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: China Airborne

  • What a Wandering Airliner Says About China's Prospects

    A Chinese plane was not allowed to land at some Chinese airports. Why that matters.

    The meandering path of China Eastern airlines flight 750 four days ago ( All maps from FlightAware )

    The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.

    The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.

    Highlights were:

    The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;

    It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.

    If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.

    • Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.

    Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.

    At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."

    Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:

    This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.

    Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.

    There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.

  • Rashōmon Comes to Hong Kong: 3 Ways of Viewing the Latest News

    China is doing better, doing worse, and staying the same. Discuss.

    The Japanese warrior Watanabe no Tsuna, fighting at Rashōmon ( Wikimedia Commons )

    Yes, yes, I am aware that Rashōmon is a Japanese reference, and we're talking about events in China. But bear with me—at the moment it's a convenient shorthand for the contradictory possibilities, and the unknowable underlying reality, of events that are important but not fully understood. If you'd prefer, you could think of this as Heisenberg Comes to Hong Kong.

    Two days ago I mentioned some of the downbeat political and economic news out of China, mainly involving challenges for the economy and the continued tightening of political controls under the hoped-for reform leader Xi Jinping. Now three representative reactions from readers in and around China:

    1) “Stop being such a downer.” From a reader based in the U.S. who often does business in China:

    Please don't do this if you can help it. For years, you were the guy bringing out ideas. Now, not so much.

    I know how many bad stories there are. My family provides them. I see them. There are plenty of folks to point out the obvious.

    It is only stories that everyone knows. You're reinforcing ideas already in peoples heads.

    There's no lack of forecasters predicting doom for China. It's the story Westerners like best.

    There are better and more interesting stories.

    The stories that get written are the ones already in Westerners heads. Everything is viewed thru the Western lens. No one is writing from a Chinese view. I understand why. It's anathema. One would be outcast.

    Folks think it's a billion people yearning to be free. It's more like a billion people wanting clean air, an apartment, a retirement home that's not a shithole, fashionable clothes. 

    But those are stories that run counter to Western canon on China. 

    I recently did a trip across Hubei and Hunan that was (sort of) like your trip across the US. The overall vibe was positive. It's a different picture of China than folks in the US get.

    Poster for the Kurosawa film
    version of Rashōmon from 1950. 

    2) “The reality is downcast right now, and you might as well say so.” From a foreigner who has lived in China for the past 10+ years and has been involved in the music business there:

    I've spent more time in Hong Kong of late, as my wife and I are planning to return to the US after many years in China, and we're organizing our affairs in Hong Kong as an intermediate on our way back to the US.

    The situation for music became so dismal in China that I finally decided to give up the endeavor altogether. Our last several live shows were tampered with in a very heavy-handed way by the gov't: we were forbidden from performing certain songs at the last minute and not permitted to substitute others for them, our show times were moved around at the last minute, and our appearances even spliced out of videos of the events. I concluded that it was no use trying to fight these (invisible) forces, and we decided that it would be best for us to move back to the US and focus on a future there.

    It's a sad day. I remember the overwhelming sense of optimism among my Chinese friends when I first moved to China [more than ten years ago]. The sense then was that the genuine opening up of China was inevitable, and everyone (I'm speaking of my Chinese friends and colleagues and not expats) had the sense that the heavy hand that had been upon them for so long was finally lifting.

    Now my sense is that optimism is all but gone. The strident nationalism is no substitute; it brings a certain angry determination but almost none of the spontaneous optimism that was so evident a decade ago. I feel so sorry for China's artists and scientists, who are not only very talented, but who will suffer both in career and in reputation because of forces in the country that are beyond their control

    On the bright side, things are looking up for the US, and my (uninformed) guess is that roughly speaking as China spirals into more and more economic peril because of its dubious policy choices, it will be much to the benefit of the US economy, as people from China and elsewhere flock toward the West generally and the US in particular in search of the optimism that they can no longer find in China.

    The pre-Walter White Heisenberg

    3) “Things are good and bad at the same time.” From someone formerly of Hong Kong, now in the U.S.:

    As an ex-Hongkonger, I am of course as disappointed and frustrated as many are at Beijing's decision not to allow direct election of our Chief Executive. However, being a determined optimist, I see this as a cup half-full.

    First , let's remember that the British government has never allowed any sort of elections for the CEO (Governor) of Hong Kong, or India, or any of its former colonies (including the United States) in its long and shameful history of colonialism either, as every Chinese mainlander will tirelessly remind you. So no one can deny that indirect election as now proposed is definitely a step forward.

    Second, I propose we should view the CEO of Hongkong not as equivalent to the US President, but as a US Supreme Court Justice, who is also nominated by the party in power and not elected by the people. What this means is that as long as the CEO candidates nominated by China maintain their independence after the elections, we are in good shape.

    Hongkongers need to find an Earl Warren, who seemed to toe the party line before nomination but who turned out to be a defender of civil rights. Whether such a candidate can be found is a test of the moral integrity and courage of Hongkong's elites. Whether Beijing will acquiesce in his/her subsequent independence will be a test of its good faith. But as things stand right now, a bad outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

    All these accounts are true. After the jump, a quote from China Airborne on the necessity and difficulty of accepting such contradictions.  

    More »

  • Your Guide to the Latest Depressing News Out of China

    On democracy in Hong Kong and economic reforms in Beijing

    Crowds in Hong Kong protest the Chinese government's edict on voting rules. (Reuters)

    First, for fair-and-balanced purposes, if you'd like to start with some depressing trends out of the U.S., be sure to read The punditry vs. the presidency, by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News. It is about the destructive, non-accountable pundit pressure on Barack Obama to prove his strength by “doing something” about the crises underway around the world. Ah, it brings the "why we hate the media" days back so vividly.

    On to China.

    1. Politics. Last night my wife and I heard the cheering news on (state-controlled) China Central TV that universal suffrage was coming to Hong Kong. Great! And, yes, we actually watch this channel a lot of the time.

    Unfortunately, as everyone except the state-controlled Chinese media pointed out, the announcement was part of a deal that ensures that the right to vote won't really matter. The Hong Kong electorate will be able to cast its vote only for one of several Party-approved candidates. As an illustration of the contrast in coverage, reader Rick Jones sent this screen shot:

    On the overall situation, here is a useful assessment by Richard Bush of Brookings. For instance:

    China's 2012 promise [of universal suffrage by 2017 for Hong Kong] created hopes among the public that the chief executive would be picked through a truly democratic election. Those hopes have now been dashed, and it is likely that China has bought itself more instability, not less.

    After the jump, an email from a long-time foreign resident in Hong Kong about some local reaction to the decision.

    2. Economics. If you want the big picture on why the challenge now facing China’s economic leaders is different from, and even harder than, ones they have dealt with in the past three decades of rapid growth, you could start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition. It came out six years ago, and it foresaw a structural crisis for China's economy within six or seven years. Or, you could even read China Airborne, which is on this exact theme. For now I suggest that you start with two online postings by Michael Pettis, in Beijing.

    One is a guide to the four stages of development the political-economic system has gone through, from the poverty of the 1970s to the mixed success-and-crisis situation of the country today. Here is what Pettis thinks a not-yet-realized fourth step would mean: 

    What China needs now is another set of liberalizing reforms that cause a surge in social capital such that Chinese individuals and businesses have incentives to change their behavior in ways that generate greater productive activity from the same set of assets.

    These must include changing the legal structure, predictably enforcing business law, changing the way capital is priced and allocated, and other factors that determined the incentives, so that Chinese are more heavily rewarded for activity that increases productivity and penalized, or at least less heavily rewarded, for rent seeking. 

    But because this means almost by definition undermining the very policies that allow elite rent capturing (preferential access to cheap credit, most importantly), it was always likely to be strongly resisted until debt levels got high enough to create a sense of urgency. This resistance to reform over the past 7-10 years was the origin of the “vested interests” debate.

    The other Pettis article is this new item on the very bad, and less bad, options for a Chinese fiscal/financial transition. 

    3) Sociology. My friend Eric Liu points out in a WSJ essay (drawn from his very good new book A Chinaman's Chance) that China has practically no naturalized citizens: some 941, as of the 2000 census. No doubt there are more now, but by comparison the U.S. has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million. Like Eric Liu, I view this as reason #1 that the long-term strategic assets of the United States vastly exceed those of China. Also, see the report from Frank Langfitt of NPR on a much-discussed recent episode in which a foreigner keeled over, unconscious, on a Shanghai subway and everyone on the train ran away rather than offering help.

    4) Politics againOur friend Minxin Pei is back to explain how outside-world hopes for “reform” in the Xi Jinping era should be assessed now. 

    Sobering, all. Nonetheless, happy Labor Day. 

    More »

  • You Think Your Summer Travel Plans Are Rough? Spare a Thought for People in China

    Whenever the People's Liberation Army Air Force decides it's time to practice, millions of passengers sit in the terminal or on the taxiway and fume.

    Old but still functional Chinese biplane on the ramp at Zhuhai International Airport, two years ago. Around the corner are the very modern, but very often delayed, aircraft of China's commercial fleet. (James Fallows)

    The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.

    Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.

    Chen Yan, one of China's female aviation pioneers,
    in magazine cover on the wall of her cafe in Zhuhai.

    Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and othersbut all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)

    Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.

    China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.

    All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat. 

    But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.

    China Daily news on the coming delays.

    Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily (above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.

    Young security officers at Zhuhai airport

    Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.

  • Why the Anti-Corruption Drive in China Is So Important, and So Potentially Destabilizing

    Is the country moving from "efficient corruption" to something worse?

    Protests on Tuesday in Maoming, in Guangdong province in southern China, against a proposed new chemical plant. ( Reuters )

    Here is a crude but effective classification scheme that I have used in distinguishing different economic systems. It is between "efficient" levels of corruption in government and business, and "inefficient" corruption. 

    Through its era of fastest post-war growth, Japan was highly corrupt. Twenty years ago, authorities raided the home of the party boss Shin Kanemaru—and found gold bars and other loot worth something like $50 million. Yet in Japan, and South Korea and Taiwan and even Malaysia, the corruption was efficient. Bridges cost too much and enriched local barons, but they got built. Factories jacked up prices thanks to cartel rules, but they ran and kept people at work. Anybody who has studied the economic/political history of Chicago or Los Angeles will recognize versions of this bargain.

    On the other side were countries like Indonesia under Suharto, or the Philippines under Marcos, or North Korea under the Kims, or a lot of others you can think of, with inefficient corruption. The people who could, looted so much that there was not enough left over to keep the system running.

    Either sort of corruption has a self-reinforcing nature. When an efficient system is running smoothly, officials have a stake in its long-term survival, which allows them to keep taking their cut. Thus they steal but don't loot. But when an inefficient one is deteriorating, all involved have an incentive to grab everything in sight while the grabbing is good. 

    Through its 30-plus years of economic modernization, China has seemed to stick to efficient levels of corruption. Connected families got very rich, but most families did better than they had before.

    An increasingly important question for Xi Jinping's time in office, which bears on the even more urgent question of whether China can make progress against its environmental catastrophe, involves the levels and forms of Chinese corruption. Has it begun passing from tolerable to intolerable levels? If so, does Xi Jinping have the time, tools, or incentive to do anything about it? Will exposing high-level malfeasancelike the astonishing recent case of Zhou Yongkang, who appears to have taken more than $14 billion while he held powerful petroleum and internal-security rolesencourage the public? Or instead sour and shock them about how bad the problem really is? Is it even possible to run a government and command a party while simultaneously threatening the system that most current power-holders have relied on for power and wealth?

    These are yet another set of Big Questions for and about China. Recent useful readings on the theme:

    1) Timothy Garton Ash on "China's Gamble of the Century." Thirty-plus years ago, Deng Xiaoping tightened up politically but overall did so toward the end of enacting economic reforms. Xi Jinping is tightening up politically. This piece examines the possible ends.

    2) The views of former President Jiang Zemin on the same topic, as reported by Jamil Anderlini and Simon Rabinovitch in the FT and as shown by the headline below:

    3) A big piece by Jonathan Ansfield on the front page of the NYT on Tuesday, about the drive against high-level corruption inside the People's Liberation Army, which itself is far more impressive as a business empire than as a fighting force. This is a detailed and enlightening story on an effort whose success or failure will be important in a variety of ways. As the story puts it:

    [Xi's] goal, military analysts said, is to transform a service larded with pet projects and patronage networks into a leaner fighting force more adept at projecting power abroad and buttressing party rule at home, while strengthening his own authority over the army.

     4) An op-ed in the WSJ by Desmond Tutu and Jared Genser about the ongoing struggles not simply of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while serving a long prison term for "subversion," but also of his wife Liu Xia (below). Even as her health deteriorates, she too remains effectively imprisoned under a form of house arrest. E.g.:

    Despite living in the middle of one of the busiest and most populous cities in the world, Liu Xia, a poet and a painter, is cut off and alone. Chinese security officials sit outside her front door and at the entrance to her apartment building.

    Liu Xia, with photo of herself and her husband in better times. AP via WSJ

    5) An essay by Perry Link in the NYRB called "China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No." Sample:

    At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.

    6) Reports like this one from Reuters on the ongoing protests in China against environmental hazards and despoliation. Christina Larson also has a (paywalled) article in Science about farmland in China rendered unusable by pollutants, especially heavy metals.

    For now I am not trying to weave these into a larger prospects-for-China assessment. (I did attempt something like that in the second half of China Airborne.) But individually and as a group, items like these suggest the scale, complexity, and importance of the changes the Chinese leadership must undertake.

    Exposing corruption without delegitimizing the very system that still runs the country; changing the military without alienating it; controlling disastrous pollution without too noticeably slowing the economy; allowing the growth of civil society quickly enough to satisfy the public but gradually enough not to frighten the party—the obligation to do all these things at once, and more, and fast—makes the challenges for European or U.S. leaders look like easy tasks. 

    Previous post                                                                  Next post

  • China Aviation Update: Let's Look on the Bright Side

    Why China's pilots have the opportunity to be the world's best.

    On the bright side, another barrier removed as China progresses toward aerospace eminence! As reported by a writer for my favorite newspaper, the China Daily, more people will soon be able to learn to fly:

    The report also pointed out the opportunity China has to close the gap in this field as in so many others:

    Fewer than 100 Chinese people are receiving training for private licenses, and the relaxation will unleash a market that has huge potential, [aviation spokesman] Qian said.

    Zhong Ning, a spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration, said only 345 people in China have private licenses. 

    As a benchmark for the 345 private pilots in China, there are about 600,000+ active certificated pilots in the U.S.

    On the other hand, the Chinese pilots will face a new test of their skills. Via the South China Morning Post:

    And also Reuters:

    For more, naturally see China Airborne. And soon: how we should feel about the testimony today of an Asiana pilot that he was "very concerned" at the prospect of making a visual landing without instrument guidance at San Francisco Airport, before the fatal "landing short" episode this summer.  

    (Initial reaction: What??? Visual landings are what pilots first learn to do -- and what you do in most instrument approaches, once you finally break out of the clouds and are relieved to see the runway. And what about the other pilots in the cockpit, at least some of whom should have been comfortable with visual landings? But all this is what the NTSB will look into.)

  • In Honor of the Chinese ADIZ, Today's Novelty Aviation Footage

    The people who drive on China's roads may soon be able to fly in its skies!

    This is not part of the Chinese ADIZ. 

    [See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.

    Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?

    No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.

    And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing. 

    Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.

    1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China AirborneThat is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.

    This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:

    On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.” 

    2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.

    World's shortest commercial flight? from IndoPilot on Vimeo.

    Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.

    Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)

    A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.

    3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.

    Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.

    * Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.

    Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:

    The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.

    I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.

    In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part. 

  • Today's China Notes: Dreams, Obstacles

    Is China just getting going? Or is the tough part just beginning? Here's a strong statement of the latter case.

    In reverse order, obstacles first: There's not much debate about the scale or impressiveness of what China has achieved in the past 30+ years. Through that time its economy was (largely) opened, and its political controls were (selectively) removed. As a result hundreds of millions of people moved from rural poverty to the middle class and beyond; the country regained its pride; the landscape was covered with factories and skyscrapers and shopping malls and high speed trains; and a thousand other aspects of life were changed. This really has happened, and the achievement commands respect.

    The interesting question is what comes next. The two main, opposing points of view boil down to "they're still gaining momentum" versus "now the hard part begins." The first camp leads to graphs like the one below, typical of the "New Chinese Century" / "Bow down to your Chinese overlords" books and articles that periodically appear. (The graph was taken from a particularly credulous version). Essentially this view assumes a straight-ahead, compound-interest, years-into-the-future extrapolation of China's recent growth trends.


    The contrary perspective holds that things are about to become harder for China -- in economic, social, and political dimensions all at once. The main reason for the increased friction is that the very traits that have sped China's development over the past 30+ years may impede the next phase of growth. For instance: to-hell-with-the-environment development policies made China the world's factory; but now they have to be reversed -- even while the country is still, on average, quite poor -- lest it become the world's cancer ward and birth-defects center. The kind of intellectual-property laws that make it easy to buy pirated movies, music, or software on any Chinese streetcorner were a catch-up advantage. Now they're a handicap to ambitious, high-value Chinese firms. Control of the Internet, media, and political discussion has been convenient for the leadership. But those same controls make it harder for China to develop "real" universities, retain first-rate researchers, and bring the best out from its own most talented people. (See Matt Schiavenza's new item on this point.) And on down the list.

    Not to be coy about it: almost everyone I'm aware of in the first, China-uber-alles camp knows China mainly via charts, and at a distance. Most people I know on-scene are instead in the "anything is possible, but it's going to be a lot tougher" category. And that is the case I argue at length in China Airborne, where I look at the country's ambitions in highest-tech and -value industries as proxies for its potential.

    To wrap this up, there's is a good three-part presentation statement of the "getting tougher" case by George Magnus, in The Globalist. Part One is called China and the End of Extrapolation, and you can follow links to the next two. Judge for yourself, but I think he presents the "tougher" case very well. And if you'd like the most amusing presentation of the "holy moley, they're going to take over everything" original view, I refer you to the immortal "Chinese Professor" TV ad.


    DebBook.jpgNow, dreams. The Atlantic Wire has an item today saying that frequent references to "the Chinese Dream" by Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president, may reflect the global influence of the NYT's Thomas Friedman, who wrote a column back in December to the same effect.

    I can't prove that this correlation is wrong, but (no offense to Friedman) I'd bet any amount of money that it is. As several commenters, including me, have noted on the Wire item. It certainly is true that Xi Jinping has been talking about the "Chinese Dream," and it's true as well that Friedman wrote a column about it a few months ago. But the "Dream" formulation has been a familiar one in China for years, including explicitly in Xi's own speeches for more than a year. Back in 2008 the motto for the Beijing Olympics was "One World, One Dream" (一个世界同一个梦想), and for a few years before and after the Games there was a lot of chatter in China about the meaning of its dream.

    LemosCover.jpgThe title of my wife's book Dreaming in Chinese (above), which came out two years ago, was based in part on the importance of this theme; a recent book by Gerald Lemos was called The End of the Chinese Dream (right). I had a long essay on this site a year ago with the title "What Is the Chinese Dream?", and most people who have written about China have similar items in their inventory. There's no reason the Wire writer would be aware of this background; I mention it because it's worth underscoring the fact that a national dream is not a unique American concept.

    Update: Whoa! I see via Isaac Stone Fish at Foreign Policy that Thomas Friedman is saying he deserves "only part credit" for the use of the term by Xi Jinping, saying that the rest belongs to (a friend of both Friedman's and mine) Peggy Liu. I'll leave it at that, and with the note that maybe Xi is catching up with the many other people in China whom I have heard talking about this concept for years and years.

    And I just remembered that I'm actually headed back to Beijing tomorrow for a short trip, so this will be one more thing to ask when I arrive.

    Update-update: And via Jeremy Goldkorn and Danwei, here's a similar speech from back in 2009. 
  • Seasonal Gratitude, Book Dept.

    Family news on the book front.

    DreamingUSCover.pngClive Crook has written a wonderful appreciation of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows, who for this and many other reasons I am delighted to say is my wife. The book has received a lot of positive reviews, but I think Clive comes closer than anyone else to capturing its spirit and value. Check it out -- Clive's item, and the book.

    I am also grateful to Ian Johnson and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, themselves the authors of a number of very valuable books about China (and, in Johnson's case, on Europe-and-Islam as well), for a year-end wrapup of books about China, at the Asia Society's site. Their discussion of the books they're considering, whose covers are shown in the collage below, makes me want to get and read the two I haven't already seen. And of course I am grateful that they include China Airborne in their list (and for Johnson's previous article about it in the NY Review of Books).

     Thanks to all. 

    2012_17_12_Book Collage.jpg

  • In Boston: Wednesday at MIT, Thursday at Porter Square Books

    A trip northward from DC, to discuss China and America

    My wife and I look forward to these next few days in Boston -- the place where she and I met, the place where I spent ages 1 to 2, the place where my sister now lives.

    On Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 5, I'll be at MIT's Media Lab from 4:30 to 6 for a presentation called "An American in China." I think that would be me! Details here. Admission free.

    On Thursday evening, my wife and I will be at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7:00pm. Details here.

    This might be the moment to mention that the estimable Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University and the Marginal Revolution blog, has recently said that:

    My favorite nonfiction book this year has been James Fallows's "China Airborne." On the surface it's about aviation in China, but it's also one of the best books on China ever, one of the best books on industrial organization in years, and an excellent treatment of economic growth. It's also readable and fun.

     The greatness of Tyler Cowen knows no limits. But you'd probably want to check it out for yourself. See you in Boston/Cambridge.

  • Moyers, Chinese Education, China Airborne

    Most of us were here when 'Obamacare' was passed. Talking with someone who was there helping Medicare get through.

    I get on a plane at Dulles Airport* with the main question concerning David Petraeus being the what/when/where about Benghazi. And I get off in Seattle to find ... good lord!

    So let me buy time with a programming note.


    1) Yesterday morning, in New York, I had a genuinely wonderful time talking with Bill Moyers on his Moyers & Company show about what our election showed about America, and what China's current transition of leadership said about them (and about us-and-them). The show airs on various stations starting this evening. Here is a preview link; here is a schedule of broadcast times in different cites. Update: Here is the segment online. Thanks to reader MG of Hawaii.

    To illustrate why I thought this was particularly interesting: We were talking about whether Barack Obama's re-election, in greatly increasing the probability that Obamacare will go fully into effect, will have a political effect similar to that of Medicare's. By which I mean: Medicare was bitterly controversial before it was enacted; now, it's practically part of the Constitution.

    As I was making this point, I realized: sitting three feet away from me is someone who was a key member of Lyndon Johnson's White House during the very effort to get Medicare enacted! So I go to ask him what that was like -- some portion of that discussion was on air, and some afterwards, which I'll describe at some point.

    2) I also did an interview this week with Steven Roy Goodman, about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese education system - and what Americans should and should not learn from it. The YouTube version is here.

    3) The transition-of-power underway in China is bringing to the fore many of the tensions and uncertainties in the country that I tried to deal with in my book China Airborne. I have meant for two months to, but am only now getting around to, express my appreciation for the kind of review that writers remember and appreciate, by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books. It's here. (Oops, I see that it's behind a paywall -- which I didn't know because I am a subscriber. But, hey, subscribe to them too.)

    In my heap of posts-almost-ready-for-posting, along with extra installments of Foxconn pics and the readers' defenses of the Atlas Shrugged guy, are more on the strengths and weaknesses of China as I went into them in my book and as we're seeing them now. (Plus the right Chinese title for the book.) They're all on the list.
    * Where I had another of my experiences with TSA pre✓™. I am still so disoriented that I'll have to discuss it later.

  • Crowdsourcing a Translation Question

    'China in the Clouds' and other translation possibilities

    Thumbnail image for ChinaAirborneFrontCoverSmall.png

    I seek advice from people who know both English and Chinese. A Chinese writer is trying to figure out the best title for the Chinese version of my recent book, whose title in English is China Airborne.

    One possibility is 云上的中国, essentially "China in the Clouds." As a plus, this conveys some of the dreamy aspect I mean to get across, and also the non-guaranteed nature of Chinese success in its various ambitions.

    Another is 中国横空出世 , with a more literal and assured sense of China taking off and reaching the skies.

    (I have rudimentary but not-at-all-nuanced comprehension of written Chinese of this sort.)

    I'll round up a panel of a few native Chinese-speaking friends; appoint them judges; and give a prize to whoever can come up with the right nuanced version of a Chinese title. Prizes include: magazine subscription, copies of book, beer, and so on. Thanks!

    Also in book news, I'm scheduled to be on C-Span book TV this weekend, and the Colbert show next week, discussing this topic -- and in English. Will put updates on my book-news page shortly.

  • As Cirrus Goes, So Goes Hawker Beechcraft

    Another step in China's ambitions to become a world aerospace power

    Early last year, at the Asian Aerospace show in Hong Kong, I watched eager Chinese purchasers line up for tours of all sorts of aircraft, including business jets large and small. As I describe in my book, I even saw a business-jet purchase completed in cash. It's all part of the gold-rush era for many of China's new rich.

    In an alternative universe in which it were possible to fill a book with pictures with no increase in production cost or purchase price, I would have had ones on every page to convey what I had seen and was talking about. For instance, here is a Hawker Beechcraft jet, the 900XP, awaiting a tour by the next group of prospective Chinese purchasers at the Hong Kong show.
    Thumbnail image for HawkerHongKong.jpg

    These planes go for somewhere around $15 million apiece. But it appears that the whole Hawker Beechcraft company, a venerable manufacturing firm based in Wichita and combining the heritage of the Beech and Hawker Siddeley aircraft lines, goes for a little more than 100 times that much, or around $1.79 billion. That's the sales price announced today for the firm's transfer (out of bankruptcy, and from current owners Goldman Sachs and Onex) to its new Chinese owners, the Superior Aircraft Beijing corporation. The business-jet line, plus familiar models like the Beech King Air, Baron, and Bonanza, are part of the sale. The strictly-military part of the Hawker Beechcraft business won't be transferred.

    The larger story here -- yes, you knew there was one -- is of the multi-front Chinese effort to leap from nowhere to a leading role among the world's aerospace powers. This is important from the Chinese perspective for many reasons: because its own purchases of airplanes are rising constantly (so why not make them itself?), because a high-end aviation establishment is a proxy for other kinds of technological sophistication, because there are defense implications, and so on.

    At the high end, as a hoped-for eventual rival to Boeing and Airbus, there is the C919 from the Chinese state aerospace company Comac. Part of its display at the same Hong Kong airshow, depicted flying over the Chinese pavilion from the Shanghai World Expo.

    Thumbnail image for C919.jpg

    In the middle range, for Gulfstream-style business jets, now we have the newly Chinese-owned Hawker Beechcraft. In the helicopter business, there is all-out Chinese activity. And for light propeller planes and "personal jets," we have the Cirrus Aircraft corporation -- still with its factory and design center in Duluth, Minnesota, but as of last year also owned by a Chinese state aerospace corporation, with headquarters in Zhuhai. (This is the same plane in which I took my hair-raising ferry flight back in 2006, and the same company I wrote about in Free Flight.)

    Here is how the Chinese-owned-Cirrus display looked at this same Hong Kong airshow last year. The gentleman at the left is a recently prosperous Chinese factory owner I spoke with, who was ecstatic about fulfilling his lifelong dream of getting into flying.

    Thumbnail image for ZhuhaiCirrus.jpg

    And here, just after the sale of Cirrus to its Chinese owners, is a hangar in Zhuhai that would become part of a new Cirrus repair and service base.


    Just for the hell of it, here is one of the existing planes from the Zhuhai flight line, before all this modernization takes place (and illustrating why Chinese officials are so interested in modernizing).

    Thumbnail image for Zhuhai4.jpg

    What does this all mean? Are the Chinese investing their money wisely, or foolishly? Is there a more sweeping lesson, good or bad, for the United States and the world? Hmmm, if only there were some larger analysis that put it all in perspective and extracted its lessons for China's development in a broader sense. More on this news shortly.

    Update This part of the AP story on the sale was particularly interesting to me, for reasons spelled out in the book:
    Robert Miller, CEO of Hawker Beechcraft Inc., said in a news release that Superior first approached Hawker Beechcraft years ago regarding a potential partnership....

    "Importantly, this combination would give Hawker Beechcraft greater access to the Chinese business and general aviation marketplace, which is forecast to grow more than 10 percent a year for the next 10 to 15 years," Miller said.
  • Book News: AVweb, New Yorker, Asia Times, GPS, El Mercurio

    A roundup of recent book-related news.

    Thumbnail image for ChinaAirborneFrontCoverSmall.png

    Just for the record:

    - A nice review / podcast / interview by Paul Bertorelli of AVweb.

    - A nice item in the New Yorker, albeit behind a paywall.

    - A nice review by Benjamin Shobert in Asia Times.

    - A nice item by Fareed Zakaria in his GPS blog.

    - A nice item in El Mercurio, from Chile, for which I don't have a link but I have a screen shot, below.

    Seriously, I am very grateful for the depth of all of these items. When you're cranking out a book like this, you don't dare expect or imagine that anyone will take seriously the case you try to make. I am appreciate the fact that these people did.


  • Look for This From Aspen: Minxin Pei vs. Eric Li

    Two gentlemen from Shanghai debate the future of China -- in a for-real, very interesting debate


    This happened just a few hours ago, so the video has not yet gone up on the Aspen Ideas Festival's video archive page. But please look for it tomorrow, and I will put up a link when I get one. It was a debate this afternoon between Minxin Pei, of Claremont McKenna and the influential book China's Trapped Transition (right) and Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist and author of such articles as "Democracy Is Not the Answer" (left, below). Both men are originally from Shanghai but have lived, studied, and worked extensively in the U.S.

    EricLi2.jpegThe formal topic of discussion was "China and Democracy"; in effect, it was a debate about whether China was nearing the limits of its current authoritarian single-party guided-growth model, or whether it was still gathering steam and had plenty of success still ahead. I am biased, because the subject is of great interest to me and because I was on stage as moderator / referee. But I thought this was an unusually clear, informed, and vigorous airing of contrary views on China's present and future. They pretty much agreed about its past.

    Seriously, if you would like the most concise introduction to the case for concern about China's development, you can listen to Minxin Pei's side of the argument in this 80-minute (including audience Q&A) discussion. If you would like an unusually forthright statement of the "China knows best, and don't lecture us when you have such troubles of your own" perspective, listen to Eric Li -- and watch the way they parry each other's arguments. "Debates" at high-toned conferences are often something more like polite seminars. This was an actual contest of views, perfectly civil but with no softening of the hard edges of disagreement. Check it out.

    And of course if you'd like a narrative-based approach to these and related questions about China's future...

    UPDATE The Atlantic's John Gould has put up a long and very interesting account of the session, which you can read here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



From This Author

Just In