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Ian Johnson

Based in Beijing, China

  • A free-lance correspondent based in Beijing and Berlin, accredited in China for The New York Times
  • Writer for New York Review of Books, which is widely recognized as an influential magazine of ideas, The New Yorker, National Geographic
  • An expert in China issues (especially politics, stability, prospects for reform), Islam in Europe, non-fiction writing and problems in journalism
  • 2001 Pulitzer Prize Winner for International Reporting (China coverage)
  • A free-lance correspondent based in Beijing and Berlin, accredited in China for The New York Times
  • Writer for New York Review of Books, which is widely recognized as an influential magazine of ideas, The New Yorker, National Geographic
  • An expert in China issues (especially politics, stability, prospects for reform), Islam in Europe, non-fiction writing and problems in journalism
  • 2001 Pulitzer Prize Winner for International Reporting (China coverage)

Ian JOHNSON is a free-lance correspondent based in Beijing and Berlin, accredited in China for The New York Times, writer for New York Review of Books, which is widely recognized as an influential magazine of ideas, The New Yorker, National Geographic and New York Times Sunday Magazine, Instructor at The Beijing Center, teaching U.S. accredited university course on Chinese religion and society, and also Advising Editor, The Journal of Asian Studies.  

Johnson was Senior Correspondent of The Wall Street Journal from  2006 to 2010, after he served as Germany bureau chief, The Wall Street Journal. Oversaw ten reporters covering economics and politics from 2001 to 2005.  He joined The Wall Street Journal in 1997 as reporter, acting China bureau chief, oversaw five reporters covering China.  Previously he was Beijing bureau chief, Baltimore’s The Sun until 1997 and New York bureau chief, Baltimore’s The Sun until 1994.  During his career as Free-lance correspondent in Berlin from 1989 to 1992, he covered fall of Berlin Wall and German unification.

Correspondent Johnson is widely recognized with a series of awards, including  2013 Alicia Patterson fellowship for Writing grant for work on religion/values,  2011 Open Society Fellowship for Project on religion and civil society in China, 2007 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, 2004 Peter R. Weitz Prize from German Marshall Fund for series on trans-Atlantic ties, 2001 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (China coverage), 2001 Overseas Press Club award for foreign reporting (China coverage), 2000 Society of Professional Journalists award for foreign reporting (China) and 1997 Overseas Press Club for Team award for coverage of Asian financial crisis.

Johnson talks at universities, foreign relations groups, chambers of commerce and bookstores, as well as radio and television appearances, etc. His topics include China (especially politics, stability, prospects for reform), Islam in Europe, non-fiction writing and problems in journalism. Also he is an op-ed contributor. He speaks fluent Chinese and German and proficient French.

“Goodnight, sweet click-wheel,” said Pitchfork, the internet magazine, as it mourned the loss of the iPod Classic
“Goodnight, sweet click-wheel,” said Pitchfork, the internet magazine, as it mourned the loss of the iPod Classic

There was no announcement, no solemn ceremony to mark its passing, but Apple has finally killed off its longest-serving gadget, the iPod Classic, just seven years after it was launched but what seems a lifetime since it made the Walkman obsolete.

Tech aficionados, who loved the iPod’s once-revolutionary design, were among the first to notice that the webpage for the Classic version had quietly disappeared and now simply pointed to a site for the iPod Touch.

Diehard music fans, who loved a storage capacity of 160GB, which meant they could carry as many as 40,000 songs in their pocket, appeared to go into mourning at the decision, put into effect on Tuesday when Apple launched its new smartwatch. The first version of the iPod appeared in 2001.

Patrick Ness, author of The Crane Wife and other books, said on Twitter: “Apple introduced a phone with the same crappy battery, a wristwatch no one wants and killed the iPod Classic. Why do you like them again?”

Christina Warren, senior tech analyst at Mashable, said: “The iPod classic is finally dead. RIP little iPod. You remade Apple, changed the way we listen to music, and are one of my top five gadgets.”

And Pitchfork, an internet magazine about independent music, tweeted simply: “Goodnight, sweet click-wheel.”

The iPod Classic was the last Apple device to use the click-wheel, first seen on the iPod Mini, launched in 2004. The simplicity of the feature – replacing an array of different buttons with a track wheel that incorporated four different buttons – became an instant hit.

Though no one realised, Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, paid tribute to the device as he introduced the Apple Watch on Tuesday. “It turns out, with every revolutionary product that Apple has created, a breakthrough in user-interface was required,” he said. “With the Mac, we introduced the mouse. The click-wheel on the iPod. And with iPhone, multi-touch gave us the ability to interact with a beautiful canvas of photos or video or music.”

For some, it was an historic moment. Jacob Kastrenakes, writing for tech website The Verge, said: “The [Sony] Walkman may have started the first portable music revolution, but the iPod began the second.

“It increasingly put thousands upon thousands of songs in your pocket, and made it so that no one ever had to leave behind a track from their library again.”

And Joe Cox, of What Hi-Fi? marked what he called the “end of an era”.

 “If you’re after the biggest-capacity iPod you can buy, you’ll have to make do with a 64GB iPod Touch – not a patch on the 160GB iPod Classic,” he wrote. “If you’re looking to buy an iPod Classic, now is the time to check out online retailers and the second-hand market.” Mr Cox said even Apple’s clearance page did not feature any Classics, but added that other online retailers, such as Argos, Amazon and Currys, still had them on sale.

The press releases on Apple’s website since Tuesday did not mention the demise of the Classic, and a spokeswoman for Apple UK was unaware if the company had anything to say about the matter.

Originally by: Ian Johnson, Source: Sep 11, 2014, Independent News Service

A rural woman going by her surname, Kong, is six months pregnant acting as a surrogate. She is staying in Wuhan, China, earning $24,000 for a surrogacy that is illegal but which is an increasingly widespread practice in China. (SIM CHI YIN, STR)

WUHAN, China – In a small conference room overlooking this city’s smog-shrouded skyline, Huang Jinlai outlines his offer to China’s childless elite: for $240,000, a baby with your DNA, gender of your choice, born by a coddled but captive rural woman.

The arrangement is offered by Huang’s Baby Plan Medical Technology Co., with branches in four Chinese cities and up to 300 successful births each year.

As in most countries, surrogacy is illegal in China. But a combination of rising infertility, a recent relaxation of the one-child-per-family policy and a cultural imperative to have children has given rise to a booming black market in surrogacy that experts say produces more than 10,000 births a year.

The trade links couples desperate for children with poor women desperate for cash in a murky world of online brokers, dubious private clinics and expensive trips to foreign countries.

Troubling results

“China’s underground market shows that there is a need for surrogacy in society,” said Wang Bin, an associate professor at Nankai University’s law school. “And where there is a need, there is a market.”

But China’s unregulated market, with a network of roughly 1,000 baby brokers nationwide, often results in trouble.

One woman who asked to be identified only by her family name, Zuo, said she paid 30,000 yuan ($5,000) as a “down payment.”

A surrogate mother requires months of hormone shots to prepare her body for the implanted embryo and prevent its rejection.

The surrogate became pregnant but said she wanted to keep the child and disappeared.

“We got nothing and have no way to find the woman,” Zuo said.

Grim control

Here in Wuhan, Baby Plan offers a more expensive, but at times grimly controlled, program. Chinese couples fly to Thailand, where surrogacy is legal, to donate their sperm and egg. A Chinese surrogate is flown there, too, and receives the implant. The three return to China and the surrogate is installed in a private apartment with a full-time assistant. To make sure she does not get ideas about fleeing with the customer’s fetus, she is cut off from her family and receives daily visits from a psychological counselor, Huang said.

If all goes well, the baby is born at a private clinic. If the fertilization works on the first try, Baby Plan makes a profit of $24,000, Huang estimates, the same amount the surrogate mother makes.

“The baby is guaranteed, as well as a DNA check,” Huang said. “Otherwise you don’t pay.”

Originally by: Ian Johnson, Source: August 2, 2014, HoustonChronicle

Bill Porter. Credit Damon Sauer

Bill Porter is a best-selling author who has also translated over a dozen books of poetry and religious texts. Credit Damon Sauer


For more than 30 years, Bill Porter has been one of the most prolific translators of Chinese texts, while also developing into a travel writer with a cult following. Under the pen name Red Pine, the 70-year-old resident of Port Townsend, Wash., has translated over a dozen books of poetry and religious texts, including collections of poems by Hanshan and Song Boren, the Daoist classic Dao De Jing and numerous Buddhist sutras. Under his own name, he has also published travel works like “Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China” and “Road to Heaven: Encounters With Chinese Hermits.”

For much of his life, he barely made ends meet, and in the preface of one book he thanked the United States Department of Agriculture for its food stamp program. That’s changed over the past few years as Mr. Porter has become a best-selling author — thanks to middle-class Chinese readers. “Road to Heaven” has sold 250,000 copies on the Chinese mainland, while several of his other books have each sold 50,000 copies.

His Chinese publisher, Beijing Dushuren, has been so thrilled with his resonance that it has even commissioned him to write works for it to publish in China — reversing the usual process for Western authors writing on China. One of these books, “Yellow River Odyssey,” was just published in English by Chin Music Press, a Seattle-based publisher. In an interview, Mr. Porter discussed his works and his plans. Excerpts follow:

Q: Tell us how “Yellow River Odyssey” came about.


A:  I was living in Taiwan, where I was translating, meditating and working for a local radio station, ICRT. It was around 1990 and I was planning to return to America. I’d been in touch before with Winston Wong [the eldest son of Wang Yung-Ching, the billionaire founder of Formosa Plastics], who had sponsored my trip to find hermits in the Zhongnan Mountains [which resulted in “Road to Heaven”]. I called him up and told him that there’s one last thing I want to do, which is to explore the origins of Chinese culture. I told him it’s about a three-month project and I guess I need about $9,000. He said why don’t you come down and we’ll take it out of petty cash?

Then, my boss at ICRT was hired away by [the Hong Kong business magnate] Li Ka-shing and [the film and broadcasting mogul] Run Run Shaw, who were starting a new radio station in Hong Kong. They needed two-minute pieces to anchor each half-hour segment. I told him about the project and he said, “Do it for us as a radio show.”

So in 1991, I went up the Yellow River in March and got back in May, I began writing up the scripts. In July they went on air, and the programs I was writing for were successful, so they said just keep doing it. Including the hermits, I did five series in all. I went up the Silk Road from Xi’an to Islamabad and did another called “South of the Clouds” about the hill tribes in China’s south. I did another called “South of the Yangtze” where I looked at the Jiangnan region. My final one was through the Three Gorges, where I started in Wuhan and went up to Chongqing.

It was a two-year contract with tons of money because Run Run Shaw and Li Ka-shing had a lot. I had enough to put a down payment on the house I’m living in now.

Q: And after they were broadcast, these shows just stayed in a vault?

A: Right. Then a few years ago, my Chinese publisher said that “Road to Heaven” and “Zen Baggage” are doing so well, do you have anything else right now? I told him about these shows and he said, “Can you rewrite them as a narrative?” And so I did. All of them have been published in China except for the Jiangnan trip. It’s coming out next.

Q: Your trip took place 23 years ago. Everyone says how China is changing so quickly. Does this make it dated?

A: The book includes almost no mention of political or economic stuff. I was interested in China’s past. That past hasn’t changed.

But you could also say that in some sense the book is a document. I deal with the present to record how I’m traveling. The conditions of travel in those days aren’t what they are today. But that was the great adventure of the trip. It’s much more interesting to write about suffering and failure than success or ease or comfort. It was easy to write about this trip because each day was an adventure. Nowadays you don’t have to think about how to get from A to B, but back then you did. The roads were terrible and the buses were terrible, although they did get me from here to there.

It’s striking how many monuments there are along the way. Sometimes they’re to mythical events, or statues of people when we don’t know what they really looked like.

They have honored their history in that regard. They’re marked with a tomb or a statue. Sometimes it’s in the countryside, and there’s just a bunch of farmers around. So there is that aspect to my book — how Chinese revere their past.

Q: You also talk a lot about the non-Chinese people — the non-Han.

A: The reason I wanted to focus on the Yellow River is that’s where Chinese civilization began. By going up the river I’d get to its source and the source of Chinese culture. But what you see is that Chinese culture is a great mixture of peoples. Five thousand years ago, north China was not controlled by the Han Chinese. That sort of started with the Yellow Emperor defeating the Miao people at the Battle of Zhuolu. Until then, north China was up for grabs. I felt that traveling there. Even today a lot of north China isn’t entirely Chinese. There are Mongolians, Hui and others. It becomes obvious when you travel the length of the Yellow River that it was a series of accidents that led to the ascendency of the Han.

Q: How surprised are you that it is Chinese consumers who are driving your book sales?

A: I always thought of myself as a bridge from the East to the West — bringing these translations of poetry and travelogues and introducing the material to the West. But it turns out that the people most interested in China are the Chinese. It’s, duh, of course, it’s their own country. And it turned out that I’ve written books in a style that’s new to them. It’s interesting for them to see what a foreigner has to say.

Q: Besides your travel books, your translations of some classics, such as the Platform Sutra and the Heart Sutra have been published in Chinese. Most Chinese readers probably don’t care about how you translated the book into English, so what’s of interest to them?

A: They’re interested in my commentaries to the text — how I interpret the meaning.

Q: But your commentaries are based on Chinese sources.

A: I think our educational system makes us perhaps more open to different ideas. The Chinese are more constrained by their history of commentaries. Me, I don’t know what the tradition is. I just read the commentaries and use them to understand how the texts relate to practice. [Mr. Porter is a practicing Buddhist.] So it’s a personal journey and they’re interested in that. By the end of the year, my editions of the Dao De Jing and the Diamond Sutra are coming out in Chinese too.

Q: And your final book?

A: It’s called “Finding Them Gone.” It’s based on travels I’ve made to the homes of famous poets. It’ll be out in Chinese next spring and in English in October of next year.

Q: The publisher is not worried about flooding the market with Bill Porter books — three books in the next nine months in China?

A: The publisher knows they can sell the books. From the talks I give, I know I have readers who will buy everything I write, and there seem to be thousands of them.

Q: And then you’re retiring?

A: Yes. It’s a good time. I’m still healthy. I want to travel. But I don’t want to see places, I want to talk to people. When you get older, you realize it’s the people that matter. I’m going to travel to Europe [where Mr. Porter lived earlier in his life] and back to Taiwan.

Q: Will you look up Winston Wong?

A: I want to give him a copy of “Yellow River Odyssey.” It’s been like 23 years since he gave me the money. He probably wonders what the hell happened to it.

Originally by: Ian Johnson, Source: July 17, 2014, Sinosphere of The New York Times 

In recent months, Weibo has been eclipsed by WeChat, which allows instant messaging within self-selected circles of followers. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
In recent months, Weibo has been eclipsed by WeChat, which allows instant messaging within self-selected circles of followers. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

BEIJING — For the past few years, social media in China has been dominated by the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, a microblogging service that created an online sphere of freewheeling public debate, incubating social change and at times even holding politicians accountable in a country where traditional media outlets are severely constrained.

But in recent months, Weibo has been eclipsed by the Facebook-like WeChat, which allows instant messaging within self-selected circles of followers.

The shift from public to semiprivate communication, accelerated by a government crackdown on Weibo, has fundamentally reordered the social media landscape for the country’s 600 million Internet users, curbing what had been modern China’s most open public forum.

“This is a new phase for social media in China,” said Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University. “It is the decline of the first large-scale forum for information in China and the rise of something more narrowly focused.”

WeChat has its advantages and its defenders. It is less censored than Weibo, and some users say it allows them to speak more freely, knowing that their conversations are private. Many users relish its added functions, including voice messaging.

Li Bo uses WeChat to rally opposition to damaging infrastructure projects. A chat account QR code is reflected in his glasses. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
Li Bo uses WeChat to rally opposition to damaging infrastructure projects. A chat account QR code is reflected in his glasses. CreditSim Chi Yin for The New York Times

In May, though, the government announcedthat WeChat would be more heavily monitored. Saying that instant messaging services were being used to spread “violence, terrorism and pornography,” the agency charged with policing the Internet said it would “firmly fight infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad,” according to a government statement.

In its heyday, Weibo promised much more. It came to prominence in 2011 after a high-speed rail crash killed 40 people. Weibo usersdetailed the mayhem and government shortcomings that led to the accident. It was a signal moment in the Internet’s coming of age in China, a reminder of how the medium could challenge even a formidable authoritarian government.

Weibo is still important. Boundary-pushing news and commentaries are still more easily found there than in the more tightly controlled world of government newspapers and magazines. It also remains popular for following celebrities and gossip. It reported in March that it had 66 million daily users, up 37 percent over a year earlier.

But government figures show that the overall number of microblog users, including those using Weibo and services from other providers, fell by 9 percent last year, with many migrating to WeChat. That shift, along with a general decline in technology stocks, contributed to a disappointing New York stock market in April for Weibo, which raised $286 million instead of the anticipated $500 million.

“It’s far from what it used to be,” said He Weifang, a prominent lawyer and onetime heavy blogger on Weibo with more than a million followers. “You can still find facts on Weibo, or news reports, but the comments aren’t as interesting or deep.”

One reason is the government crackdown on the so-called Big V accounts —prominent commenters, with verified accounts, who often had millions of followers. After hundreds were detained, most stopped posting on Weibo.

Others quit because of the sharp tone of commentary on Weibo, which often devolved into nasty, ad hominem attacks. Some grew tired of the dizzying list of banned terms and the cat-and-mouse games with censors to evade them. For example, “June 4,” the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, was banned, so creative minds came up with “May 35” (which would work out to June 4), until that was also banned. Such wordplay amused hard-core users but confused ordinary readers.

WeChat seized on the frustration. Its parent company, Tencent, claims 355 million active monthly users. The company does not make public the number of daily users, making a direct comparison to Weibo difficult. But few people disagree that WeChat is now more popular.

“June 4” is banned on WeChat too, but other terms routinely blocked on microblogs, such as the name of the former security czar Zhou Yongkang, are allowed. Most observers ascribe this leniency to the fact that WeChat messages have a limited readership.

More important, activists say, WeChat allows them to dig deeper into issues with like-minded people. The veteran environmentalist Li Bo has used WeChat for more than two years to rally opposition to damaging infrastructure projects, such as a controversial plan to dam the Nu River.

Mr. Li is a participant in one WeChat group called Environmental Policy Advocacy that has more than 300 members, including, he said, open-minded government officials. Although officials rarely participate, they see the traffic and occasionally invite members to their offices to chat about policies.

Some groups are smaller and narrower, such as one focused on a county in eastern China damaged by pollution. Others are task-specific, such as small committees for various campaigns and projects.

These groups can be powerful as long as they are not too overtly political. In late April, factory workers used WeChat to organize strikes against a Taiwanese company that had failed to pay into a retirement fund. Around the same time, however, churchgoers trying to use WeChat to prevent their church from being torn down found that their WeChat circles were being used to track down opponents of the government’s action.

A broader problem for activists, however, is that WeChat can become an echo chamber.

When a charity for coal miners was trying to raise $500 this year to buy oxygen pumps for a miner dying of black lung disease, its initial appeal fell flat. On a hunch, an employee, Xue Yinhu, appealed to followers on WeChat and raised the money in an hour.

“These people know you better, so they’re more willing to support you,” he said. “But sometimes you’re talking only to the same people.”

WeChat also has built-in constraints that hobble its ability to replicate Weibo’s public sphere. WeChat allows the creation of public accounts that anyone can follow, but limits posts to one a day. In addition, access to public accounts is not possible on cellphones, making it more difficult, for instance, to launch an incriminating photo of a public official into the blogosphere.

Comments are also deleted after a few days, making long-term discussions challenging and erasing a historical record. The government also monitors these accounts and recently deleted some covering social news and politics.

Tencent declined to comment on how it decided which functions to offer users.

Still, WeChat remains a powerful tool for activists, even if Weibo’s promise of an open online society has been frustrated.

Hu Jia, who has worked on environmental and public health causes for 15 years, said that the advent of social media, despite its limitations, had produced a better-informed society.

“Weibo and WeChat are gifts from God,” he said. “Despite all the government surveillance, the benefits we get are even greater for people trying to organize society.”

Correction: July 5, 2014 
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that criticism about a 2011 train crash in China led to the railway minister’s resignation. In fact, the minister was removed from his post before the crash.
Originally by: Ian Johnson, Source: July 4, 2014, The New york Times
Relocating Traditions in China: Village-based traditions once practiced by close-living families and neighbors are disappearing in an increasingly urban China. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

BEIJING — Once or twice a week, a dozen amateur musicians meet under a highway overpass on the outskirts of Beijing, carting with them drums, cymbals and the collective memory of their destroyed village. They set up quickly, then play music that is almost never heard anymore, not even here, where the steady drone of cars muffles the lyrics of love and betrayal, heroic deeds and kingdoms lost.

The musicians used to live in Lei Family Bridge, a village of about 300 households near the overpass. In 2009, the village was torn down to build a golf course and residents were scattered among several housing projects, some a dozen miles away.

Now, the musicians meet once a week under the bridge. But the distances mean the number of participants is dwindling. Young people, especially, do not have the time.

“I want to keep this going,” said Lei Peng, 27, who inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather. “When we play our music, I think of my grandfather. When we play, he lives.”

Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.

“Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based,” says Feng Jicai, a well-known author and scholar. “Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.”

That is happening at a stunning rate. In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.

For decades, leaving the land was voluntary, as people moved to the cities for jobs. In the past few years, the shift has accelerated as governments have pushed urbanization, often leaving villagers with no choice but to move.

China’s top leadership has equated urbanization with modernization and economic growth. Local governments are also promoting it, seeing the sale of rural land rights as a way to compensate for a weak tax base. Evicting residents and selling long-term leases to developers has become a favored method for local governments to balance budgets and local officials to line their pockets. Numerous local officials are under investigation for corruption linked to rural land sales.

Destroying villages and their culture also reveals deeper biases. A common insult in China is to call someone a farmer, a word equated with backwardness and ignorance, while the most valued cultural traditions are elite practices like landscape painting, calligraphy and court music.

But in recent years, Chinese scholars have begun to recognize the countryside’s vast cultural heritage. A mammoth government project has cataloged roughly 9,700 examples nationwide of “intangible cultural heritage,” fragile traditions like songs, dances, rituals, martial arts, cuisines and theater. About 80 percent of them are rural.

In the past few years, for example, Mr. Feng has documented the destruction of 36 villages in Nanxian, a county on Tianjin’s outskirts, home to a famous center of woodblock printing.

“You don’t know if it will survive or not because when they’re in their new homes they’re scattered,” he said. “The knowledge isn’t concentrated anymore and isn’t transmitted to a new generation.”

That is the problem facing the musicians in Lei Family Bridge. The village lies on what used to be a great pilgrimage route from Beijing north to Mount Yaji and west to Mount Miaofeng, holy mountains that dominated religious life in the capital. Each year, temples on those mountains would have great feast days spread over two weeks. The faithful from Beijing would walk to the mountains, stopping at Lei Family Bridge for food, drink and entertainment.

Groups like Mr. Lei’s, known as pilgrimage societies, performed free for the pilgrims. Their music is based on stories about court and religious life from roughly 800 years ago and features a call-and-response style, with Mr. Lei singing key plotlines of the story and the other performers, decked out in colorful costumes, chanting back. The music is found in other villages, too, but each one has its own repertoire and local variations that musicologists have only begun to examine.

Arriving at Mount Miaofeng, on what used to be a great pilgrimage route, a girl dressed to perform at the temple there took a break from the trek uphill.  Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

When the Communists took over in 1949, these pilgrimages were mostly banned, but were revived starting in the 1980s when the leadership relaxed control over society. The temples, mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, were rebuilt.

The performers, however, are declining in numbers and increasingly old. The universal allures of modern life — computers, movies, television — have siphoned young people away from traditional pursuits. But the physical fabric of the performers’ lives has also been destroyed.

One recent afternoon, Mr. Lei walked through the village, now reduced to rubble and overgrown with wild grass and bushes. He started singing with his grandfather when he was 2. He now has an office job in the city’s public transportation company and spends all his vacation time working on the troupe.

“This was our house,” he said, gesturing to a small rise of rubble and overgrown weeds. “They all lived in the streets around here. We performed at the temple.”

The temple is one of the few buildings still standing. (The Communist Party headquarters is another.) Built in the 18th century, the temple is made of wooden beams and tiled roofs, surrounded by a seven-foot wall. Its brightly painted colors have faded. The weather-beaten wood is cracking in the dry, windy Beijing air. Part of the roof has caved in, and the wall is crumbling.

“It used to be on a list of historic preservation,” Mr. Lei said. “The government says it will be rebuilt, but no one seems to know anything.”

Government urban-planning officials could not be reached for comment on the village.

Evenings after work, the musicians would meet in the temple to practice. As recently as Mr. Lei’s grandfather’s generation, the performers could fill a day with songs without repeating themselves. Today, they can sing only a handful. Some middle-aged people have joined the troupe, so on paper they have a respectable 45 members. But meetings are so hard to arrange that the newcomers never learn much, he said, and performing under a highway overpass is unattractive.

“I guess for a lot of us it’s a hobby,” said Li Lan, 55, a cymbalist and singer. “It’s just so inconvenient now to come out here and practice.”

Over the past two years, the Ford Foundation underwrote music and performance classes for 23 children from migrant families from other parts of China. Mr. Lei taught them to sing, and to apply the bright makeup used during performances. Last May, they performed at the Mount Miaofeng temple fair, earning stares of admiration from other pilgrimage societies also facing aging and declining membership.

Lei Peng, who leads a group of musicians, lowered the troupe’s flag to honor its hosts at Mount Miaofeng outside Beijing. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

But the project’s funding ended over the summer, and the children drifted away.

“I think it’s pointless because you have to be from our village to understand how important this is,” Mr. Lei said. “Anyway, those children will move somewhere else and won’t learn long enough to become real members. It was nice but didn’t fix the problem.”

One of the oddities of the troupe’s struggles is that some traditional artisans now get government support. The government lists them on a national register, organizes performances and offers modest subsidies to some.

Last month, Mr. Lei’s group was featured on local television and invited to perform at Chinese New Year activities. Such performances raise about $200 and provide some recognition that what the group does matters.

Du Yang, director of the district office of intangible cultural heritage protection, said the group’s music was among 69 protected practices in her district.

“The goal is to make sure these cultural heritages don’t get lost,” she said. “It would be a great pity if they are lost just as our country is on the road to prosperity.”

Mr. Lei said that keeping their village life intact would have helped most.

“It was really comfortable in the old village,” he said back in his new home, a small two-bedroom apartment high up in an apartment block a half-hour drive away. “We had a thousand square meters and rented out rooms to migrants from other provinces. Lots of buses stopped nearby, and we could get into the city easily.”

Like all rural residents, the Leis and their neighbors never owned their land; all land in China belongs to the state. So when the plans were announced to build the golf course, they had little choice but to move. “No one protested,” he said. “We knew we didn’t have a choice. You have to just go with the flow.”

Everyone got free apartments and $50,000 to $100,000 in compensation.

Strangely, however, the golf course has never been built, and the village still lies in ruins. No one here can figure out if this is because the development was illegal, or perhaps part of a corrupt land deal that is under investigation. Such information is not public, so villagers can only speculate. Mostly, they try to forget.

“I try not to think about these things too much,” Mr. Lei said. “Instead, I try to focus on the music and keeping it alive.”

Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.

A version of this article appears in print on February 2, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’.

Originally by Ian Johnson, Source: February 1, 2014, The New York Times

Shanghai, 1993. (by Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos)

In December, China stunned the world when the most widely used international education assessment revealed that Shanghai’s schools now outperform those of any other country—not only in math and science but also in reading. Some education experts have attributed these results to recent reforms undertaken by the Chinese government. Jiang Xueqin has been active in Chinese education since 1998, when as a Yale undergraduate he taught for six months at one of the top high schools in China, Beida Fuzhong, or the Affiliated High School of Peking University.

A Canadian citizen whose parents emigrated from China, Jiang, who is thirty-seven, helped establish an experimental high-school program in Shenzhen in 2008 and now works for Tsinghua Fuzhong, Tsinghua University’s Affiliated High School. He just published a book in China called Creative China about his experiences in Chinese public schools. I spoke to him in Beijing in late March about the future of education in China.

Ian Johnson: Why was there this desire for education reform in China?

Jiang Xueqin: Since the late 1990s, there has been a shift in how parents viewed the Chinese educational system. In 1999, when I taught in China, you could argue that the gaokao system [the rigorous testing system that controls who gets into which universities] was at its apex. The gaokao was a good way to produce engineers and mid-level bureaucrats. It was perfect for these goals because it filters out people with the highest analytical intelligence. China in the 1980s and 1990s was basically a sweatshop economy. It was about organizing the masses and producing Nike sneakers for the American market. Everyone believed that the best route to success was to do well on the gaokao, get a degree in China, and then go to the United States for graduate school.

But starting around 2004 and 2005, the middle class was rising, more people were going overseas and seeing other cultures. They began to question the validity of agaokao education. If China is to progress, it needs people with different skill sets. It needs entrepreneurs, designers, managers—the sort of people China doesn’t have.

In 2008, you began working with Wang Zheng, a Chinese high-school administrator who was launching a new approach to education in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Jiang Xueqin (by Brian Keeley)
Jiang Xueqin (by Brian Keeley)

You know Shenzhen—it’s where economic and social reforms were pioneered so it’s a place that likes experimentation. Wang Zheng had a free hand to try different things there that couldn’t be done elsewhere. We wanted to broaden children’s education so they’re not just test-taking machines, be it for the gaokaoor the SAT. That’s what the reforms Wang and I undertook were aimed at.

I had fifty students in my department and they didn’t take the gaokao. Instead, we set up a lending library. We also set up a school newspaper and a coffee shop. They read, wrote, and worked.

What was the idea behind the coffee shop?

I wanted kids to understand the complexities of being an entrepreneur and to learn empathy and service. As a waiter you have to think of what the needs of the customer are. It would compel the students to think about what other people needed. But these were rich Chinese kids and they didn’t know how to serve anyone but themselves. And the idea of labor? “No! My parents hire laborers.” You’re not supposed to use your hands because you’re an intellectual. This is an old prejudice in China. So they wanted to hire laborers to run the coffee shop. They just wanted to be the capitalists. It took work to change their minds.

We did other things too. We had them write more essays, do social service work, and travel as much as possible.

And you wanted to help them study abroad?

I grew up very poor in Toronto. My dad was a short-order cook in a restaurant and has been so for the past thirty-five, forty years. My mother is a seamstress who makes under the minimum wage. We didn’t have a car for the longest time. We didn’t know what it meant to go on vacation. When I went to Yale, other kids talked about their ski trips or going to exotic lands in Europe, that was completely remote from my own experience. I had spent my youth playing with a Lego set, watching TV, and reading books.

Going to Yale was liberating because I had a chance to change my life. But it was alienating. Yale tends to foster hyper-competitiveness. What I didn’t realize is that Yale is a gateway to power. People who go to Yale mostly come from a certain social class. They’ve been taught to think and behave in a certain way that allows them to climb the hierarchy in the United States. They have a lot of social skills and emotional intelligence that I didn’t have. They’re able to leverage their social network and use things like their charm, their charisma. They made the most out of Yale because they could expand their social network and could adapt a certain way of thinking that would help them later in life.

I did very well academically. I graduated with distinction in English. But I felt like a complete fraud. I felt I didn’t belong there and it made me really insecure. I didn’t understand my classmates. We weren’t thinking along the same lines.

And yet in Shenzhen you helped set up an international department at the high school that was designed to help Chinese kids get into universities like Yale.

I wanted to make them thoughtful individuals who would appreciate their education and be less focused on tests—I wanted to make them anti-me. But I wanted to get them into Ivy Leagues. What I didn’t realize is that these things are in conflict with each other. Getting into an Ivy League is just as stressful as going through thegaokao. The rigorous pressure a kid faces at Exeter or Thomas Jefferson is no different than that of a kid at Beida Fuzhong [the affiliated High School of Peking University where Jiang taught in the late 1990s] who is preparing for the gaokao. It’s a different system but it creates the same kind of super-ambitious kids.

In the United States there is a discussion about learning from the Chinese experience.

The reform movement in the US is led by a bunch of Ivy League people who are obsessed with data. They have allies in the media like Thomas Friedman and are bankrolled by billionaires like Bill Gates. They want to bring “accountability” to the American school system. That means testing. They use China as the Yellow Peril. “If our kids can’t do math, China is going to kick our ass. Our kids are going to end up as Chinese slaves.” The media loves it because fear sells.

But if you look at it really broadly, there’s little difference between how kids are raised in either country. Middle-class parents in both countries are trying to maintain their social standing and propagate it to the next generation. The Amy Chua complex. But Amy Chua is just being honest and direct. The way she raises her kids is no different from the way other upper-middle class parents raise their kids. They’re just more nuanced, subtle in the way they manage their kids: “We really care about your individuality. We really care about the choices you’ll make for yourself and we really want you to have a rich and diverse experience. But it would also be amazing if you went to Harvard and became a corporate lawyer.”

It sounds like the two countries are actually moving toward each other.

It is amazing to see it. You have this system in the US that’s great for elites but is not so great for everyone else. In China you have a country trying to create an elite system.

Does that mean China wants more Exeters and Thomas Jefferson High Schools?

The irony is when I came here I hated rich people. I thought the point of education is to help poor people become rich. But at the end of the day the rich are the trendsetters. They see more, they have more access to education. They’re willing to take risks that poor people aren’t able to. The reality is most of the children in our program in China have been children of the rich. Is it fair? It’s not fair, but the rich can create the political space to do this. They can say “we want our kids to prepare for undergraduate education in the United States, so exempt them from thegaokao”—which is what’s happened. So it’s elite, but it’s in this space that we can experiment.

And if Chinese high schools don’t do this, then the elite will just send their kids to high school in the United States.

In 2008, when I went to Shenzhen high school, 10 percent went abroad for their undergraduate degree. Now it’s more like 20 percent.

Besides a better education, part of it is capital flight. You have a Chinese economic elite who want to hedge their bets. That means sending their family and assets abroad. And this is leading to the next major trend: elite Chinese high schools in the United States. You have a lot of mediocre private high schools in the US that are staying afloat partially because of Chinese money. But a lot of parents don’t like the idea of sending their kids abroad to study with white kids who can’t do math. I know that sounds bad, but it’s true.

If the best Chinese students are going abroad to study, then Chinese universities will have to accept non-gaokao students.

You look at a place like Peking University or Tsinghua University—most of the kids come from wealthy backgrounds. To do well at the gaokao, you need a top-quality tutor, so a lot of it is how much money you have. You almost never have a kid who comes from a poor background and just studied really hard in school. So if your rich start studying abroad, outside the gaokao system, the only way to get them to return to China to study is to allow non-gaokao students to enroll. This won’t happen overnight—we’re talking a decade or two—but the signs are there.

Originally by: Ian Johnson, Source: April 8, 2014, NYR Blog

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