Q&A with National Geographic's Chris Johns

Behind the scenes of "China: Inside the Dragon"

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China was grabbing headlines around the world even before the tumultuous events of the past two months, starting with the brutal crackdown on Tibet by China's government, sparking protests around the world, and the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province this month that killed more than 65,000 people.

Many Westerners still don't understand Chinese life, however, from the urban transformation of Beijing ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games to the daily existence of remote villagers. To illustrate what's happening in China today, and predict trends for the future, National Geographic magazine devoted its May issue to a single country. Called "China: Inside the Dragon," it is a remarkably detailed examination of one of the world's largest and least understood countries. (The issue can be read online at ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/05/.)

Chris Johns, the editor in chief of National Geographic in Washington, D.C., spoke with AdAgeChina's editor, Normandy Madden, about the issue, the Olympics and the earthquake in Sichuan.

A renowned photographer, Mr. Johns began his career in photojournalism after graduating from Oregon State University. He joined the Topeka Capital-Journal as a staff photographer in 1975 and was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1979. In 1983, after three years at the Seattle Times as picture editor and special projects photographer, he embarked on a freelance career and worked for Life, Time and National Geographic magazines. He joined the staff of National Geographic in 1995, and was named editor in chief in January 2005.

AdAgeChina: You first visited China in 1985, on a photographic assignment for National Geographic, one of the magazine’s first portraits of modern-day China. What are your biggest concerns about the social and environmental changes that have taken place since then?

Chris Johns: The biggest concerns of course are related to sustainability and how we’re all increasingly every day involved in a world community. If something happens in China, there’s a ripple effect to the farthest corners of the world...human rights, environmental concerns, air and water pollution, soil erosion. From a U.S. perspective, it has to do with trade and a weakened dollar. Our goal in this issue was to show how interconnected all the world is, and in particular, the U.S. with China and the Chinese people.

AdAgeChina: The China issue was put to bed before mid-March. In the past two months, enormous events have taken place, the brutal crackdown in Tibet, followed by anti-Chinese protests all over the world, and now a major earthquake in Sichuan. What is your opinion of the media coverage of China in the West over the past two months?

Mr. Johns: It’s useful to go back and look at it from a historical perspective. Media in China, both information coming out of China and China covering itself, so to speak, is dramatically better than it was, certainly when I was there in the mid-80s. There’s been a great deal of progress there and progress that needs to be made. But there has been an openness in China since the earthquake that we haven't seen for a long time.

The Tibet issue is highly politically and emotional for both sides and that hasn’t been nearly as open. It’s not a surprise that they would clamp down as much as they have to restrict news coverage. I do think China is moving in the right direction. Our local language partners are devoting a great portion of their next issue to the earthquake.

AdAgeChina: Your reporters and photographers went deep into the countryside and conducted interviews with factory workers, government officials, economists, a wide range of people. What kind of censorship or monitoring or interference did they experience on the ground in China? And was it difficult to get visas?

Mr. Johns: No, it wasn't. We use people who have a long history there. [Photographer] Fritz Hoffmann has lived in China for years, more than a decade. [Writer] Peter Hessler has worked there. That was valuable for us....Also, [photographer] Greg Girard and [writer] Brook Larmer have worked out of China for years. When you have that kind of historical coverage, it makes it easier to work there. You also get a long in-depth look at a country.

AdAgeChina: The article “Moving Forward, Holding On” said “Tibetans still manage to hold on to cherished traditions.” After the crackdown in Tibet two months ago, do you think that’s still true?

Mr. Johns: I can’t politically say what Chinese motives are in Tibet, but I do know there is a richness of Tibetan culture to be cherished by all the world. I think we should celebrate that. The Tibetan people have been through much over the centuries but it behooves the world to pay attention to what’s going on there.

AdAgeChina: Until the earthquake hit, and media coverage was dominated by Tibet, there was a lot of talk about whether western leaders should boycott all or part of the Olympics. What do you think is the right tack for leaders to take on this issue?

Mr. Johns: That’s up to every leader. I would just say this. We at National Geographic firmly believe in the power of listening, the power of dialog and constructive conversation. Events like the Olympics bring the world together and reinforce us as a community. Things that help us get to know each other are terribly important. We cover culture and have an investment in the world and helping people understand each other and appreciate each other. The Olympics is a big player in doing just that. But I’m reluctant to say what individual leaders should do.

AdAgeChina: National Geographic took some criticism for its map of China in this issue, which some interpreted as saying China and Taiwan were part of the same country. Was there an internal debate about how to describe Taiwan?

Mr. Johns: Sure there was. Our maps are often used in the most prestigious organizations in the world. We take it extraordinarily seriously, it’s an important part of our tradition and our DNA. In this case, we were consistent with what we’ve done in the past. And we knew no matter what we did, there would be controversy. In situations like this, we try to elevate above the fray and the controversy and just do the right thing.

AdAgeChina: As Peter Hessler said in “The Road Ahead,” few Chinese spend much time thinking about the future, and the country’s development is controlled almost exclusively by business interests. What do you think can be done to foster long-term thinking in China, particularly in areas like protection of the environment and China’s endangered species?

Mr. Johns: I completely agree with what Pete said. I think a lot of it comes with economic development, education, openness, time and patience. And reinforcement of priorities and the right priorities for China. I was in Beijing last July and went back last December and in just those few months, I was shocked by how much Beijing had changed before my eyes. With that pace of change, there are going to be problems, but it’s already beginning to slow down in some places.

Chinese are incredibly resilient, smart people. I’m confident that with the right kind of support from the world community and the right kinds of discussions that China will find its equilibrium. They are smart enough to know that going green can bring economic benefits. I’m optimistic, but having said that, it’s important that they make these moves quickly. There are some big environmental concerns that affect not just China but all of us.

AdAgeChina: Westerners who don’t know China well harbor political and economic misconceptions about the country. Are there specific ideas or facts that you try to convey to people you meet who are anti-Chinese?

Mr. Johns: The thing I tell people, which is reflected in our May issue, is that China is an incredibly diverse place in landscape, religion, ethnicity, and it’s a complicated place. It’s a place with one of the richest histories of any nation in the world. They should be careful about judging China and making grandiose wide statements about the Chinese people. It’s actually quite an individual society.

And please take time to try to understand them and see their perspective. Of all the places I've traveled, and that's a lot thanks to National Geographic, I’ve never been to a part of the world that is more interesting, more complex than China. Every time I return, every book I read, I learn more about the depth of this incredible nation. I encourage people to avoid clichés and stereotypes too, because this nation deserves deeper thinking than that.

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