Notes on a Conversation: Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah

From China Beat, notes from “a dialogue between Ian Johnson and Angilee Shah. Johnson, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, is author of Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Shah is a freelance writer and blogger; her work has appeared at the Far Eastern Economic Review, Global Voices Online, Zócalo Public Square, and The China Beat”:

Angilee Shah’s first set of questions touched upon civil society in China and its relationship to the Chinese government. When asked if the government has made any progress in winning over the faith of the people since Wild Grass was published (2004), Johnson noted that at the larger level, there has been no real change in the degree of official control on what can be discussed; however, in areas such as religion, the government has allowed more leeway in what can be practiced and expressed, perhaps learning from the lesson provided by the now-banned Falun Gong, which flourished where officially sanctioned religions could not go at the time. And while the creation of grassroots networks on the national level has been discouraged, examples like the earthquake relief efforts for Sichuan show that there are instances when large sectors of Chinese society can mobilize for a common good. Organizing is definitely a frustrating process for many Chinese, but, Johnson emphasized, their efforts are often not overtly dramatic or political. Even so, he suggested, such low-key political activity is a double-edged phenomenon; on the one hand, it can channel goods and services where they are needed without being threatening; on the other, it brings in an “embarrassment factor,” showing exactly where and how the government is unable to do certain things.