3 Sobering Notes About China

1) Cancer. Today's report, from the Earth Policy Institute, that cancer has become the leading cause of death in China. As the report says:

The usual plagues of poverty--infectious diseases and high infant mortality--have given way to diseases more often associated with affluence, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

While this might be expected in China's richer cities, where bicycles are fast being traded in for cars and meat consumption is climbing, it also holds true in rural areas. In fact, reports from the countryside reveal a dangerous epidemic of "cancer villages" linked to pollution from some of the very industries propelling China's explosive economy.

As anyone who has traveled inside China knows, pollution and environmental devastation really are the nation's number-one emergency, and the main barrier to continuation of the past 30 years' economic boom. The government has started working hard on this problem, but it is a more serious one than is generally publicized.

2) Communications. As I noted several times in my most recent two-month stint in Beijing, internet disruptions, via the Great Firewall, are much more extensive and harder to get around than in the innocent "pre-Jasmine" days. (The "Jasmine" movement was an embryonic Chinese version of the "Arab Spring." To be sure it never got beyond embryo stage, the government has gone all-out in controlling domestic communications and organization. More on this later.) For days on end I found it essentially impossible to contact the outside world via normal channels, notably including Gmail. The crucial difference is that the government began seriously and systematically disrupting VPNs -- the Virtual Private Networks that previously been a costly but near-certain way of getting around restrictions.

A report today says that VPN interference is becoming the norm. This is bad news on many fronts -- not least its impact on Chinese-based scholars, businesses, designers. More on this later, in the magazine.

3) Surveillance. A grim but realistic report today from Al Jazeera's excellent Melissa Chan, about what it means to try to practice journalism inside China. Plus, the video below, by Stephen McDonell of Australia's ABC, is quite vivid in showing what it is like to be trailed by Chinese authorities at every turn. This was in the course of his reporting a story about underground churches in China. Believe me, this is worth watching.

I should say that this never happened to me (although everyone obviously knew I was a foreigner), probably because I didn't have to traipse around with a camera crew. Also, a point that will be evident to people in China but perhaps not to those outside: the highly-obtrusive team trailing after McDonell is almost certainly from the local or provincial government, not the central authorities. Often the problems journalists have are worst with local potentates.

This is all part of the endless simultaneously good-and-bad, promising-and-discouraging mix of trends inside China. Essay question: the Chinese government's response on issue #1 is fully suitable to an ambitious, advanced nation. But the other two? Is this the way a "rising power" is supposed to behave, even while still in the developing stage? Discuss. Extra credit essay: analyze the consequences to future high-value industries of preventing your nation's people from using Google. As part of this essay: Explain whether using Baidu is quite the same.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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