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

  • Lee Kuan Yew, the Leader Who Lasted

    Why the passing of a 91-year-old Singaporean is attracting such notice

    Young Harry Lee Kuan Yew after his People's Action Party won Singapore's elections in 1959. (Reuters)

    By the time of his death on Monday at age 91, Lee Kuan Yew had been out of the Western limelight long enough that some people may wonder why his passing deserves such notice.

    I'd offer these reasons:

    A post-colonial leader who lasted. Fifty-five years ago, when a slew of former European colonies were gaining independence and other nations were taking modern form, the landscape was full of charismatic leaders. Kwame Nkrumah was president of Ghana. Jomo Kenyatta was in detention but would become the president of Kenya. Ben Bella led Algeria. Patrice Lumumba became (briefly) prime minister of Congo. Julius Nyerere was about to become prime minister of Tanganyika, which was about to become Tanzania. Nasser was president of Egypt and (briefly) of the United Arab Republic. Tunku Abdul Rahman was head of Malaya, which had not yet become Malaysia and at the time included Singapore. And on down a long line—including of course Mao Zedong, then a decade-plus into his control of China.

    Within a few years most of them were gone, because of coups, corruption, assassination attempts or successes, or other challenges. But not Lee Kuan Yew. In 1960 he had already been elected prime minister of Singapore, which a few years later would separate from Malaya/Malaysia to become an independent state. He stayed in that role until 1990. The few early leaders who lasted as long as Lee Kuan Yew, notably Fidel Castro in Cuba and Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, increasingly shielded themselves from real democratic accountability. Lee Kuan Yew's version of democracy for Singapore was a "guided" one, as I'll mention below. But I can't think of another figure from that era whose power and reputation were as durable.

    A practitioner and a theorist. The Western world knows its statesmen, nation-builders, and political leaders. Churchill, de Gaulle, and Mitterand. FDR and—whichever Americans you'd choose after that. And not just the Western world: Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh.

    Then as a separate category we have the big thinkers. George Kennan or Hans Morgenthau for an earlier generation of Americans. Henry Kissinger, for better or worse, in this niche now.

    Lee Kuan Yew is the rare person to come close to being recognized in both realms. (Richard Nixon aspired to this status, but that's for another day.) While in office, he cultivated leaders from around the world who turned to him for his big-picture strategic guidance. At the moment I can't think of any particular piercing insight he provided, which I don't mean in a dismissive way. (Early and often he counseled Western leaders about the importance of coping with China, and also its possible menaces.) But time and again foreign leaders sought his judgment on big strategic questions, and outside scholars and journalists pored over his comments in interviews. Not many practicing politicians can present themselves simultaneously as geostrategists, and he managed to be taken that way.

    A man equipped and ready to debate the Western world on its own terms. Lee Kuan Yew's original first name was Harry, and English was his native language. His renown in Singapore included the fact of his having earned a "double first" in law studies at Cambridge University and then having gone into legal practice in England.

    Through Lee Kuan Yew's era as leader of Singapore and in the decades since then, a remarkable trait of this tiny country's political culture has been its willingness, even eagerness, to take on outside critics and prove, prove, prove why it is completely right to do things exactly the way it chooses to. Anyone in the international press who has worked in Southeast Asia, including me, is likely to have run afoul of official Singapore's sensitivities at some point. When I was living in Malaysia in the late 1980s, I observed the beginning of a long-standing feud over press freedoms between William Safire, a former Nixon aide who was then an influential New York Times columnist, and Lee Kuan Yew's government. (You can see a later ripple of the feud here.) I never was vouchsafed the opportunity to interview Lee Kuan Yew directly, but I saw him speak at many events in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, and I received starchy notes from Singaporean officialdom when I wrote anything they thought incorrect in any detail.

    At the time, the thin-skinnedness of Lee's government seemed noteworthy. (In their prime, they might well have served me with a libel action for the preceding sentence. Or at least submitted a 5,000-word letter to the editor with a demand that it be run with not a single word changed or cut.) But from a distance, the yet more remarkable fact is a non-Western state assuming that it could and should engage the world's opinion machine on its own terms, in its own language, and in its own forms of debate. This really is something we have not seen anywhere but Singapore.

    * * *

    Lee Kuan Yew's form of government had its clear strengths and limitations. When we would take trips to Singapore from our home further up the Malay peninsula in Kuala Lumpur, we would know that everything could be done more efficiently in Singapore, but that you would have to watch your step in various ways. It was and is the best possible version of an authoritarian guided democracy. Family ties have mattered a lot in Singapore: the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son, and happened to become the youngest brigadier general in his country's history at age 31. But an America that is contemplating a possible Bush-Clinton run for the presidency can't act too shocked when meritocracy takes this form.

    Lee Kuan Yew certainly changed history, and from my perspective he changed it mainly for the better. Fuller assessments will follow from more-informed sources (and see Matt Schiavenza's assessment here), but on the occasion of his death that is the note I choose to strike.

  • Could This Video Save China?

    "I just don't want to live like this," a prominent Chinese journalist says about the environmental hell that her country has become. We are witnessing a very important moment for China's future, and for its effect on the world.

    Chinese journalist Chai Jing, in her runaway Internet success "Under the Dome," about the pollution catastrophe in China ( YouTube )

    Hundreds of millions of people in China have watched this 103-minute-long video just in the past week. There's never been anything close to its success in the English-language Internet world. Everyone in the China-policy community is aware of it and discussing it. I'm mentioning it here for several reasons.

    First, it's just now available in a version with English subtitles for the whole length. The crowd-sourced translation effort is its own fascinating tale—you can see the crowd-sourcing page, mainly in Chinese, here—but for the moment the point is that English speakers can follow the whole thing, below.

    Beyond that, this documentary, an expose of China's profound pollution problems by prominent journalist Chai Jing, has the potential to be one of those creations that serves as a before-and-after marker in a society's development. For America, before-and-after Uncle Tom's Cabin or How the Other Half Lives or The Feminine Mystique or Silent Spring. For France, before-and-after J'accuse. For China, potentially, before-and-after Chai Jing's 穹顶之下, Under the Dome.

    Sustainability it all forms is the greatest threat to China's own continued growth, and the greatest challenge China's emergence presents to the world. That's according to me (and here), but if you look at this video, or consider Alan Taylor's stunning series of photos on our site yesterday (and two years ago), you'll see that it's not some oddball conceit. Here, for instance, is Alan's comparison of the exact same view in Beijing on a clear day and a smoggy one in the past few weeks.

    The way it often looks

    Versus

    The way it sometimes looks—this is the exact same view as above.

    I stress the potential effect of Under the Dome because how the Chinese government will continue to treat it is of enormous importance, and is in real-time flux. Through the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government still seemed to be in denial about the country's pollution problems. The opaque skies that persisted until the very day of the opening ceremony were described in the government-controlled press as "mist." But within two or three years, the problems had become so undeniable that the government repositioned itself as the champion of public health and a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable China. Thus its allowing this documentary to be seen at all.

    How will it react, now that this documentary has become the most widely viewed "serious" program in the nation's history? You can see a fascinating back-and-forth about the implications from a range of China experts here, on ChinaFile. If you're interested in the politics of environmental protection, or in China, or in both, I cannot recommend this exchange highly enough. Adam Minter of Bloomberg, my onetime comrade in Shanghai who now lives in my other former home of Kuala Lumpur, makes a positive case about China's ability to wrestle with its problems. Michael Zhao, also in ChinaFile, argues that the air-quality disaster has reached a tipping point at which clean-up can no longer be deferred.  

    Here's one other implication. Spend a minute or two looking at the passage in the video starting at around time 18:00, when Chai Jing talks about how her own awareness of pollution problems emerged. Or the part just after that, when she explains why the desperately poor China of the 1960s and 1970s welcomed every new smokestack. Or in most concentrated form just the passage from time 21:08 to 22:20. Or the passage an hour later, starting around around 01:20:00, when Chai Jing interviews British coal miners about their country's shift away from coal.

    Watch any of these and then join me in wondering about this: Modern China is full of the kind of people you see in this video—the ones who researched and produced this program, the ones listening in the audience, the ones who have so avidly sought it out online. How can the leaders of a country such as this, full of hundreds of millions of people eager for information about their futures, imagine that they will survive or their people will prosper if the current effort to wall China off from the world's information flow goes on?

  • Sobering News Out of China, Part 4 Million

    "Pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss." Chronicles of a country walling itself off

    Getting through the Chinese Internet firewall is something like getting through this gate into the Forbidden City (Wikimedia )

    Last week I mentioned the latest chapter in the Chinese government's efforts to seal the country off from the rest of the Internet—and what I considered an out-of-date report in The Guardian about the situation. The Guardian report was based on the palmy-in-retrospect era a few years ago when the government censored attempts to organize protests, but otherwise let people have their say.

    No more. From a foreign reader in Shanghai:  

    The Guardian article you linked to cited some interesting research, but they're pretty out of date, and they missed the point/reality of the firewall pretty badly for an article claiming to tell us the "fascinating truth" about the situation here. ...

    I've been living in Shanghai for almost two years, so the censorship started tightening not long after I got here. It was ironic because right after I arrived I read a newsletter from the American consulate here saying that the local government was considering lightening the firewall in Shanghai as a "special zone" style experiment, including unblocking Facebook. Obviously, that report was either false or else the plan got shot down by hardliners higher up the food chain.

    But things have definitely gotten worse lately. The Guardian didn't mention the self-censorship that most media companies have to go through, but I recently sent a WeChat message to a friend (in English) that was mildly critical of the government. The message didn't go through, and for the first and only time in more than a year of constant use I was booted from the system on all my devices. This is just an anecdote, and it could be a coincidence, but it definitely goes against the "criticism is ok as long as you don't try to mobilize" philosophy.

    The other thing they're missing, and that doesn't get discussed enough, is the social engineering part of the Party's censorship project. Just because a website isn't "blocked" doesn't mean they want you to use it. Part of this is their war on Google: many (maybe most) websites these days use Google Fonts. In practice, this means that millions of websites include a call to Google's servers when you try to load their page. I've noticed that this call hangs a lot of the time, causing the page to load excruciatingly slowly. Again, I can't prove this, but I've noticed it with many sites that are completely non-political and technically unblocked.

    Even without Google, they throttle their international connections here. I play around a lot with Ping, and as a totally non-scientific example, pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss. With a VPN, both are about 250ms with 0% loss. This is why I often need to use a VPN even for sites like xkcd, which has nothing to do with anything that the Party cares about but which is so slow it doesn't render properly.

    The goal of this is obviously to nudge (maybe too gentle a word) people towards the Chinese internet/intranet. I'm sure you had this experience here as well: Youku loads like a dream here, and it's the best streaming video site in the world as far as I'm concerned (and mostly free!). Baidu, QQ Music, WeChat, Taobao ... everything the government wants you to use is fast, free, and for the most part beautifully designed.

    One of your earlier posts quoted a businessman in China pointing out that the internet in China just "doesn't work." This isn't quite true. The Chinese part works very, very well ... it's only when you try to access overseas content, no matter how innocuous, that you start tearing your hair out.

    Further in this vein: A report from WantChinaTimes.com—which, bear in mind, is based in Taiwan—about foreign-owned businesses finding it harder to do business in China. And a valuable discussion in ChinaFile on "Is Mao Still Dead?" Spoiler: maybe not.

    As I've written a million times, I'm overall a big fan of China and hope for its continued emergence. But as I've written almost as often, these past two years of crackdown under hoped-for "reformer" Xi Jinping have been discouraging to put it mildly, and we'll hope that at some point we can look back on them as a nasty phase.

  • Fun With Chinese Agitprop, Presidents' Day Edition

    A preposterously nationalistic video celebrating Internet censorship, which gets less funny the more you think about it

    A Chinese government anthem of praise to its censors ( ProPublica )

    The video below is all over the China-related community but may not have attracted the general awareness it deserves.

    I'm tempted to make a joke about the video, because it is preposterous in 16 obvious ways. But as I watched it again, the humor started to drain away. It really is depressing to have officials in China trying to shut off the country this way, and defending it with Onion-esque agitprop. "We are unified in the center of the universe!" etc.

    Thanks to ProPublica for retrieving the video, translating and subtitling it, and providing an informative background item. Sisi Wei and Yue Qiu of ProPublica, who did the translation, know a million times more about the Chinese language than I ever will, but I thought I'd underscore one point about the translation for the fellow native English speakers in the crowd.

    Time and again, the song's refrain mentions 网络强国, wangluo qiangguo, which the subtitles translate as "Internet power."  E.g.:

    English speakers might think of "Internet power" as comparable to "soft power" or "girl power" or "people power." But to my amateur eye there is a more explicit connotation of China's becoming a national power in cyberspace. I'm sure Chinese speakers will tell me if I'm wrong to read 强国 as meaning a powerful country, as in "rise and fall of the great powers" etc. Thus the refrain would emphasize "a powerful Internet country." The impression I got from this was of a strongly nationalistic message about a supposedly borderless medium.

    Overall the video is funny. And not.

    * * *

    Many people have sent links to an item in The Guardian about the surprisingly selective and light hand of Chinese net censors. Unfortunately, this analysis seems to me significantly out of date, e.g., similar to what prevailed back in the palmy pre-Xi Jinping era. I would prefer to be proven wrong. Meanwhile, check out the video.

  • This Is Getting Serious: Intellectual Self-Isolation in China

    Let's hope that some day we'll look back on the current crackdown as an unfortunate phase.

    Ah, the good old days: Bill Clinton, in an Internet cafe in Shanghai on a presidential visit in 1998, back when the Net was going to connect China with the world. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, then a representative, looks on. (Reuters)

    Back in 2008, when I had been in China for a couple of years, I wrote an Atlantic article about the repressive shrewdness of the "Great Firewall," the Chinese government's system for censoring the Internet. The Firewall was repressive in that it tried to eliminate any site or discussion the ruling Chinese Communist Party found inconvenient. But it was shrewd, even brilliant, in that it applied an amazingly light touch.

    Anyone inside China who really cared about reaching forbidden zones of online discussion could do so easily enough, by paying a few dollars a month for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or using a free-though-slow anonymizing service like Tor. But most of the Chinese public was not likely to go to the expense or bother just to reach outside sites, most of which were not in the Chinese language anyway. So in those good old days the Great Firewall found a sweet spot, effecting nearly as much censorship as a complete ban might have, while generating a minimum of disgruntled protest.

    That was then. In the last few months, Internet censorship has clamped way down. "Is This North Korea?" was the title of a good Washington Post story yesterday. The NYT also had one yesterday, to similar effect.

    But if you want to consider the whole implications for China, I encourage you to read this multi-part exchange in ChinaFile, from the Asia Society, about both the technical underpinnings and the political ramifications of the current, much more draconian crackdown. For instance, from a lawyer named Steve Dickinson:

    From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of the [Chinese] regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work.

    He is describing a contender to be a "leading" economy and civilizational force in the world. To mention one of countless implications: How many first-rate international scientists will want to move to Chinese universities if the Internet "simply does not work" there?

    Back in the good old days of the porous Great Firewall, Chinese authorities also practiced what I thought of as a principle of "minimum surplus repression." They would strike without compunction against any person or group they considered threatening, but otherwise seemed inclined to let the normal ferment of life churn on. Now we're seeing surplus, gratuitous repression as well. I have no idea where this trend ends, but at the moment it doesn't seem to lead anyplace promising.

    I'll have a chance to try the new firewall myself pretty soon—if I can get a visa.  

    More resources: GreatFire.org, which monitors censored and blocked sites in real time; an NYT profile of Lu Wei, head of the Great Firewall censor team; GreatFirewallOfChina.org, another monitoring site; and a WSJ report by Te-Ping Chen on how the Great Firewall has been an odd kind of industrial policy for China. (The author is an in-law of mine.)   

    I'd like to find a bright side in this news, but I can't.

  • One Clip, Two Views of China

    Take a look at this video. These are the people the Chinese government thinks shouldn't get open access to the Internet.

    'Happy' song set in Shenzhen, southern China ( Youku via The Nanfang )

    This item from The Nanfang, a site covering the big cities of southernmost China (nanfang, or 南方 = "southward"), does a nice job of conveying the discouraging and enlivening aspects of China that so often coexist.

    Discouraging: the latest tightening of The Great Firewall, the Internet-censorship system that is unworthy of a population as large, increasingly sophisticated, and information-hungry as China's. This is just so retrograde and embarrassing.

    Enlivening: the latest remake of Pharrell Williams's Happy song, this one set in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.

    Let's agree that remakes are not necessarily signs of cultural strength. But I like this one because it shows off some of the look, range, and pizazz of the city of Shenzhen, which I've written about over the past decade and which, for all the reputational and cultural dominance of Shanghai and Beijing, often seems the most exciting part of China.

    If you watch the Chinese and international dancers in this video, after a built-in pre-roll ad from the Chinese YouTube-like site Youku, you'll get a perhaps-surprising idea of what the Shenzhen area looks like. It's where many of your electronic goods got their start. I've been to most of the places used in this video, and I'm glad to see them displayed to advantage.

    The Youku servers are on the other side of the Great Firewall, so it may take a while for the full video to load. But if you get to see it, think for a minute: the Chinese people you see here are the ones the government thinks aren't ready for full use of the Internet.

    * * *

    Update-update: It turns out that this video has been around since last summer! Here is a link on YouTube, which should remove some of the server problems of Youku and the Great Firewall. Thanks to reader CW for the tip.

    Update: If you get an error message from the Youku servers that looks like the one below, just wait it out until the countdown clock (shown by the red arrow, indicating 24 seconds at this point) works down to zero. Again, it's worth seeing.

  • There Will Always Be a Chinese State Media

    The government is very conservative about some aspects of expression. When it comes to others...

    China expands its high-speed rail network. (People's Daily online)

    I find this constancy oddly soothing. From today's People's Daily report on a new northern-China bullet-train rail line:

    Somehow I don't see the California High-Speed Rail authority matching this PR approach.

    And a few days ago in the also state-run China Daily:

    For background on this proud tradition in Chinese state-run journalism, please see "The Chinese State Media Celebrate International Women's Day," "For the Chinese State Media, Every Day is Women's Day," and "Attractive Females at NPC, CPPCC Sessions."

    Since my recent theme has been military preparedness, no doubt I should end with this 2012 People's Daily report on the People's Liberation Army Air Force:

    That is all.

  • China Catches Up

    And in the worst possible way

    It has come to this (Brian Glucroft)

    My friend Brian Glucroft, who over the years has done memorable photography and reportage about the vivid, diverse humanity of daily life in China, sends the picture above, taken a few days ago in Shanghai. He writes:

    On Changping Road in Jing'an, Shanghai, I just heard saw / heard something I think you could appreciate. It reminds me that some of the criticism China hears from Westerners is motivated by a hope China can do better in areas where the West has failed.

    Yet again, "oh well".

    Then a little while later, he sent the two pictures below and this followup note:

    Later in the day I saw two street cleaners less than a block away on the same road. A man swept the leaves off the sidewalk into piles on the road, and then a woman bagged them. No leaf blowers required. Their handmade brooms constructed from bamboo, branches, & leaves, still commonly used by street cleaners in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, worked just fine — plus quieter, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier. It's one way in which Shanghai and many other cities in China don't need to go green but already are.

         Brian Glucroft

    The motorbike with the British design (seen many of those across China recently) and both people wearing face masks in the 2nd photo are bonuses.

    Brian Glucroft

    These bottom two pictures resemble what I saw during our years in Shanghai, Beijing, and other big Chinese cities. But of course the country has "progressed" since then.

    For an American take on this development, I direct you toward a measured assessment from Bill Radke in Seattle. And for more views of the variety of life in China, do visit Brian Glucroft's site. Its opening-spread picture gives an idea of its spirit:

    Brian Glucroft
  • Is the U.S.-China Climate Pact as Big a Deal as It Seems?

    Wednesday's news doesn't mean that global climate negotiations will succeed. But it means they're no longer guaranteed to fail.

    The Chinese and American presidents in Beijing on Wednesday. Apparently they got something done. (Reuters)

    I've been offline for many hours and am just now seeing the announcements from Beijing. The United States and China have apparently agreed to do what anyone who has thought seriously about climate has been hoping for, for years. As the No. 1 (now China) and No. 2 carbon emitters in the world, and as the No. 1 (still the U.S.) and No. 2 economies, they've agreed to new carbon-reduction targets that are more ambitious than most people would have expected.

    We'll wait to see the details—including how an American president can make good on commitments for 2025, when that is two and possibly three presidencies into the future, and when in the here-and-now he faces congressional majorities that seem dead-set against recognizing this issue. It's quaint to think back on an America that could set ambitious long-term goals—creating Land-Grant universities, developing the Interstate Highway System, going to the moon—even though the president who proposed them realized that they could not be completed on his watch. But let's not waste time on nostalgia.

    Before we have all the details, here is the simple guide to why this could be very important.

    1) To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability—even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related. (I'll say more about this connection some other time, but you could think of last week's reports that visiting groups of senior Chinese officials bought so much illegal ivory in Tanzania during a state visit that they drove the black market price to new highs. [I've changed the description of these allegations slightly from the first-posted version.])

    This was a typical view out our apartment
    window in Beijing just before the 2008
    Olympics. The air was, on average, much
    better then than it is now.

    You can go on for quite a while with a political system like China's, as it keeps demonstrating now in its 65th year. But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won't last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution denialism to a "we're on your side to clean things up!" official stance.

    Analytically these pollution emergencies are distinct from carbon-emission issues. But in practical terms pro-environmental steps by China are likely to help with both.

    2) To have looked at either the numbers or the politics of global climate issues is to recognize that unless China and the U.S. cooperate, there is no hope for anyone else. Numbers: These are far and away the two biggest sources of carbon emissions, and China is the fastest-growing. As John Kerry points out in an op-ed in tomorrow's NYT, reductions either of them made on its own could just be wiped out unless the other cooperates. Politics: As the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks five years ago showed, the rest of the world is likely to say, "To hell with it" if the two countries at the heart of this problem can't be bothered to do anything.

    We see our own domestic version of this response when people say, "Why go through the hassle of a carbon tax, when the Chinese are just going to smoke us to death anyway?" This new agreement does not mean that next year's global climate negotiations in Paris will succeed. But it means they are no longer guaranteed to fail.

    3) China is a big, diverse, churning, and contradictory place, as anyone who's been there can detail for hours. But for the past year-plus, the news out of China has been consistent, and bad.

    Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer. Two years into his watch, his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before. The gratuitous recent showdown with Hong Kong exemplifies the new "No More Mr. Nice Guy" approach.

    A nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone has spilled over into China's "diplomatic" dealings too. So to have this leader of China making an important deal with an American president at this stage of his political fortune is the first news that even seems positive in a long while.

    We'll wait to see the details. But at face value, this is better news—about China, about China and America, and about the globe—than we've gotten for a while.

  • The Under-Appreciated Genius of Mark Zuckerberg in China

    "Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!"

    Results of attempts to reach Facebook from various sites in China. Was this the long-run soft-power strategy Facebook's CEO employed? ( GreatFirewallOfChina.org )

    I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.

    Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)

    Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:

    Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.

    Now the details:

    Big Shot's Funeral via Wikipedia

    I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.

    Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".

    Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:

    -- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.

    -- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)

    -- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.

    -- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!

    -- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?

    -- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."

    The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."

    Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.

    We can only imagine...
    Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
  • 'A Foreigner Speaking Chinese—That's Scary!'

    Finale on the Zuckerberg-in-China saga

    Here's how it can look when children in Shanghai learn English in public elementary school. A young American named Kyle Taylor was their teacher a few years ago. (James Fallows)

    Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.

    A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]

    1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:

    While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.

    More »

  • Isaac Stone Fish With More on Zuckerberg's Chinese Language Show

    "Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s. But I will never be able to satisfy the request to do so in front of millions of people."

    Mark Zuckerberg and his then-fiancee Priscilla Chan on a visit to Shanghai two years ago. (Reuters)

    Two weeks ago Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself doing a speech and Q-and-A session in China, in Chinese. Soon thereafter, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy, whose friends had asked him how Zuckerberg's Chinese was, responded "terrible." He did an item called "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old." Yesterday I posted a critical-review-of-that-critical-review, by Kevin Slaten, plus some other thoughts about language learning.

    Since then I've received an avalanche of interesting letters, and I plan to share an assortment of them tomorrow. For now, Isaac Stone Fish deserves a clear shot to reply to Kevin Slaten's criticisms. I turn the floor over to him:

    Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful post, and for giving me the chance to respond, and Mr. Slaten, thanks for your contribution.

    After Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin, several news outlets claimed his Mandarin was fluent. That is incorrect. There’s a difference between speaking unstandard Mandarin -- which, as Mr. Slaten correctly pointed out, is what that Mao and Deng spoke -- and speaking broken Mandarin with mangled tones, which is the way Zuckerberg spoke.

    The problem with Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was not just his pronunciation; he also made many grammatical errors. You’re right that a seven-year-old native speaker -- even if his mouth was full of marbles -- would not make the tonal or grammatical errors that Zuckerberg made. It was the best analogy I could think of to describe the quality of his Mandarin: any other suggestions for analogies would be much appreciated.

    Learning Chinese was great fun, and very helpful to me in my career; I strongly recommend it to people who want to work in China. But it’s very time-consuming. Even if it would be encouraging, I am not going to pretend that a beginner can study Chinese part-time for a few years and suddenly learn to speak excellent Mandarin.

    In the end of his piece, Mr. Slaten writes, “Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world.”

    I must admit defeat. Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s, especially if I prepared for the topic, as Zuckerberg seemed to have done. But I will never be able to satisfy Mr. Slaten’s request to do so in front of millions of people. Why? Because only an exceedingly small number of people actually care about the level of my Mandarin. Take my former Chinese teachers and my parents out of that equation, and that number drops dangerously close to zero.

    Thanks to Isaac Stone Fish for his good-humored response, to Kevin Slaten for his stimulus for this discussion, and to everyone else who has written. Tomorrow it will be your turn.

  • 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.

  • Why Obama Should Say Very Little About Hong Kong, and Other Protest Readings

    What looks "strong" to the Washington commentariat would only weaken the demonstrators' position

    Students in Hong Kong (Reuters)

    Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:

    1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.

    Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.

    More »

  • 'On the Other Side of the Shenzhen River'

    A man born in Kunming reflects on Hong Kong, and cries.

    Hai Zhang

    My friend Hai Zhang, who is originally from Kunming and whose writings and photos you can see more about here, sends this picture just now from across the Shenzhen River that separates Guangdong Province, in mainland China, from Hong Kong. He writes:

    On the other side of the Shenzhen River, I feel shamed, I cry and cry.  I think you know what I am crying for and what I am shamed of.

    For now, as the National Day Holiday dawns in Hong Kong and across China, three reading suggestions:

    1) "Against My Fear, I See That You Hope," a message from a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to her students who have taken to the streets in protest. This post, by Denise Ho, conveys how unusual it is for this movement to arise in Hong Kong, and the mixture of admiration and foreboding in many people's minds:

    As I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.

    I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be.

    2) "China Strikes Back," by Orville Schell for the New York Review and China File, gives more reason for the foreboding. Orville Schell is a longtime close friend, and he has known more about China, for a longer time, than I ever will. (He and John Delury also recently wrote a very good book about China's rise, Wealth and Power, which is newly relevant.) His conclusion is darker than I'm willing fully to embrace now. But this article is important background to what you see unfolding in Hong Kong.

    3) Henry Farrell on the limits of "explanatory" journalism, on Monday in The Washington Post. I'm all for explanatory journalism, which is part of what The Atlantic has always been for. But in its latest incarnation it's both highly valuable, when writers can add new data—or reporting-based interpretations—and suspect, when writers feel the need to "explain" events in which they're mainly working at second-hand remove. It's an adjustment each wave of journalistic improvement goes through.

    All the more reason to pay attention to those explaining, from on the scene. Including Gady Epstein in The Economist, Emily Rauhala in Time, the WSJ's Real Time Blog, the NYT and WaPo on-scene coverage, and more.  


    I'm not on-scene, but an observation from having been there over the years:

    It would be wonderful to think that the PRC leadership would take the soft-power, high-road route out of this confrontation. It could recognize the maturity and responsibility of the newly politically aware Hong Kong populace. It could cannily assess the advantages to China of "controlling" Hong Kong while letting it continue to operate with rule of law, uncensored Internet, untrammeled media, free universities, transparent financial markets, and all the other attributes of a first-world center. With a light hand, the PRC government could have it both ways.

    But that's not likely. Any more than it's likely that the current leaders will throw the doors to China open to the world's journalists—which would be the best way to advance the country's image, given that more interesting/good is underway there than depressing/bad—or that they'll uncensor the Internet or realize that they're magnifying their problems in the long run by jailing, for life, a moderate, intellectual leader of the Uighur cause. This is why it is hard to imagine a pleasant ending to the currently inspiring movement in Hong Kong.

    I could say that the Chinese leadership is on a self-destructive course—but, hell, I have said that about America at countless stages. For now, thanks to Hai Zhang; consider reading these items; and most sincere admiration and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.

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