Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer focusing on society, religion, and history. He works out of Beijing and Berlin, where he also teaches and advises academic journals and think tanks.

Johnson has spent over half of the past thirty years in the Greater China region, first as a student in Beijing from 1984 to 1985, and then in Taipei from 1986 to 1988. He later worked as a newspaper correspondent in China, from 1994 to 1996 with Baltimore’s The Sun, and from 1997 to 2001 with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered macro economics, China’s WTO accession and social issues.

In 2009, Johnson returned to China, where he writes features and essays for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and other publications. He teaches undergraduates at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, where he also runs a fellowship program. In addition, he formally advises a variety of academic journals and think tanks on China, such as the Journal of Asian Studies, the Berlin-based think tank Merics, and New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.

He worked in Germany twice. From 1988 to 1992 he attended graduate school in West Berlin and worked a a free-lancer, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification for Baltimore’s The Sun, The St. Petersburg Times, The Toronto Star, and other newspapers. In 2001 he moved back to Berlin, working until 2009 as The Wall Street Journal’s Germany bureau chief and senior writer. He headed coverage of European macro-economics, introduction of the euro, and social issues such as Islamist terrorism.

He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won in 2001 for his coverage of China. He also won two awards from the Overseas Press Club, and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2017, he won Stanford University’s Shorenstein Journalism Award for his body of work covering Asia.

In 2006-07 he spent a year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, and later received research and writing grants from the Open Society Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

Johnson has published three books and contributed chapters to three others. His newest is The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. It describes China’s religious revival and the country’s search for values.

His other books are on civil society and grassroots protest in China (Wild Grass, 2004) and Islamism and the Cold War in Europe (A Mosque in Munich, 2010). He has also contributed chapters to three other books: My First Trip to China (2011), Chinese Characters (2012), and the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (2016).


1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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 poltiical foodchain.

4) 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.


“Ian Johnson is a gifted journalist and an unusually perceptive analyst of contemporary global affairs.  He’s also a superb storyteller with an excellent sense of humor and a keen eye for the absurd features of contemporary Chinese politics.
~ Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, chair, history department, University of California at Irvine and editor, Journal of Asian Studies.

Ian Johnson is both a lively and thoughtful speaker. He is able to distill complex topics with clarity, perceptiveness and an impish sense of humor.
~ Sheila Tefft, chairman, journalism department, Emory University.

Author Ian Johnson delivered a wonderful presentation during his visit to the Charleston County Library. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author turned a complex topic into a fascinating and easy-to-follow lecture that kept the audience engaged and entertained for an hour. His excellent narrative brought these unique characters to life; his humorous portrayal of a bungling CIA agent had the audience in hysterics. Ian complimented his lecture with an excellent PowerPoint presentation, complete with photos and records, that allowed the audience to dive deeper into this great story.
~ James Scott, board of directors, Charleston County Library

As an officer of the Colorado Yale Association, I hosted Ian in Denver last year to present his latest work, “A Mosque in Munich.”  We found the talk to be both entertaining and informative, with appropriate visual supporting material and a cohesive line of thinking.  Ian has a talent for finding compelling connections in our cultural, historical and physical context, and an ability to describe them vividly and elegantly for a broad audience.

Talks and Interviews of Ian


Willy Lam 林和立

China Politics & Foreign Policy Expert

Li CunXin 李存信

Mao's Last Dancer

Zhang LiJia 張麗佳

“Socialism is Great!”