Journalist Ian Johnson explores for the New York Times, the search by Yang Weidong into what he calls the soul of China. He interviewed and filmed 405 thinkers, artists, musicians, writers, historians — anyone who has thought hard about China’s future. “Some are government critics, others support the party, but all have opinions.”
Then family tragedy struck. His mother, Xue Yinxian, who worked in the General Administration of Sports, came to prominence in the 1990s as a whistle-blower, publicly saying that she refused to dope Chinese athletes. In 2007, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, officials paid a visit to her home, warning her not to speak out about doping in China, saying it would embarrass the nation. Her husband, who was convalescing from brain surgery, confronted the officials. The family says he was pushed by the officials (although they say he simply fell), and then reinjured his head, dying three months later.
His father’s death unleashed something in Mr. Yang. Suddenly, he was consumed with one burning desire: to understand how China ended up with its authoritarian political and social system.
“After my father died, I couldn’t figure out why it happened,” Mr. Yang said during a visit to his home this summer. “I felt that society had problems and decided to find out why.”
So began a remarkable effort to document what the Chinese think of their country’s politics and society. Since he started in March 2008, Mr. Yang has filmed 405 thinkers, artists, musicians, writers, historians — anyone who has thought hard about China’s future. Some are government critics, others support the party, but all have opinions.
“It’s a survey of the state of mind of modern China,” said the Hong Kong book publisher Bao Pu. “His questions are related to the oppression his family faced. It’s, ‘This is my project, I’m going to do it.’ I respect him tremendously for it.”
At first, Mr. Yang said, he was viewed with suspicion. Who was this man who showed up with a professional camera and sound crew. Was he a government spy? Then, in 2011, he published the first of six volumes of interviews in Hong Kong (because mainland Chinese publishers refused, he said). Covering 105 of his interviews, the volumes are simply titled “For the Record,” reflecting his goal: not to come up with grand conclusions but to let people speak out on China’s national condition, in the sort of debate that rarely happens in the country.