Ian Johnson

Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow for China Studies

Expert Bio

Ian Johnson is Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). An expert on Chinese politics, society, and religion, he is the author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Johnson is a contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound and a frequent contributor to media outlets in the United States. He is currently writing a book about how history is used to legitimize and challenge Communist Party rule in China and closely follows China's efforts to bolster its soft power around the globe.

Johnson joined CFR in 2021 after a long career in journalism, during which he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China. He first went to China as a student in Beijing from 1984 to 1985 and then studied in Taipei from 1986 to 1988. He later 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 macroeconomics, China's World Trade Organization accession, and social issues

In 2009, Johnson returned to China, living there until 2020 as a writer for the New York Timesthe New York Review of Booksand other publications. He taught undergraduates at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, and has served as an advisor to academic journals, such as the Journal of Asian Studies. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the Leipzig University on Chinese religious associations.

Johnson 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 European Union fiscal policy and macroeconomics and wrote about social issues such as Islamist terrorism. 

Johnson has also won 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

Beginning in 2006, Johnson 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 grant. 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 six others. His newest CFR book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, describes how some of China's best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history. His other books are on China's religious revival and its implications for politics and society (The Souls of China, 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), Forbidden City: The Palace at the Heart of Chinese Culture (2021), The China Question 2 (2021), and Faithful Disobedience (2022).

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