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Interview with Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson, a speaker and expert on Chinese politics, culture, and more, talks about the changes Chinas has faced in the last decade. Read on below.

What is the message you hope people take away from your presentations?

I like people to have at least one “a-ha” moment where they learn something they didn’t know or see things in a different light. I have spentmost of my life living in places like China and want to be able to bring these experiences to western audiences in as vivid a way as possible.


What is the feeling you would like people to take away?

Humor and satisfaction that they spent their time well by listening to my talk.


How do you prepare for speaking engagements?

I usually write out the talk, practice it and then take just some notes into the talk–I never read but I find it’s useful to have written it out ahead of time. I also often think about it when I’m taking a walk or going for a swim.


What do you gain personally from being a public speaker?

I like to have my ideas challenged or complemented by the audiences’ feedback. We’re all trying to figure out the world and I find that the audience also interesting things to say too–that’s why I like to leave ample room for Q&A.


How much does humor factor into your keynotes and other speaking engagements?

Humor is a great way to get across a point. I don’t like to lecture or talk down to audiences–I like instead to make it accessible and fun.


Where does your fascination with China stem from?

Through several coincidences I’ve been engaged with China since the early 1980s. I think it’s a completely different culture–a complete one, one that makes sense in its own terms but one that is quite different from ours. That makes it almost like an alternate reality or parallel universe, if you will. I grew up in North America and currently spent much of my time in Europe but don’t find the two places that different–they’re both descedants of the broad idea called “the West.” China is quite different and that attracts me.


How are your keynote presentations unique?

I think it’s the ability to bring down to earth what some might consider to be “exotic” or hard-to-understand. I’m a good explainer and helping people understand a phenomenon in the world that they’re confronted with but which they might not reallyunderstand–like how did China rise up so quickly? What does it mean to me? Or why is there radical Islam in western countries?


Do you have any unique memorable moments in your speaking career?

One of the best was in Indonesia, where the Indonesia version of A Mosque in Munich had just been published. I was in a room with several dozen local people and thought to myself: this is crazy, you’re the only non-Muslim here but you’re about to talk about Islam to this group. I worried that I would appear arrogant–who was I to talk to them about their religion? But we had a wonderful time and the talk was a huge success. I think they appreciated that I respected their religion and had great empathy for the difficulties that many Muslims faced. Once this was clear they were open to my perspective as an outsider, even when I was critical. In the end, they gave me a big ovation and I signed many books and went out for tea with several in the audience who wanted to discuss it further.


In your eyes, what have been the biggest changes in China in the last decade?

The rise of the individual is the biggest story. Chinese are not accepting being treated as “the masses,” which was how their government used to see them. Now, they are asserting individual rights, often very quietly and without much fuss but it’s a clear trend. This has huge implications in economics–how you sell things–and politics–the demand for more political or religious freedom. In a way, it’s a classic story of modernization: an upwardly mobile population that isn’t satisfied anymore that the government has provided food and shelter. Now they want more.


See Ian Johnson’s profile here!

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