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Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, interviewed extensively Jiang Xue, a 45-year old Chinese writer, for the NY Review of books. She worked for Chinese Business View and Southern Weekend, two papers who suffered from heavy censorship. Jiang Xue is a devout Buddhist and tells in this section on her current life.

Ian Johnson:

You published regularly in the Hong Kong-based magazine The Initium. It’s blocked in China but were you able to circulate the articles inside China?

I have my own public account on [the popular Chinese social media app] WeChat, but basically every time I publish something, it’s deleted. And now it’s deleted faster and faster! It used to take them a day to delete, but now it’s gone in an hour or faster. And The Initium is collapsing. They have no money anymore.

What can you do now?

I can’t do really big investigations because I don’t have the budget to travel widely. But I’m doing profiles of people who resist. And more about artists, too.

You don’t know if you can publish them but you still write them?

Yes, I just write them anyway. I feel I have to write them. As an independent journalist, if I think it’s important, I can write; so I do. In the past, you were always being told you can’t write about this or that. Now, I can write.

But you can’t make a living.

For the past few years, I didn’t consider money. I just felt it was important and I’d do it. For years, I had a good salary and so I have savings. We own our apartment.

How long can that go on for?

I’m not completely divorced from reality. It’s coming up on three years and I think I might have to find a real job. I might go back to find work, but then I wouldn’t be able to write about sensitive things.

One of the few bright spots in Chinese social movements has been the rise of a new generation of feminists, including the Feminist Five. They were detained, but women’s issues still seem to be discussed, at least in some circles. How do you view it?

Feminism is important. Those five young activists, the Feminist Five who were detained in 2015, attracted a lot of attention. It wasn’t really a radical action—just something in the subway in Guangzhou—but the way the police acted was radical, especially in Guangzhou, which we always considered as having more space [for dissent than the more tightly controlled Beijing].

I think they attracted a lot of attention because they could publicize their cases well, as young people on social media. And their actions were different from those earlier generation of people who struggled. It was more modern. This event was unusual, especially given the deterioration of the atmosphere here recently.

The Tsinghua University professor Liu Yu [see my 2015 NYR Daily interview with her herecriticized the MeToo movement for using public denunciations instead of legal processes. She thought it was too much like the Cultural Revolution.

In that article, Liu Yu maybe didn’t quite understand MeToo and what it was. She’s not that old, but she might not have been paying attention to Feminism 2.0, so perhaps she was a bit out of touch. She said, Why did those women have to protest? Why didn’t they go to the law? A friend said that Liu Yu should go with a student who’s been harassed and try to report sexual harassment. Then she’d see how hard it is.

But the criticism of Liu Yu was terrible. She was cursed horribly online. This was far out of proportion.

In your recent essay “You Look Like an Enemy of the State,” you wrote, “You and I are both in prison. Before, the prison was visible; now it isn’t.” How do you deal with this sort of hopelessness?

There’s a term in Buddhism called chulixin. It means you don’t consider this time, or a lot of things in life, as that important. That has helped me.

You can read the full interview here.

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