Ian Johnson’s continuing series of interviews with intellectuals, activists, and artists in China
An Interview with Chen Hongguo
Chen Hongguo: My main view is: no secrets. You have to realize they’ll hear everything, even our conversation right now. They will know. Absolutely. Don’t think you can keep a secret from them. They really do know everything. It’s a system. It’s not one guy following you.
May 14, 2019
An Interview with Jiang Xue
Jiang Xue: 1989 left a deep impression on me. We collected money for the Tiananmen students. Everyone supported the students then. We went to the post office and asked them to send it to them. After they used guns on the students, we put out white flowers to honor the dead.
February 19, 2019
An Interview with Zhang Shihe
Zhang Shihe: Mao ordered young people to the countryside. I was sent to work on the Xi’an to Qinghai railway, with some 26,000 others. Most were broken when they came home. Today, they have children and grandchildren, but thousands died prematurely after coming back. These old guys don’t want that forgotten.
January 30, 2019
Liberating China's Past
With the closing of this month’s National People’s Congress, China’s political season is upon us. Ian Johnson interview Ke Yunlu, well-known in China for his politically prescient novels, including one that is widely seen as having predicted Xi Jinping’s rise.
March 29, 2017
Albert Ho: Hong Kong Rising
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.
July 16, 2014
Huang Qi: China's Blogging Revolution
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.
February 9, 2013
Yuan Zhiming: Jesus vs. Mao
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.
September 4, 2012
Yu Jie: China's Fault Lines
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.
July 14, 2012
Chen Guangcheng: 'Pressure at the Grassroots'
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.
June 26, 2012
Bao Tong: 'I'd Be Corrupt Too'
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.
June 14, 2012
Tian Qing: Endangered Culture
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.
April 7, 2012
Ran Yunfei: Learning to Argue
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.
March 2, 2012
Liao Yiwu: 'My Writing Is Illegal'
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.
August 15, 2011
Yang Jisheng: The Facts About Mao
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.
December 20, 2010