Talking About China


Ian Johnson’s continuing series of interviews with intellectuals, activists, and artists in China


Hu Fayun: An Interview
November 28, 2016
Ian Johnson

Hu Fayun: I do not take as much direct action as some. Ever since being a sent-down youth in the Cultural Revolution, I’ve feared hardship and fatigue. But in important actions, if I feel I should express myself, then I try to pick up my courage.

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Filming China's Flaws
September 8, 2016
Ian Johnson

Ai Xiaoming: I believed in the goodness of human nature. I believe this is naïve. Actually, human nature in this totalitarian society has become very vile. This power has changed Chinese people’s psychological makeup. Most people, very many people, are really terrible; they’re afraid of losing things.

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Publishing Beijing's Secrets
January 22, 2016
Ian Johnson

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].

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Ai Weiwei Talks (Less)
September 12, 2015
Ian Johnson

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.

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China's Invisible History
May 27, 2015
Ian Johnson

“Back then, you couldn’t even find a book on how to make documentary films. I felt that the problems in society were so serious, but the media was just broadcasting propaganda. There was such a gap. I thought then: Why don’t those journalists tell the truth? Then I thought: Why don’t you try yourself, try to say something true?”

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China's Democracy Guru
February 3, 2015
Ian Johnson

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.

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Lawyers vs. Beijing
October 19, 2014
Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson: You’ve said that Xi Jinping is trying to bring China back to a totalitarian kind of system.

Teng Biao: He is not able to achieve totalitarianism, but he wants to. The problem for him is the civil society in China is stronger than he thinks.

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Jailing a Uighur Moderate
September 22, 2014
Ian Johnson

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.

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China: Sex and the Party
September 9, 2014
Ian Johnson

Why sex?

Li Yinhe: During the first thirty years of its rule, the Communist Party was anti-sex. So studying sex is controversial. Even in my current book, the section on laws about sex was eliminated. You can’t publish it.

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Wang Lixiong and Woeser: Ending Ethnic Repression
August 8, 2014
Ian Johnson

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.

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Wang Lixiong and Woeser: The Dalai Lama Impasse
August 7, 2014
Ian Johnson

You have spoken about how the Dalai Lama has had successes, but that his policy is at a dead end.

Wang Lixiong: I believe the Dalai Lama has fulfilled his historical role. His basic strategy is to get Western people and Western governments to put pressure on the Chinese government. But it doesn’t solve the problem.

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Albert Ho: Hong Kong Rising
July 16, 2014
Perry Link, with Ian Johnson

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.

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Hu Jia: Tiananmen at Twenty-Five
June 2, 2014
Ian Johnson

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.

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Jiang Xueqin: Solving China's Schools
April 8, 2014
Ian Johnson

“The reform movement in the US is led by a bunch of Ivy League people obsessed with data. They want to bring ‘accountability’ to the American school system. That means testing. They use China as the Yellow Peril. ‘If our kids can’t do math, China is going to kick our ass.'”

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China's Way to Happiness
February 4, 2014
Ian Johnson

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.

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Huang Qi: China's Blogging Revolution
February 9, 2013
Ian Johnson

“The first thing is we have to get the information out. You have to understand that the public security and government agencies are monitoring our site. They read it. News services too. After we publish, it’ll get the attention of the relevant authorities. So we have to send it out and then people can learn about it. That’s how we do it.”

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Yuan Zhiming: Jesus vs. Mao
September 4, 2012
Ian Johnson

“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.”

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Yu Jie: China's Fault Lines
July 14, 2012
Ian Johnson

“Over the past hundred years, China has studied a lot from the West: from France, the French Revolution, and from Germany, of course Marx and nationalism, which came to us via Japan. And from Russia we learned Leninism. But we haven’t learned much from this British-American tradition.”

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Chen Guangcheng: 'Pressure at the Grassroots'
June 26, 2012
Ian Johnson

“Chinese police and prosecutors, do you think they don’t understand Chinese law? They definitely understand. But these people illegally kept me under detention. 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.”

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Bao Tong: 'I'd Be Corrupt Too'
June 14, 2012
Ian Johnson

“In America, if you’re corrupt you have to resign. Look at Nixon. 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. In China everyone helps each other out.”

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Tian Qing: Endangered Culture
April 7, 2012
Ian Johnson

“The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. You say, for example, to a Miao woman, ‘Your clothes are beautiful,’ but she says, ‘No, I want to wear jeans.'”

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Ran Yunfei: Learning to Argue
March 2, 2012
Ian Johnson

“You have to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time.”

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Chang Ping: Is Democracy Chinese?
January 27, 2012
Ian Johnson

“Some people said that democracy wasn’t part of Chinese culture, and then Taiwan became democratic. Then they said that Taiwan was a special case. Now look at [the village of] Wukan. They had their own elections. People say it’s special, but in fact Wukan is really typically Chinese. It’s a Chinese town but they organized everything. So what argument are you left with?”

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Liao Yiwu: 'My Writing Is Illegal'
August 15, 2011
Ian Johnson

“The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this: You can’t do anything meaningful in China.”

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Yang Jisheng: The Facts About Mao
December 20, 2010
Ian Johnson

“Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. But there are many unofficial historians like me.”

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