Born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Education: University of Florida, B.A.; Freie Universitaet Berlin, M.A.; attended Mandarin Training Center, Taipei, Taiwan, and Hartnack Schule.
Home—Berlin, Germany. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Independent Florida Alligator, Gainesville, FL, reporter, c. 1981-85; Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, FL, reporter, 1985-86; Baltimore Sun and St. Petersburg Times, correspondent in Berlin, Germany, 1988-92; Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, MD, New York bureau chief, 1992-94, Beijing bureau chief, beginning 1993; Wall Street Journal, Asian edition, reporter in Beijing bureau, 1997-99, deputy China bureau chief, beginning 1999, currently Berlin bureau chief. Has also worked as an English teacher in Taiwan, beginning 1986.
Foreign Correspondents Club of China, Overseas Press Club.
Malcolm Forbes Award for business reporting from abroad, Overseas Press Club, 1997; Pulitzer Prize for journalism, 2001, for reporting on the Falun Gong.
Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (nonfiction), Pantheon (New York, NY), 2004.
Ian Johnson has spent the majority of his professional career as a reporter working on stories about the People's Republic of China. In 2001 he won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his reportage about attempts by the Chinese government to suppress the Falun Gong, a sect devoted to traditional Chinese breathing practices (qigong) and physical exercise in order to promote good health and union between mind, body, and spirit. The sect also incorporates elements of Buddhism and Taoism. Although the Falun Gong was tolerated by the Chinese government for seven years following the discipline's introduction by Li Hongzhi in 1992, in 1999 government officials cracked down on it. The sect's organizational ability and its widespread popularity, government officials felt, could pose a threat to the Communist Party's continued political domination of China. As a result, the Falun Gong was outlawed in China on the grounds that it was a dangerous cult, and Li was forced into exile in the United States. "Hundreds have reportedly died in custody," Ellen Bork stated in the Weekly Standard, "and thousands more are incarcerated in prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals." "The legal channels for addressing grievances exist in China," remarked Laura W. Geller in the Christian Science Monitor, "but without the rule of law to support them, citizens are often left at the mercy of self-serving officials."
Johnson's nonfiction book, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China includes the story of a woman whose mother, a Falun Gong follower, was imprisoned and beaten to death while in custody. Zhao Jingxin sought justice from the government but was denied it by local officials who ignored edicts from the central government and were confident of their ability to bend or break oppositional feeling. "Local officials," Geller commented, "often feel such a significant disconnect with Beijing that they ignore edicts passed down from the center." "Johnson's defense of Falun Gong … is compelling," a Kirkus Reviews contributor commented, and "his rejection of the government's efforts to equate movement leader Master Li with Jim Jones [is] well argued."
The other two stories in Johnson's collection also portray ordinary citizens confronting the injustices and abuses of the Communist system. Ma Wenlin, who began his career as a teacher in rural China, saw that the peasant farmers in his community were being forced into poverty by illegal taxes, and so he began to study law in order to protect their property. He "mobilized thousands in the process," a Publishers Weekly contributor explained, but was imprisoned after winning a preliminary victory in a village court. The third story features architect Fang Ke, whose efforts to preserve historic Beijing buildings from modern developers led to his being held in an illegal prison. Though Johnson's reports are bleak, reviewers saw his stories as a sign of hope for the future. "Johnson's gallery of stubborn and persistent idealists," Steven I. Levine stated in Library Journal, "may be the sprouts of an emerging civil society."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, p. 938.
Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2004, Laura W. Geller, review of Wild Grass, p. 16.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Wild Grass, p. 1437,
Library Journal, February 1, 2004, Steven I. Levine, review of Wild Grass, p. 110.
Publishers Weekly, January 12, 2004, review of Wild Grass, p. 43.
Weekly Standard, July 19, 2004, Ellen Bork, review of Wild Grass, p. 34.