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January 30, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright January 30, 2008. Used by permission.


The China Beat will be posting periodic interviews with journalists who cover China in widely read newspapers and magazines in the US and UK. Our first interviewee is Ian Johnson, China journalist for the Wall Street Journal, and author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. In 2001, Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China.

1) What was the most intriguing, amusing, inspiring, or eye-opening story that you have covered in China?

I think the favorite story I covered was about farmers in northern Shaanxi who were filing class-action lawsuits against the authorities for overtaxing them. I had been aware of Chinese class-action lawsuits, at least from the 1990s when I read about them in China Quarterly. But I never thought that they would be used in such a poor area and, to some degree, to such effect. This is a really poor part of the country and yet people were aware of their rights and had banded together to try to protect them. In one particular case I wrote about, the farmers succeeded in reversing illegal fees. In another they didn’t, but overall I think that such lawsuits had an effect. The government has since repealed most of these fees and the situation has improved a lot.

I remember one thing in particular—the farmers didn’t realize what their tax rate was supposed to be until they saw it on the television news. This showed the transformative power of electricity and mass communications, which essentially bypassed corrupt local officials. And of course the local people were extremely hospitable. I had never thought that a cave could be so comfortable.