James Fallows

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.

James Fallows: Censorship

  • Shanghai vs. Beijing, in One Image

    One city warns about sunspots. The other, about political tensions.

    My wife and I have spent the past several nights at a hotel in Beijing, and we've just arrived at one in Shanghai. Both of the hotels are very nice and welcoming, and on check-in each of them provided a special notice about communication problems guests might encounter during their stay. Here are the notices side-by-side. You probably can't read the tiny print, but there is an explanation below.


    On the right, the notice in Shanghai: Because of sunspot and sun flare activity from late February through mid March, TV reception will be spotty during predictable brief intervals. For instance, today the interference was predicted between 12:25 and 12:39 China time.

    On the left, the notice in Beijing: Because of the "twin meetings" of China's main political bodies this week and next, Internet service will be slow or blocked altogether, online web and video may not be available, and "international TV stations will also be restricted in all public areas during this time."

    Two pieces of paper, two of the mentalities and forces at work in this moment's China. One of them is open, except as constrained by forces of the cosmos. The other is defensive and reflexively closed-down. I won't go on and spell out the implications, but this juxtaposition was too neat to resist.

    On the general subject of closed-mindedness, I got this answer from a technical-virtuoso reader who is very closely involved in how the Chinese "Great Firewall" works:
    Encrypted traffic, especially [a certain protocol] is being focused on. China operates like one big LAN as best they can muster. If they outright block all encrypted traffic they go off the grid and no one is willing to do business there. Their choice?  Randomly detect and disrupt encrypted traffic that has a high probability of being non-business traffic. If I were them, I would also be "white-listing" corporate data streams.

     So, China is like a company with an IT director bent on stopping anything but official corporate business from being conducted on their network. That's the way to think of it.... China is doing nothing to [foreign] servers directly, but is disrupting the protocols they all use.

    Thousands of users can connect to VPNs with no issue in China, so it definitely varies regionally and by ISP.

    It's fun to be back in Shanghai. And if you're at the M on the Bund Shanghai Literary Festival tomorrow (Friday), please be sure to see Deborah Fallows at noon. I'll be there on Sunday.

  • False Equivalence: The Pictorial Version

    Lessons from California, even though they are discouraging ones

    From a reader in Seattle, the front page of the Seattle Times on Saturday:


    It's way late here in China, and the Internet is so hobbled* that I have to try a new VPN ruse every three or four minutes, and in the circumstances I can't stand to go through the whole demonstration of why this approach should be considered false equivalence. OK, the barebones version:
    • Obama's latest budget offers are more "Republican" -- tougher on spending cuts, lighter on tax increases -- than what were venerated recently as centrist plans;
    • the GOP leadership has been open about its preference to have a showdown rather than a deal;
    • Obama has already conceded certain points that had been vaunted as game-changers, without any change in the game;
    • and the narrative is, "nobody budged." 
    So it begins. As inspirational sequester-era reading, I offer you this selection from California Crackup, the very good book by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul about how filibuster-style, permanent-emergency politics made it nearly impossible for the nation's biggest and richest state to do public business. See if this passage, written several years ago, reminds you of anything in the news these days:
    In most budget fights, the Republicans -- holding more than one-third of the seats in one or both legislative chambers, so enough to block a budget or revenue increase -- would make their support contingent on a list of demands. Many involved either cutting taxes or boosting spending for their own constituents -- even in times when the budget was out of balance ....

    This form of hostage-taking became the norm. As long as the minority party could remain cohesive, the strategy would work. The legislative majority felt the burden of governing the state. But the minority could delay the most basic task of the legislature -- passing a budget - without being held responsible....

    This two-thirds system, as it hardened, obscured responsibility and prevented political accountability. In a majority-vote system, the Democrats would have been accountable for the state's budget problems.... But in a two-thirds system, no one could fairly say that a budget belonged to one party or the other... [It] was a license for irresponsibility and inaction.
    Gee, it would be a shame if we were to have this problem on the national level** .
    ** "To be sure" differences of detail: In its most dysfunctional period, the California legislature required a two-thirds majority to pass budgets, as opposed to the 60-vote threshold that chronic filibustering has made the norm in the U.S. Senate. Also, thanks to redistricting, the GOP of course currently holds a majority in the U.S. House even though Democratic candidates received more votes than Republican ones nationwide. But overall the party's identity and strategy now are clearly those of an empowered blocking-group minority, rather than of a governing majority.

    GmailFail.png* I argued in my book that the intentional hamstringing of the Internet was a more-than-trivial handicap for China as it aspires to be a first-tier power in research, advanced technology, culture. At least at the moment in Beijing, it's incredibly onerous to use (see right and below). 

    The United States should be embarrassed about its stupid "sequester." China should be embarrassed about this stupid lobotomization of its connections with the world. More when I can find a better-functioning VPN (including scores of messages on the "liberal hawk" front). 

  • The 'Southern Weekend' Strike in China

    Chinese journalists take a surprising, and possibly very significant, stand against censorship.

    This is a reading-guide and basic-context note about the fast-developing and potentially important (but also potentially-leading-nowhere) showdown underway in China now, between much of the staff of the 'Southern Weekend' newspaper -- 南方周末, nánfāng zhōumò -- and the Chinese government's censors.

    The paper itself: On the spectrum of Chinese publications, Southern Weekend has long been on the more-daring, more-outspoken, more pushing-the-limits frontier. In keeping with the general principle that central-government control is tightest in and around Beijing and falls off with every mile of distance, it's not surprising that Southern Weekend is based in the far southern city of Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong. For some past references to SW in this space see this (about a tainted-food expose), this and this (about the interview SW did with Barack Obama during his China trip in 2009), and this (about the punishment the SW editor received for doing that interview).

    SoWeekend.jpg(Photo, from here, is of supporters holding signs saying Nan zhou Jia you, or roughly "Stay strong, Southern Weekend!")

    The Chinese media in general: As I never tire of pointing out, China is a giant, diverse, contradictory place in every conceivable way, and that applies to the media as well. Virtually all outlets operate under the threat, and often the imposed reality, of strict government control. But some reporters, editors, and broadcasters make the very most of the opportunities and openings they find; they represent some of the bravest journalists working in the world today. Others are just time-servers and system-supporters who accept their salaries and often the "red envelope" bonus pay-offs. For more on the red-envelope culture, see the wonderful satirical novel The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan.

    Chinese censorship: It's a race, changing every day. China's population is steadily better informed, and steadily more inventive about finding ways around official blackouts, "firewalls," etc. The government's censoring officials are steadily better-equipped and more aggressive about increasing surveillance and plugging up leaks. From the Western tech perspective, it's natural and easy to say, "Information wants to be free. The truth will always get out." And in the long run I believe that too. (This is, in effect, the subject of China Airborne.) But the long run can take a very long time, and the advantage in these struggles can shift back and forth. Just yesterday, Google appeared to back down from one of several stands it had taken against Chinese censorship.

    Chinese openness and reform overall: This is the Big Question, which like anyone interested in the country I've gone at repeatedly over the years. Its simplest statement is this paradox:
       - The Chinese system has to change, if the government is to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated population with an increasingly modern economic system. (Otherwise the economy will stagnate, the people will withdraw the legitimacy they have given the government for 30+ years of development, etc). AND
      - The Chinese system cannot change, because of the power and paranoia of the entrenched interests that control the security agencies, the government-industrial complex, and other sources of power. For American readers it may help to think of much of China's senior security officials as being that country's counterparts to Dick Cheney.

    Many people have opinions about how this contradiction will be resolved. But of course no one can be sure, and the evidence changes every day.

    So those are the stakes. Brave journalists, from one of the country's bravest publications, are objecting to the censorship rules that until now journalists have found a way to live with (or work around). Everyone knows this could be important -- or it could just peter out, as some other apparent tipping-point movements have.

    Now, your reading list, which I'll update as I can:
    • Background from China Digital Times of the specifics of the censorship and the dispute. See here, here, here, which will link to other coverage. Also, this item is a translation of orders from the Chinese censorship ministry about how to cover the dispute.
    • An item from Rachel Lu, of the Atlantic's partner Tea Leaf Nation, on the larger stakes.
    • Coverage from NYT, the Independent, Time (among others).
    • Evan Osnos, at the New Yorker, with a story on how support for the journalists' strike is spreading. A report from Australia about solidarity there.
    • A Chinese copyright-report site, on the way some government-controlled publications are striking back at the dissidents. A WSJ report on efforts to blame the whole uproar on "foreigners."

    No offense to any analyses left off in this first batch. I'm sacrificing completeness in the interests of getting something posted. Will try to catch up soon.


    And: I meant to mention earlier Ian Johnson's report in the NYT and the book edited by Susan Shirk, Changing Media, Changing China. And Jonathan Mirsky's very interesting essay in the NYRB. 

  • An Interview with Chen Guangcheng: 'Be Confident and Speak Out'

    China's best-known activist for civil liberties and rule of law, now exiled in the United States, explains why he is optimistic about China's "inevitable" emergence as a democracy that respects its people's rights.


    Our new issue is on the newsstands and in mailboxes. It is full of interesting articles, plus some new design touches. And so ... subscribe!

    I have two short items in this November issue, before a long story in December. One is a tech column q-and-a with David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done, or GTD, approach to modern life. The magazine article is here; some outtakes from our interview are here; and some other GTD news is here.

    In this issue I also have a brief appreciation of Chen Guangcheng, the civil-liberties activist from China who sought asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing earlier this year and whom we have recognized as one of our Brave Thinkers of the year.

    While researching that essay, I had a chance last month to interview Chen Guangcheng about the motivation for and significance of his work, and about his long-term aspirations for China. We spoke by telephone for about half an hour. I asked questions in English, and he answered in Chinese; an interpreter sitting with him in New York, at his new base at New York University, rendered each side's words into the other's language. The explanations in brackets below, [like this], are insertions by me where I thought extra background might be needed.
    Mr. Chen made clear ahead of time that he would not discuss personal details of his detention by provincial authorities or ultimate escape from China. He will go into these in depth in a forthcoming book. But he did discuss the overall prospect for political reform in China, and why in the face of great adversity he remains optimistic. On a day when the New York Times has published David Barboza's revelatory front-page piece about the family-business empire that surrounds even the most "kindly" and "socially aware" of China's political leaders, Chen's assessments are particularly timely. (For another view on the NYT expose, see China Daily Show.)

    Telephone interview with Chen Guangcheng, September 4, 2012.

    Q. As you think about the overall situation for the rule of law, and development of civil society and individual liberties in China, would you say that things are on the whole getting better? Or getting worse?

    Chen Guangcheng:
        My answer is two-fold. First, from the perspective of civil society, I would say that we have been witnessing a rising awareness by the Chinese people of the rule of law, of their rights, of rights-consciousness. All of those are on the rise, and it is an accelerating process.

        This is an inevitable trend of history. There is nothing that can stand in its way. With the help of advanced technology, and the experience of Chinese people, this rise in rights-consciousness is something that must happen, and will happen.

        In the past, people might hear only about themselves and their situations. Now this has been transformed into a situation where people do not care only about themselves but also about others, and they help each other.

        In the past, people largely relied on government officials to achieve the goal of justice. But now people have more and more relied on themselves to achieve this goal.

        I also have to say that from the legislative perspective, there has been a lot of improvement. A lot of progress has been made. The basic structure of the legal system has been established, in terms of having laws governing every aspect of the society. Nonetheless, most of the time those laws are just empty words in the eyes of the rulers.

        So Chinese people have come to realize that in order to realize their rights, and to have their rights protected, they have to go to the root of the problem, instead of just focusing on individual cases.

        It is becoming apparent that Chinese people who used to focus only on their individual cases, have now been paying more attention to the institutional changes that are called for by their rising rights-consciousness. For example, a call for the abolition of the notorious re-education through labor system. [JF this is a reference to prison-work camps.]

        In the face of these calls by the public, the rulers -- they just ignore those calls. They ignore the problems. They refuse to right the wrongs. They try to cover mistakes with even more mistakes.

        So the conclusion I would draw, from all of the above, is that in terms of the role the law plays in the society, the rule of law is absolutely sliding back. Even to the age of the Cultural Revolution.

        I think China has taken the first step, which is to make sure that there are rules and regulations and laws that govern the society. China is not doing a great job of the second step, which is to make sure that those rules are implemented and complied with in practice. Law enforcement generally speaking cannot function in today's Chinese society. That is what has given rise to all these numerous cases in which the government ignores the rules that they themselves have set up. For instance, the case of my nephew [Chen Kegui, arrested after Chen's departure], and my own case. These are all examples of the government's blatant ignorance of the law.  The government acts contrary to the law, tortures people, 'disappears' them, does all sorts of things to the innocent people without any legal basis,

    Q. You say that the evolution of individual rights, and rights-consciousness, in China is "inevitable." If that is so, do you think this transformation of China will be a natural, relatively calm process? Or do you expect it to be difficult, even violent?

    Chen Guangcheng:
        First, I think the shift of the Chinese society to democracy and rule of law, and of constitutional operation - all of that is definitely the trend, and there is nothing that can change this trend.

        As for how China will achieve this shift, it depends on a rich combination of factors. There are lots of things to take into account here. These include the approach taken by the leadership [in the Chinese government], the role played by human rights activists and by other people in Chinese society, and the attention the international society pays to these issues. And what kind of assistance the international society is willing and able to provide. For now, the leadership has shown no willingness to take this approach to make the shift happen. If that is the case, I believe that there will be more and more cases like Wang Lijun appearing in the near future. [Wang Lijun is the Chongqing police chief, previously allied with Bo Xilai, who broke with him and attempted to defect to British and American authorities.]

        I personally think that international society has not been ready for this shift in Chinese society. If that is really the case, it can make things worse.

        So given all those possibilities that we are facing, I think that if China remains the way it is now, that it is possible that a lot of good things will develop. But it is also possible that things will be getting worse.  But I think that this kind of uncertainty is itself exactly the sign of this coming trend and shift. It is what we would expect given what the Chinese government has been doing in terms of its lawlessness and blatant crackdown on civil society.

        Other issues that will face China in terms of how it manages its transformation include the following three: The public's loss of faith in the government. Also the loss of credibility, or lack of credibility, by the government. And the third is what has happened because of the internet censorship that China has launched with the great firewall. This has blocked information that could have gotten into China and could have affected the transformation.  What is really critical for the transformation, which will eventually determine whether the shift will be gradual and peaceful or difficulty and violent, is whether Chinese society can get itself back onto the right track.

    Q. I know that there are limits to what anyone outside China - individuals, organizations, or governments - can do to affect this process. In some circumstances outside pressure or "interference" can even make things worse. What do you think outside individuals or organizations who support China's evolution to a rule-of-law society can most usefully do?

    Chen Guangcheng:
        I think that for the United States - and not just the United States but also other democracies in the world -- there are a couple of things they could be doing.

        They should be aware of the coming shift in the Chinese society. And they should get ready for it. For instance, we have seen more and more mass "incidents" [demonstrations and protests, sometimes suppressed with violence] happening in China. What if the government had another massacre like the one 20 years ago [at Tiananmen Square]. What if this kind of thing happened again? What would be the international society's reaction to it? This needs to be considered.

        The Chinese government has not been performing its obligation to maintain the fairness and justice of Chinese society. The power is basically in the hands of the elite, and it has been manipulated by them. The least the international society could be doing is to exert more pressure on the Chinese government to make them deliver on whatever promises they have made to their people. The fundamental principles of fairness and justice- they don't have boundaries. They should be universal.

    In May this year, the Chinese government openly promised, not only to me but a promise made to the whole world, that they would launch an open investigation into my case and make sure to bring to justice those perpetrators. [The local authorities who had arrested and abused Chen and his family.] But so far there has been no sign whatsoever of any progress on that front. This kind of blatant ignoring of one's own promise is something we should pay attention to.

        In the face of all these kinds of violation of universal values and social justice, I think that countries, including the US should, not worry about "offending" the perpetrators [in the Chinese government] if they take action. They [Westerners] should make their stance clear. They should stand behind the principles they claim they believe in. They should not ignore or turn a blind eye to the obvious social injustice, with its cost for humanity and for universal values. That is something we [Chinese people] don't want to see here. What we want to see here is our hope that the US can, as it always does, take the lead in this case to show its long standing adherence to the universal values and the international norms.

        So, we should do whatever we can to improve China's situation in protecting human dignity, and realizing the rule of law, and achieving social justice and social fairness. We should not do anything or the basis of whether the rulers of China will be pleased with it or not. And anything that runs contrary to the values I have just enumerated, the United States should not do that -even if that is what the Chinese leadership hopes they will do.

        This brings up a very critical point. The government of the United States should ask the U.S. companies that operate in China to realize that they are not only earning money in China. They should also earn the confidence of the Chinese public.

        Take Google as an example. It really has played a model role in this respect, even though its withdrawal from China may put it at a disadvantage in terms of its economics.  So far I believe that Google has earned the confidence of the Chinese people.

        I want to deliver this message to people in any democracy in the world. I want to let them know that every effort they have made in this respect will make a huge difference in China. I urge them to have faith in their ability to make changes in China.   Be confident and speak out.  The sky won't fall just because people speak up on their own opinion.

  • China Soft-Power Watch: @BeijingAir Edition

    A government often looks weakest and most nervous when it is huffing itself up to look 'strong'

    This is another fascinating installment in the exercise of Chinese "soft power." For my Big Theory on the nature of Chinese soft power, see this essay and this book. For a few previous installments in the Soft-Power Watch, see this, this, and this with related links.

    Today's news: representatives of China's Foreign Ministry and environmental agencies have blasted foreign countries for "interfering" in Chinese domestic affairs by publishing real-time pollution readings in Beijing As the Reuters story put it:

    "According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations ... foreign diplomats are required to respect and follow local laws and cannot interfere in internal affairs," Wu [told a news conference.

    "China's air quality monitoring and information release involve the public interest and are up to the government. Foreign consulates in China taking it on themselves to monitor air quality and release the information online not only goes against the spirit of the Vienna Convention ... it also contravenes relevant environmental protection rules."

    The "foreign diplomats" they're talking about are those in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, who for the past few years have had a monitor on the roof of the embassy to measure levels of a pollutant very damaging to human health. This is so-called "PM 2.5" pollution, or very small particles that can go deep into the lungs. Every hour, that monitor sends out its readings via a Twitter feed, @BeijingAir. Here's how it looked this afternoon:


    You can get all the background you would ever want with this series of posts: one in 2009 that represented my first sighting of @BeijingAir; a followup shortly thereafter; an article in the magazine in 2009; a web item in November, 2011; and this heartbreaking/frustrating one also from last November, in which Chinese authorities explained why they weren't providing the PM 2.5 readings themselves. (Most Chinese readings are of the larger and less dangerous particulate pollution known as PM 10.)

    I could spend another ten paragraphs on links and background, but instead I'll pause for a picture from near our apartment in Beijing a few months ago and then go on to why this is a "soft power" issue.


    And another, "looking" out our apartment window (south, from Guomao) just before the Olympic games began:


    Here's the Big Thematic Point, in the form of a cumulating argument:

    1) Pollution is a really, really serious problem in China, as the Chinese government freely acknowledges.

    2) In many ways the Chinese government is trying really hard to cope with the problem.

    3) Some of the most heartening and important instances of Chinese-US and China-international cooperation are in the environment and energy field. I wrote about some of them in the magazine; such cooperation is also a big theme of my book. These efforts are justified on the Chinese side by the severity of their problems, and on the U.S. side by the global stake in these pollution-and-emission control efforts. Here's another reminder of why.

    4) China seems strong -- attentive to its people's welfare, aware of its greater role in the world -- when it non-defensively joins these efforts to address its problems. Does anyone think less of China because it is working with US and other scientists on cleaner power plants, or with Boeing, GE, Pratt & Whitney, etc on less-polluting airline systems?

    5) By this exact logic, how does the Chinese government look when it tries to suppress the spread of information that is of public-health value to its own people as well as foreigners, and that it is not in a position to provide itself? You can fill in the rest of the argument here.

    To adapt a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest "soft power" strength comes from appearing not to care about appearances at all. Billions for international PR campaigns, and defensive censorship about public health data? Huffiness about "the Vienna Convention"? Sigh. The country is better than this.
  • Remarkable Pictures From Hong Kong

    On the Tiananmen Incident memorial at Hong Kong's Victoria Park

    MSNBC's photoblog has pictures from Hong Kong this evening, June 4 China time, that are quite stunning. For instance, in Victoria Park a few hours ago:


    That so many people would turn out, in a supremely business-minded community that has been legally part of the People's Republic of China for nearly 15 years, to observe the Tiananmen anniversary that is leading to detentions, tightened censorship, and crackdowns in other parts of China, is impressive and heartening. (It also is impressive and heartening that Hong Kong's legal regime remains independent enough to allow such demonstrations and comments, after these nearly 15 years.)

    I stick with the argument that for most of the billion-plus people in the People's Republic, the past 30 years have been a time of increasing opportunity and prosperity, decreasing poverty, legitimately rising national pride, and overall improvement in civil liberties and the sphere of unregulated private life. But the contrast between the scenes today in Hong Kong, and the tightly patrolled public spaces* in Beijing, is a reminder of how much more the Chinese public can aspire to.

    (Of course see Alan Taylor's In Focus feature on Tiananmen then and now, which includes a Hong Kong nighttime shot.)  
    * I have heard from friends in Beijing about controls in Tiananmen Square and other public places there today. For the record, I describe in my book the trouble I got into with the police in that same space three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in 1989. Indeed the black-shirted plainclothesman in this NYT photo resembles the ones I ran afoul of.
  • The Words That Scare America— and China

    What the governments of the world's two leading powers are on the lookout for.

    (Please see update(s) below.) For our special May 35 edition (look it up), a comparison of the words that can get you in trouble with the authorities in the world's two leading powers.

    For America, the list shows up in the Department of Homeland Security's "Analyst's Desktop Binder," viewable in Scribd format here. It was released last week after a Freedom of Information Act suit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It includes terms-to-watch in monitoring social media and other communication channels. For instance, these are the tricky works in the "Domestic Security" category:


    The whole document is an enlightening bureaucratic specimen.

    For China, the list has been produced through very creative use of the feature Google made available a few days ago. As mentioned last week, Google started warning users within the Great Firewall when one of the search terms they were entering was likely to trigger a disconnection or blockage. The tyros whizzes at both GreatFire.org and ATGFW.org managed to reverse-engineer this feature to produce a more-or-less master list of currently firewalled terms. This is interesting in its own right -- and additionally significant because the uncertainty of what was and was not allowed added to the Great Firewall's effectiveness.

    GreatFire's list of blocked keywords contains some English and many Chinese entries. Here is a brief part of the English section. The * marks are for wildcards, and 什么 means "what?" or "what is?":

    blood is on the square
    chinese people eating babies

    In every one of those terms (and this is a tiny sample) is a whole saga for people following the Chinese developments. More details on GreatFire's site, plus this explanation by Bill Bishop on Sinocism. I have theories about what the lists say about each country, and about the beyond-national-differences workings of security-state agencies, but I'll skip them for now.

    UPDATE China Digital Times goes into detail about the sensitive terms, and allows users to add updates, in English and Chinese postings.

    Update2: Several readers have noted that I included the DHS/TSA list of touchy words as an image, rather than as pasted-in text. You're right! This was no accident. I figured I didn't need to ask for more trouble in TSA screening lines by putting up a post with all sensitive terms back to back.
    I'm kidding, mostly. But the use of an image rather than text was intentional.: While on the road, I had missed Rebecca Rosen's very good previous item about the US list.


  • Google and the Great Firewall: An Interesting New Twist

    Google reveals some of what it has learned about how China's censorship system works.

    In a post that went up a few minutes ago on its official "Inside Search" blog, Google offers some fascinating tips on "improving our user experience" for people inside mainland China. As a background reminder: after its showdown with the Chinese government two years ago, Google moved its Chinese search servers outside the mainland, to Hong Kong. People in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere on the mainland can still use Google, but their queries must pass through "Great Firewall" filters on their way out to Hong Kong and then back in again.

    One valuable part of this new post is a video that vividly conveys how it feels to run searches from inside the Great Firewall. As I argued years ago (and in these recent updates), the brilliance of the multi-layered screening systems that together make up the Firewall is that they are neither airtight nor fully predictable. Unless you are brazenly searching for some obviously taboo term, you're never certain what exactly has triggered a blockage -- or, often, whether your query is being blocked at all, versus your having run into some routine internet problem.

    The first minute or so of the video shows what this is like from the user's end -- indeed, how it felt to me about 36 hours ago, when I was trying to do some searches in Shanghai. You enter one query, and it works fine. Then you enter a seemingly similar one -- and, inexplicably, your internet connection seems to die for a while. Then, after a "penalty box" period (whose existence or duration is never explained to you), it comes back. Please do watch:

    The post then goes on to explain ways in which users can unintentionally run afoul of the Great Firewall, and how they might avoid doing so. For instance: a significant number of "harmless" searches end up being blocked because of coincidental overlap with sensitive names. The post gives the example of the character 江, Jiang, which means "river" and is part of many normal Chinese words and names. (For instance, a famous resort town is named Lijiang, 丽江, and the the Yangtze River is written 长江, Chang Jiang.) But 江 is a "sensitive" character for the Firewall, presumably because it's the family name of the former president Jiang Zemin, 江泽民. Therefore if you are looking for information about the Yangtze River and you innocently enter its normal Chinese name, 长江, you can end up in the penalty box.

    The post gives many more details, and explains a new Google search utility that will pop up to warn users in China when they may be getting into trouble without realizing it. For instance, here is what they would see if they entered the Yangtze River / 长江 query:
    That warning, shown in English above, would appear in whatever language the user had chosen for his or her Google settings.

    There is much more at the post, which is worth study on the ongoing rich question of China's conflicted embrace of the Internet. This is a first reaction on my part; more after I've looked at it further and heard from friends in China about how much difference this makes. And for now, congrats to Google for revealing some of what it has learned about a system whose effectiveness has been magnified by its mystery.

    Update. A reader adds this point:

    I like it; it's not only helpful, but serves as a constant, in-your-face reminder to users in China that the government is censoring search results to such an extent that even seemingly innocuous words can get one's connection interrupted.  In other words; it's a passive aggressive way for Google to point out just how insecure the Chinese government is. 
  • On the 'Slow' Chinese Internet and the Prospects for China: One More Round

    Just off the long-haul Shanghai-Newark-DC National route and stumbling into our house. For another time, perhaps even tomorrow: why Newark has become my new favorite airport for trips into and out of China, apart from the Cory Booker factor and the welcome fact that it's not Dulles.

    In this original item on the significance of China's "slow" internet, based on this NYT essay drawn from this book, I argued that the speed of internet access in China, relative to the super-quick networks in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, was a useful proxy for China's openness and modernization overall. It has some modest direct effect on China's ability to nurture first-rate world research centers, and it is more important as a marker of the ongoing tensions between the security-state and the entrepreneurial forces in China's leadership.

    Then in this reply, a number of Chinese and Western tech officials said that the subtler and more intriguing aspect was the difference between (very high) communication speeds inside the Chinese "Great Firewall" and (often very slow) speeds across the Firewall, to sites in the outside world. As one tech official in China wrote:

    The big question is not whether or not China can build a world-class society while fighting the internet, the question is whether or not it can do so while building a giant intranet that is China-specific. China is big enough that I think this is something of an open question.

    I am going to double-down and say: if, in the long run, internet users in China suffer penalties reaching sites outside the country, then no matter how big and important the Chinese web-o-sphere becomes, it will not be "world-leading" or "world-class," because much of the world will be walled off. To be clear, I hope for China's continuing more complete integration with the rest of the world. That would make some Chinese firms more profoundly "competitive" to Western incumbents -- Apple, Google, GE -- than they are now, but it would also suggest that the "Chinese system" as a whole, and most Chinese people, would more easily interact with the rest of the world.

    Now, several further installments on the longer-term significance of this proxy for Chinese openness.
    1) From a Chinese-American reader:

    I was from China.  I came to US to pursue graduate study and have since settled here.  I am working and raising family in Northeast.

    It seems to me indeed Internet speed in terms of accessing servers outside China may not be much of an issue for the first wave of outsourcing (the manufacture outsourcing) which has been going on for the last 15-20 years.  After all what matters at the end of the day is the speed to transport 'goods' across pacific (US centric view (:-)).  

    However, perhaps we are now witnessing the second wave of outsourcing (office work, research and development) where the product is no longer goods, rather it's data and information.  Computer systems and applications are integral part of this type of work.   Internet speed in terms of accessing servers outside China will likely matter.

    2) From the CTO of a Western tech firm that is expanding operations in China (emphasis added):

    Our company runs a service with [several tens of millions of ] subscribers out of California and recently launched a China-only version of our service out of data centers there. We are adding around [tens of thousands] of new Chinese users per day....

    The firewall issues going in and out of China get a lot of attention, but the state of networking within China is a bit hairy as well.

    There are a small handful of network carriers in China, all with state-backed status (e.g. China Unicom, China Telecom, etc.).

    In spite of the state backing, these carriers frequently refuse to carry network traffic from each other. I've even heard unverifiable stories from Chinese Internet professionals of these carriers cutting each others cables when they encroach on each others' turf. [JF note: this resembles some of the stories I've told about trying to create a truly nationwide air-travel network.]

    This means that any Internet service in China needs to connect individually to each of these network carriers. You can't just connect to 2 or 3 high-quality carriers and expect them to route traffic properly to the others like you do in the West. Instead, each service needs to deal with direct connectivity to each provider.

    The top Internet Data Centers (IDCs) provide some aggregation and intermediation services that allow you to pay them to connect your service to all of the networks, but this costs about 10x as much as comparable Internet connectivity in the US.

    In addition, network performance within the country varies widely by geographic locale. East-west networking tends to be much better than north-south. Our users in Guangzhou say they get better performance to [our site in the US] than they do to our servers in Beijing.

    All of this translates into some significant inefficiencies for Chinese Internet companies that their western counterparts don't have to bear, independent of The Firewall. I.e. paying 10x as much for unreliable bandwidth as well as higher network engineering labor strikes me as the sort of problem that may eventually result in some market pressure from businesses on the government to provide some level of deregulation of internal network telecommunications.

    I.e. it's as if factories in China had to pay 10x as much for unreliable state-run electricity compared to competitors in Mexico or Thailand.

    3) From a Western academic with extensive experience inside China and with the Chinese language:

    Having [recently] suffered through a year of living and teaching in China,  it is all too painfully obvious to me that the internet controls are harmful to the Chinese people.  My own students often complain, and they do everything they can to circumvent the controls and restrictions, but with only partial success.

    I would estimate that well over half of the capability of the internet is unavailable to the Chinese people.  Surely that has a negative effect on the dissemination of knowledge and information in the PRC.

    4) And from another person familiar with the Chinese tech world:

    I agree, throttling (or mismanaged setups of DNS that unnecessarily limits speeds)  is certainly an issue for power users who depend on hi-quality, consistent internet speeds. And combined with the censorship in China, it's just another reason for outside firms to not even bother trying to crack the Chinese market or to invest it in. It's certainly a boon to local firms since.. there is no net neutrality in China and firms with guanxi or money might be able to purchase better internet speeds.

    The big picture, once again, is that so much is happening so fast in China, and we're all trying to make sense of where it might lead. More -- and on a variety of backed-up topics -- after a bout of Eastern Daylight Time zone sleep.

  • Is China's Internet Actually 'Slow'? And Does That Matter?

    Can a "world-class" country wall itself off from the world? A test case might be at hand.

    Over the weekend the International Herald Tribune ran a version of an opinion piece I'd had in the NYT Sunday Review section, itself a version on an argument in my book, about the next stage in China's development. Its main point was to ask whether the strategy behind the huge Chinese achievement of the past thirty years -- that of alleviating poverty on a wide scale through an emphasis on construction, infrastructure, and low-wage manufacturing, was likely to be a help or a hindrance as Chinese companies tried to become high-wage, high-value, international brand competitors. How would we know whether the Chinese system was becoming capable of competing with Apple, rather than outsourcing for Apple.

    [A view in Shanghai today, which is looking very nice.]

    Thumbnail image for Shanghai.jpg

    In my book I lay out a number of markers indicating whether Chinese companies and the Chinese productive system were moving in this higher-end direction. In the article I mentioned this one:

    After another several-month stay in China last year, I came up with one proxy for China's ability to take this next step: how slow its Internet service is, compared with South Korea's or Japan's.

    In much of America, the Internet is slow by those standards, but mainly for infrastructure reasons. In China it's slow because of political control: censorship and the "Great Firewall" bog down everything and make much of the online universe impossible to reach. "What country ever rode to pre-eminence by fighting the reigning technology of the time?" a friend asked while I was in China last year. "Did the Brits ban steam?"

    Several people have objected and responded, with good points that make me clarify my own. For instance:

    1) At his China Hearsay site, Stan Abrams asks where it is really fair to claim that China's growth is suffering to any serious degree because of Internet controls:

    How much is China's GDP suffering because of lower Net speeds? Is that comment about the Brits banning steam fair?

    First answer: I don't really know....

    Second answer: I have a feeling that the conclusions on this issue are overstated to some degree....

    My point is that it's too easy to say that China's Net speed is slow and therefore its economy is taking a significant hit.

    Actually I agree. I'm not claiming that at this moment China's output sags to any real extent because of the delay in reaching firewalled sites outside of China. My point was that when looking for indicators of a general opening-up of the Chinese system -- of how the balance stands in the ongoing struggle between the security-state forces and the economic-development forces that is underway in so many parts of China's policy -- a reduction in the Great Firewall handicap would be an important sign.

    2) A Western reader who lives in China and works in the Internet industry sends a long and very detailed reply. I quote it in full because it raises several different points about current levels of Chinese control and the reasoning behind them. Emphasis added, in this and the subsequent note:

    You are correct that access from inside China to websites outside of China is slow, and this is because we have only a few entry/exit points for the intertubes in/out of China.

     I also spent a lot of time in the past on off-the-record analysis and scanning of the ISPs and bandwidth in China, and until 5-6 years ago, a large amount -- but not most -- of the speed issues in China were a result not of blocks, but rather of poorly-configured DNS, slowly updated DNS, and poorly-trained Chinese ISP technicians. I have given lectures in places like [..] to ISP chief admins on how best to configure and work with DNS and allow for faster speeds. China's Internet is held together by duct tape, as it is in the other parts of the world.

    Another reason for speed/connection/interoperability/latency issues is very capitalistic in nature: business competition. Simply, there is no Net Neutrality in China. I can write books on this, so I'll leave it at that for now.

    But inside China, the Internet is "fast enough" for what netizens do now. I can view Youku videos with no buffering while sitting on my toilet viewing my iPad connected to a wifi modem a few rooms away connected to a mediocre adsl connection to China Telecom in Beijing.

    I also routinely hold GoToMeeting.com video and audio meetings with people from around the world with rare speed-related problems.

    My wife routinely does Skype-based audio interviews with guests from around the world, again with rare speed-related problems. She also uploads data to her servers in the US, and also her videos to YouTube, all without major speed problems (the latter of course via a proxy).

    Most importantly: Internet access in China is truly ubiquitous. In the calm of Jiuzhaigou's towering trees, my mobile phone signal is at full bars. At the top of a ski slope in Jinan, I can download my email. Driving my car from Beijing to Xi'an, I have uninterrupted streaming Internet music via my iPhone on long stretches of highway. I can walk into (most) elevators in China and continue talking on my phone without the signal dying. These things are rarely possible in America with its deadzones. 13-14 years ago I could easily go to the corner newspaper stand in Beijing and buy a card for dial-up Internet access, but when I visited the US I had to register with AOL and go through hoops to get online. Getting online in China has always been easier, albeit content more restricted, than the USA. It is still easier today in China to get online than in the US.

    Of course the trade-off to having full bars at the top of a ski slope in Jinan is that I am now trackable on that ski slope in Jinan.

    I do not mean to be an apologist (or marketer) for China's Internet. But for 99% of Chinese netizens, they can do without constant access to non-Chinese websites and services hosted offshore. So while I too often lament (bitterly and frustratingly) that the slow Internet is killing China's growth abilities, I also calm down and then realize that China's Internet bubble (sic) works for all the participants currently operating within that bubble. Complaining about slow access to sites in the West is mostly a Laowai Dilemma. I do feel your pain.

    3) And similarly, from a western reader in Shanghai:

    I think you are uncharacteristically missing something. The internet in China is way fast *as long as you stay in China*. China is not fighting "the reigning technology" at all; as  you know sites like TaoBao and Weibo, and now Weixin, are at least as significant as their counterparts in the US both technically and in their effect on society. It is easy for foreigners to assume that because they can't get on Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, or Hulu (oh wait, Hulu and Pandora are blocked *from the US* - separate rant) and that Google doesn't work half the time that Chinese can't use the internet, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Some Chinese certainly would love to get to those sites - but it's not clear that it's a significant number in the context of the Chinese internet.

    The big question is not whether or not China can build a world-class society while fighting the internet, the question is whether or not it can do so while building a giant intranet that is China-specific. China is big enough that I think this is something of an open question.

    Please don't get me wrong; I think the GFW is absurd and repugnant. And it is indeed hard to think that any nation that is scared of Facebook could be called great. But it's certainly misleading at best to say China is fighting the internet.

    I'll just say: these are important points, and I agree. As I argued several years ago in my piece about the Great Firewall, the brilliance of China's internet control strategy is that it is not airtight. People who want to, badly enough, can find ways around the controls. But doing so can be costly, and is a nuisance -- and an increasing one, as the government more and more often interferes with "VPN" services that let you evade the firewall. It's a nuisance resident foreigners are willing to put up with -- but that the vast majority of Chinese internet users will not bother with, since so much is available to them so easily within the (monitored) Chinese-only internet world, in which you really can get coverage anywhere. (I've used a four-bar-coverage cell phone from deep down inside a Chinese coal mine.)

    I agree with these points, and thank the readers for spelling them out -- while still maintaining that a variety of measures of fully international openness, like those I mentioned here, are significant in measuring China's progress toward fully featured, soft-power-plenipotentiary, rich-country status. As reader #3 says, "the question is whether or not China can build a world-class society while building a giant intranet that is China-specific." By my lights, the answer to that question must be No. Everything I have learned about the world tells me that "world-class" powers must be open to the world. I agree with the reader that China's scale makes it an open question -- and if the answer turns out to be Yes, many of our (my) other assumptions will come into question as well.

    This is why the place is interesting. And to close out, the People's Square view just now, from ground level and above:

    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for sh3.jpg

    Thumbnail image for Shan1.jpg

    PS to round off the thought: I've been trying to compose this at a Starbucks in Shanghai, where the connection was unbelievably molasses-slow. But consistent with all the points above, that may not prove anything, since I was logging into U.S.-based servers that few Chinese netizens would be interested in.
  • Glad That's Cleared Up! China Soft-Power Watch #29,168

    Yet again the official Chinese media assuage our concerns

    The proudly nationalist Global Times has reassuring news for those concerned about the denial of a visa for Melissa Chan, the (excellent) China correspondent for Al-Jazeera, who will soon be leaving Beijing and closing the Al-Jazeera bureau behind her:


    Phew! That is so good to know.

    Among those who will feel much better after this clarification are Evan Osnos of the New Yorker ("China is moving backward..."), Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy ("the troubling pattern of the foreigners Beijing has targeted over the last decade..."), and James McGregor of One Billion Customers, as quoted by Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal ("Before, China used to try to influence foreign journalists. Now they're trying to control them the same way they control local journalists, through intimidation...")* I'm sure that, like me, you will feel better too after you compare Global Times's account with these others. This is what soft power is all about.
    * Disclosure: Osnos and McGregor are friends whom I saw often while in China, and I've had some professional contact with Fish and Chin and respect their work. I know Melissa Chan only through her reporting. FYI, and because it complicates this case, she is a U.S. citizen. Isaac Stone Fish examines the implications of her national and ethnic identity.
  • China Soft-Power Watch, Chapter 29,167

    The Chinese government decides than an Al-Jazeera correspondent has gone too far.

    From the Guardian just now:

    Chan.jpgThis is really a shame, in every possible way. Melissa Chan of Al-Jazeera (right, from Al-Jazeera's site) has done excellent work from China, which I've made a point of following. I don't know her but I respect her courage and honesty. More on the case here from the NYT. And from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    I won't rev up right now for a full discourse on what this might mean and where it might lead. But this is no kind of good signal, for China or for anyone else.
  • An Astounding Article in 'Global Times'

    A state-run Chinese newspaper publishes a very daring item. Click to see it while it's still online

    (See update below.) As soon as you can, try this link to an article on the site of the state-run and usually very nationalist Global Times newspaper in China. It is hard to believe that the story will stay up very long. (And if it does, that will say something surprising in itself.) Here is the way it looks as of around 9am Tuesday, March 20 China time - although I see from the dateline that it's been up for a while already:


    Here's the reason this matters: it concerns a spectacularly horrible fatal car crash over the weekend in Beijing. At around 4 in the morning, a Ferrari driven at high speed along the Fourth Ring Road crashed and burned, killing its driver and seriously injuring two women in the car. The Chinese social-media-sphere has been full of speculation about who was in the car, how "connected" they might be, what kind of people (top officials' children?) end up with Ferraris, whether the story will be hushed up, and so on. In short, every exposed raw nerve created by the gaping economic and power inequalities of today's China was touched by this episode.

    And for Global Times to say that the story is being hushed up! It is like Fox News undertaking an expose of Bush v. Gore or the business interests of Clarence Thomas's wife. This is at face value brave, possibly reckless, and without doubt extremely interesting. Here is a screen shot of the end of the story as of right now.  After the jump, a text version of what the story says. Thanks to BB in Beijing for spotting it. And I say, with none of the usual sarcasm, that I am very impressed by what this part of the Chinese state media has done in this case. (Seriously, read this story! It's amazing.)

    Ferrari2.pngUPDATE: Some of my China-sophisticate friends say I am overreacting to this, and that an English-language story like this is meant strictly to play to foreign sensibilities. Perhaps, and perhaps I am quickly misreading these events. But -- if that is so, why are English-language broadcasts on CNN or BBC blacked out whenever they mention "sensitive" topics? Why do the English-language China Daily and Global Times usually present such a chipper "harmonious society" face? I don't know -- I'm just saying that this is different from what I am used to seeing as the for-foreign-consumption face of Chinese news, from the state-run media.

    More »

  • Censoring the Internet: It's Not Just for China Any More!

    A bad idea, whose time should not come

    For the record, like nearly everyone else who has thought about the importance of a freely operating Internet to the cultural, political, and economic vibrancy of the United States, I take a dim view of the Orwellian-named "Stop Online Piracy Act" being considered in Congressional hearings today.

    For more of the reasons why opponents of the bill have declared today "American Censorship Day," go to the ACD site, or Fight for the Future, or Mozilla's site. And for a how-to of Internet censorship a la Chinoise, there is this Atlantic piece from three years ago, still basically true to the operations of the Great Firewall. In the NYT Rebecca MacKinnon makes the Great Firewall-SOPA connection.

    The Vimeo clip below does a very clear and concise job of explaining the commercial, technical, and political issues at stake. Short description of the problem: in the name of blocking copyright-infringing piracy sites mainly outside the United States, the bill would make U.S.-based Internet companies legally liable for links to or publication of any pirated material. This would be technically cumbersome, economically and commercially dampening, and potentially politically repressive. The video tells you more. 


    PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

    Every developed society has had to work out the right balance of how far it will go to ensure that inventors and creators will get a reasonable return for their discoveries. If it does too little -- as in modern China, where you can buy a DVD of any movie for $1.50 from a street vendor -- it throttles the growth of creative industries. (China both over-controls political expression and under-controls commercial copying.) If it does too much -- encouraging "patent troll" lawsuits, arresting people for file-sharing music or video streams -- it can throttle growth and creativity in other ways. There is no perfect answer, but this bill would tip the balance way too far in one direction, to defend incumbents in the entertainment industry.

    And for a wonderful illustration of the completely unexpected ways in which technological, political, commercial, and social creativity can interact, by all means read Alexis Madrigal's item on "OWS as API."

  • Is Jiang Zemin Dead? Real-time Illustration of News Control in China

    Is a former president dead? The Chinese government can't, or won't, say.


    For the past 24+ hours, anyone following various social-media feeds* about China has seen rumors, then official denials, then silence, about the possible demise of former president Jiang Zemin, shown in his prime at right. Jiang would turn 85 next month.

    For another time, an assessment of what Jiang has meant, the differences between him and the current regime (and the regime about to take control), his family's role in China, and all of that. The fascinating part at the moment is the gap between the speed and back-and-forth of the unauthorized discussion of his condition, and the ponderousness and opaque nature of official statements. An item two hours ago in the WSJ's China Realtime Report illustrates the extreme heavy-handedness of the news control. For instance: Jiang's name in Chinese is 江泽民, with the first character, 江, being his family name. That character, jiang, literally means "river" -- and in the past few hours, any search for info about China's big rivers on Sina Weibo (China's Twitter counterpart, the real Twitter being blocked in China) comes up empty. As Josh Chin of the WSJ says:

    >>In addition to "river," the company has also blocked searches for "death" in various iterations as well as "301 Hospital," a reference to the People's Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing where top leaders are often treated.

    Beyond blocking searches, the service's human censors have also been busy hand- deleting posts that mention the former leader.

    Chinese microbloggers have employed a variety of tricks in an apparent attempt to get around the blocks. With Weibo censors blocking searches the word for "hung" (挂了), a common Chinese euphemism for death, users have been circulating an image showing an empty set of clothing hanging out to dry, pants hiked up to chest level the way Mr. Jiang preferred.
    I wish Jiang and his family well. He has been out of power for nearly a decade. The government's difficulty in handling even the most basic info about his health is one more illustration of the unevenness of its emergence as a full-fledged world power. It will be interesting to see what the government finally says about him, when it does.
    *Another real-time report: I have found the stream of info from people in my "China" circle, on the week-old Google+, to be a very useful source of updates here. More on that later too.

    UPDATE: This email from Michael Standaert in southern China:
    >>More from the rumor mill, via an odd route: Just heard from a young acquaintance here in Shenzhen over QQ that Internet game operators he knows have been given notice not to allow any Internet gaming tomorrow, so he was speculating that an official announcement about Jiang Zemin will come tomorrow.<<

    The main point, again, is the government's incredible awkwardness in handling health news about an 84-year-old man who has been out of power for a decade.

    Update-update. Courtesy of Adam Minter, this headline just now from the (anti-government) Epoch Times:



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