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A Conversation with Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, on China

Ian Webinar

On Friday, September 25, 2020, Rutgers Center for Chinese Studies (RCCS) virtually hosted Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-Prize winner and one of the most prominent Western journalists on China, in front of a global audience. People participated in the Zoom webinar from diverse locations in Canada, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and the US. Many people learned about our events through the RCCS Facebook page. The video recording of the conversation can be found on our video page.

In the wide-ranging conversation facilitated by Tao Jiang (RCCS director), Johnson talked about the many facets of his life and experience as a journalist in China over the 20 years he spent there. He attributed his interest in China to the influence of his father and his professors at college. Since his return to China in 2009, Johnson had been living there till earlier this year. He lost his journalist visa due to the increasing hostility between the US and the Chinese governments, the tit for tat in expelling journalists and closing of consulates. Right now The New York Times has only one journalist left in China, reduced from ten previously. The situation is similar with The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Johnson went into some details about the circumstances of him being expelled from China and lamented the devastating loss of a large contingent of Western journalists in China, with disastrous short- and long-term impacts in terms of understanding what is going on in such a critical part of the world as well as the loss of person-to-person connections with Chinese people. He talked to us from London where he has been living since he left China.

Johnson emphasized that one major misunderstanding about China and the Chinese people is that everything in China is about politics, due to the news coverage of US-China bilateral relationship that tends to be viewed through the political lens. His experience with Chinese people tells him that Chinese people and the rest of the world share much in common, and that this point can often get lost without sustained engagement. In his experience, most Chinese people are rather eager to talk about their lives, their country, their culture, and share their stories as long as one is respectful, sincere, and willing to spend time getting to know them.

Johnson talked about the complicated attitudes of the Chinese people toward their past, proud of it on the one hand while doubtful about it on the other. This is reflected in the Chinese appreciation of traditional calligraphy, literature, Chinese medicine as well as their herculean effort to rebuilding everything while sweeping away much of the past. One major issue in the Chinese relationship with the past is their attitude toward religion. The conversation covered a good deal of Johnson's 2017 book, The Souls of China: The Return of China after Mao. Johnson talked about the ways Chinese people look for meanings of their lives in various repackaged traditional religious practices as well as new practices and the profound impact such practices in reshaping people's lives and interpersonal relations. The conversation also covered the tricky category of “religion” in Chinese and complex relationships Chinese people have with religion, culture, and politics.

Johnson shared his thought on the trajectory of China’s place in the world and strongly advocated for more engagement with China. He called on young people to go to China, study the language, get to know the Chinese people, and serve as cultural mediators between China and the US. He strongly pushed back against the illusion some people have that because there is Google translator we do not need to learn another language and that because there is internet it is easy to know what is going on in other parts of the world. Still, despite the series of setbacks in the US-China relationships recently, Johnson is hopeful that a better time will come and that when some degree of normalcy returns expertise on China will be in great demand.

During the Q&A period, Tanja Sargent (Rutgers Graduate School of Education) joined Tao Jiang in fielding the questions from the audience. The webinar setting only allowed the panelists to see the questions in order to prevent "Zoombombing." The two moderators selected the questions from a large number of submissions. Once a question was answered live, the moderators released it to the audience. Questions included the status of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, in China, the complexity of engaging a big and consequential country like China, the long-term prospects for US-China relationships, Johnson’s daily life in managing pollution and food safety in Beijing, citizen journalism taking place on social media in China, the risk of self-censorship among China scholars and journalists due to the worsening ties, the importance of understanding the realities of China and the Chinese people instead of interpreting through set ideologies and fixed lenses, and the possibility of religion as a source to transcend nationalist sentiments in China and many other parts of the world, including the US.

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