Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, researcher, and senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
His new book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, shows how–despite the best efforts of Xi Jinping’s surveillance state–a nationwide movement has coalesced to challenge the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.
Johnson has lived in China for more than 20 years and has been following the country since first going there as a student in Beijing from 1984 to 1985. He also studied Chinese in Taipei from 1986 to 1988, translating articles from mainland newspapers for a mainland monitoring service and traveling widely around the country.
He 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, such as the rise of popular religion and the Falun Gong crackdown. During this time also volunteered for a U.S. registered charity, The Taoist Restoration Society, which brought him into close contact with China’s only indigenous religion.
In 2009, Johnson returned to China, living there until 2020 when he was expelled from China as part of worsening tensions between China and the United States. He wrote regularly for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. He taught undergraduates at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, and served as an advisor to The Journal of Asian Studies. He is currently a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Leipzig on Chinese religious associations.
He has worked in Germany twice. From 1988 to 1992 he attended graduate school in West Berlin and covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification. In 2001 he moved back to Berlin, working until 2009 as The Wall Street Journal‘s Germany bureau chief and senior writer. He managed reporters covering EU fiscal policy and macro-economics, and wrote about social issues such as Islamist terrorism.
Johnson won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China, two awards from the Overseas Press Club, an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and Stanford University’s Shorenstein Journalism Award for his body of work covering Asia. In 2019 he won the American Academy of Religion’s “best in-depth newswriting” award.
In 2006-07 he spent a year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, and later received research and writing grants from the Open Society Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation. In 2020, he was an inaugural grantee of the Robert B. Silvers Foundation for work-in-progress. He was also awarded a 2020-2021 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars fellowship for a new book he is writing on China’s unofficial history.
Johnson has published four books and contributed chapters to four others. In addition to Sparks, his other books explore China’s religious revival and its political implications (The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, 2017), 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: My First Trip to China (2011), Chinese Characters (2012), the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China(2016), and wrote a 5,000-word introduction to The Forbidden City: The Palace at the Heart of Chinese Culture (2021).
Johnson was born in Montréal, Canada. He holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.