Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, interviewed the sociologist Guo Yuhua, a known critic of the government. One jewel in the interview on how she was able to open an account on WeChat, despite the governmental censorship, for the NY Review of Books.

Ian Johnson:

How did someone like you manage to open a public account on WeChat?

I had such a hard time. I changed the name but nothing worked. Finally, I got in touch with someone from Tencent [the company that runs WeChat]. In recent years, I‘d done some research with them on the effect of the Internet on society. So I knew people from their research department. I asked, “why can’t I open a public account?”

They said they’d look into it and got back to me and said, “You’re right, you really can’t.” I asked why and they said, “You’re restricted but let’s do it like this. You open the account and we’ll assign a person behind the scenes who will accompany you.” So I did as they said and when it started that person said, “I’m your first follower!”

Your personal censor! Why does Tencent do it? What’s in it for them?

They want to have readers. If it’s just boring stuff being published it’s not interesting for them, either. We had contact and they knew me. They know that my stuff isn’t extreme. It’s fairly academic. But the restrictions are still strict. For every five articles, two or three are cut. Sometimes, I have to argue with them—like over the Xi article—I say, “I can publish it in that academic magazine, so why not with you?”

So that’s the way it is. The space gets smaller and smaller. If you want to publish your own work, it’s harder and harder. If you struggle, you might not have any [space]. But if you don’t struggle, you definitely won’t have any. So my motto is: “If you can say a bit more, say a bit more.”

More in the NY Review of Books.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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