brave Catholics of China

Han Ying Fang, a fifth-generation Catholic, Shanxi province, China, 1992. The crucifix she is holding was hidden in the ceiling of her house during the Cultural Revolution.
Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year, ending up in …

China’s Way to Happiness

A family in traditional mourning attire burn paper money in front of a paper mansion. The return of collective religious traditions is part of Chinese people's search for meaning and stability.

Are people in China happy? Richard Madsen: The happiness level is diminishing. The pace of economic growth is not continuing like it was. You still have people becoming fabulously wealthy and crassly displaying it, but that also feeds into a deteriorating moral climate.

Dreams of a Different China

A street artist with his portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Dali, China, July 2013
Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a policy of robustly defending territorial claims and called on the United States to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” These actions, unthinkable a decade ago when China was still a much smaller, less important global player, were evidence that Xi intended to realize his dream.

Unhinged in China

Jiang Wu as an angry miner in Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is made up of four interlocking stories that are meant to encompass the geographic sweep of China, and what Jia sees as the epidemic of violence and amorality in modern Chinese life. All the stories are about members of China’s working classes, victims of social change who end up as violent desperados—modern-day knights trying to avenge large-scale wrongs. Interwoven are other themes that few other Chinese directors would touch: the destruction of traditions and religions, for example, or cruelty toward animals. It’s one of the few films out of China in recent years with ambition—and made by someone with enough talent to pull it off.

Old Dreams for a New China

Workers walking past a “China Dream” poster, Beijing, September 2, 2013

Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. A nationwide barrage of propaganda posters that went up starting in July gives a clearer explanation of what he is up to. Using the China Dream slogan, these posters extol various national virtues like filial piety and thrift. Drawing on traditional folk art rather than Communist symbols to illustrate their message, these posters redefine the state’s vision for China as a Confucian, family-centric nation, defined by a quiet life of respecting the elderly and saving for the future. Here are a selection of them.