Ian Johnson on Caves, Politics and Air Quality

At Asia Society, Jeffrey Wasserstrom talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson about China’s dramatic changes and the grave perils involved in covering them.

This has been a year of surprising developments in China, relating to everything from high politics (the fall of Bo Xilai) to activism and surveillance (the escape of Chen Guangcheng) to the censure of foreign journalists (the expulsion of Melissa Chan). Which of these stories — or other unexpected ones — struck you as coming most out of the blue?

I think the implosion of Bo’s career has to have been the most surprising. In a big political year there’s usually some flare-up, but we’ve never had quite such a show, where a Politburo member’s dirty linen has been aired quite so publicly. I think Bo’s chances to ascend to the Standing Committee had been small beforehand, so we shouldn’t exaggerate his fall too much, but it’s stunning because it shows how sordid his life was. I think we can also assume that he wasn’t the bad apple but more typical for what goes on at the highest levels. This scandal has given us a window on these goings on.

You’ve now spent time in China in at least three different periods (the 1980s as a student and then two different periods covering the country as a journalist). What would you single out as something that hasn’t changed much over the long-term, and what’s something that’s required readjustment — or even caused a bit of culture shock — each time you return after a significant stretch of time?

One thing that hasn’t changed is that outsiders are always predicting that this time, it can’t last. Or that it’s at a crossroads, a turning point, a crisis. What I have to get used to is the fact that one day these predictions will be right.

Johnson will take part in an Asia Society panel discussion, ‘How Stable is China?’, on June 21st. The event will be broadcast live online. See some of his work via CDT, including his recent interview with classicist and blogger Ran Yunfei at The New York Review of Books.

June 8, 2012 11:54 PM
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