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Ian Johnson

travels from China

Beijing-Based Writer

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About Ian

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Keynote speaker Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture and religion. For 13 years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer and bureau chief. Ian Johnson first went to China in 1984 and has lived there off and on for a dozen years. He was bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China.

Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture and religion. For 13 years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer and bureau chief.

Johnson started writing full-time in 1981 at The Independent Florida Alligator, a student-run newspaper based in Gainesville, Florida. At the same time, he earned a degree in Asian Studies and Journalism from the University of Florida, including a stay from 1984 to 1985 at Peking University.

After graduating, he worked in a county bureau of The Orlando Sentinel before leaving in 1986 to study Chinese language at Taiwan National Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. In 1988 he moved to Berlin, Germany, to work as a free-lancer and attend the Freie Universität Berlin. While earning a Master’s in Chinese Studies (Sinologie), he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification for Baltimore’s The Sun and The St. Petersburg Times. In 1992, the Sun hired him as its New York-based financial correspondent and in 1994 sent him to its Beijing bureau.

In 1997, he moved to The Wall Street Journal, covering Chinese macro-economics, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and social movements. In 2000 and 2001, he won several prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award and theSociety of Professional Journalists’ Foreign Correspondence award, for his coverage of the suppression of the Falun Gong movement and the rise of civil society in China. In 2004, he published Wild Grass on civil society in China.

In 2001, Johnson moved to Berlin to head the Journal’s Germany bureau, overseeing European economic coverage and social issues like the anti-globalization movement. After the 9/11 attacks, he ran a 12-person investigative team on terrorism, and co-won the German Marshall Fund’s Peter R. Seitz Award for reporting on trans-Atlantic issues. In 2005 he wrote a series on the roots of radical Islam in Europe that eventually led to the 2010 publication of A Mosque in Munich.

In 2006-2007, Johnson was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He returned to the Journal in 2007 as a senior correspondent, moving back to China in 2009. Johnson left the paper in 2010 to pursue magazine and book writing on cultural and social affairs.

Johnson was born in Montreal, Canada. He is fluent in German, Chinese and conversational in French.

See keynotes with Ian Johnson

    Keynote by Speaker Ian Johnson

    The Soul of a Superpower.

    • China is undergoing one of the most profound religious revivals in the world, with churches, temples and mosques being rebuilt at an astounding rate. Behind this is a people who, after 30 years of breakneck growth and disorienting reforms, are searching for answers to deeper questions in life. The turn to religiosity also reflects a desire for a higher quality of life and a search for identity–what does it mean to be Chinese in today’s world beyond being part of an economic juggernaut? These are the deep-structure questions that move Chinese and help explain not only religion, but rising nationalism, a return to traditional culture and even citizen activism.


    Keynote by Speaker Ian Johnson

    The Silent Majority: why grassroots China matters.

    • A look at several off-the-beaten parts of China and people who work there, such as a barge captain on the Grand Canal, a railroad tunnel blaster in Hunan and a small-town lawyer in Shaanxi province. These are the people of China’s third-tier cities, many upwardly mobile but all hoping for more accountability from the government and control over their lives. A look at what life is like in these beyond-the-headline locations and how these rising expectations are a source of strength for China–and possibly instability.


    Keynote by Speaker Ian Johnson

    China’s changing political landscape

    • 2012 will see a once-in-a decade leadership shift in China at the 18th party Congress. This will be the fifth party Congress that Ian Johnson has covered and he can give you tips on what to watch for, who to expect to win and what longer-term trends to watch out for–not just who will be in the Politburo but how the change can play out further down the political food chain.


    Keynote by Speaker Ian Johnson

    Misunderstanding China

    • The only thing more certain than the enduring interest in China is the enduring series of mistakes that the West makes in observing this enormous country. Ian Johnson first interviewed foreign correspondents on their work in China in 1984 and now, having run news operations here and won an array of prizes for his work, he can reflect on some of the continuing problems that bedevil foreigners and how they attempt to make sense of China. This isn’t a tale of woe about security agents; instead, it’s a self-critical look at the media, the corners they cut and stereotypes they follow. It’s also an attempt to explain why most first-time visitors to China are so shocked–it’s inevitably different than what they thought.

Interview with Ian Johnson

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 spent most 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 descendants 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 really understand–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 keynotes with Ian Johnson
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Keynote topics with Ian Johnson