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: Dylan

  • Mammoth Dylan-in-China Motherlode, #1

    Why isn't Bob Dylan going to perform in China? An emerging whodunnit.

    Early this week, before I was distracted on other business (check your upcoming June issue of the Atlantic; check your bookstores next year) I was looking into the surprisingly complicated question of why Bob Dylan is no longer going on a concert tour of China -- if he was ever going to do such a tour in the first place. Most recent item here, with links back to preceding items in the Dylan series.

    A ton of interesting testimony and analysis has come in since then. Here is a sample installment to get going. Probably two more installments to come. The emerging theme is that whatever "really" went on with this now-scrubbed concert tour, it probably wasn't the version trumpeted around the world a week ago, and that I initially believed: namely, that the Chinese authorities had turned down the tour for fear of a Bjork-like embarrassing comment by Dylan. As I mentioned, this is a spillover cost of any kind of censorship policy: when people know you've shut down some kinds of expression, they're willing to believe you've shut down others even when you haven't.

    But let's get to the evidence. First, from someone close to the music scene in China right now:

    Dylan's people probably had little/ no idea about the real reasons they were being denied access to China.  The only thing they are guilty of is accepting a ridiculous offer from BBH [the Taiwan-based tour promoters who were handling the tour]  and allowing them to try and sell on/ guarantee the shows in mainland China.  This is actually quite common practice (US/ UK agents are happy to take the money and run), but if the wrong partners are chosen, it opens the door for "flipping", which the balance of evidence suggests happened here.

    It's painful to see, but unfortunately probably the future.  The withdrawal of Ticketmaster, Livenation and AEG means there are no recognized/ regulated promoters left here.  There will (more than likely) be a lot more of this in the future.

    Meta-point here: for all of the excitement, joys, and rewards of operating in China these days, "transparency" concerns, from the concert-booking business on up, are a major reality of life for Chinese and foreign firms alike.

    Next, with more on-scene info, reader Luke Mitchell:

    I live in Shanghai and heard / read about this saga a few weeks ago.

    Then, a couple of weeks ago I met the people who run one of Shanghai's music promoters. As a Dylan fan, I asked them about what was happening.  They weren't involved directly but obviously knew people and had heard things, and their direct account squared with what I'd seen elsewhere.  To wit: a Taiwanese promoter landed the rights for Dylan's Asian shows, at a reputed cost of about RMB 250,000 per show.  They then prematurely announced a slew of tour dates, including on the mainland, presumably to drum up publicity.  They then shopped the rights for the mainland shows around - but hiked the price to RMB 400,000 per show (just appearance fee).  Not only is that just an outrageous margin for the Taiwanese promoter, it kills the economics of the show - you'd have to sell 2,000 tickets at RMB 300 and up just to break even.  So every mainland promoter turned it down.
    This is a pretty big loss of face for the Taiwanese promoter, both to Dylan and his people, who had probably been assured of mainland shows, and to all the journalists, ticket agencies etc who had also been assured there would be a show.  The easiest way to cover this?  Blame the government.  They probably told Dylan the same thing as the press, and hence he hasn't contradicted it (how would he know any different?).  And it's an easy cover - I, like I think very many others, assumed when we heard about the shows that they'd never happen, because of censorship.  It also mitigates the "Dylan doesn't cancel shows" and "his tickets are usually reasonable" points from your other readers - it's a badly behaved local promoter and Dylan's people are probably flying blind on the whole thing.

    In sum, I think this is not only a case of, as you said, the government getting blamed because of its reputation, but also the way in which business practices here can be incredibly short-sighted if one party believes there's an easy opportunity to exploit, the way that can torpedo otherwise promising deals, and the importance afterwards of avoiding blame.

    Now, from a reader I believe to be Chinese, responding to my point that it is a sign of weakness/ defensiveness rather than strength for the Chinese government to restrict expression -- as it certainly does in many cases, whether or not it did with Dylan:

    I agree with you that Bod Dylan should be allowed to perform in China. But I disagree in the interpretation of the zero-tolerance policy. Things like banning Bjork or Dylan does not necessarily mean the Chinese government is extremely weak, as pundits like to allege in the popular media these days. Shouting "Tibet" after a song of "Declare Independence" would no doubt incur a harsher punishment in Mao's era than in the current era---does that mean Mao would be more afraid of Bjork than the current government? Of course not. Sometimes banning something just means one does not want to deal with the associated trouble/hassle, not that one is afraid.

    Of course this is just a technical discussion and is not intended to refute your main point that China should be more open. But I do think technical discussions are important, especially since they weigh heavy in pundits' discussions in the popular media too.

    Finally for now, another kind of first-hand testimony, from George Conk of New York. (Policy reminder, I will assume that I can quote or use anything someone sends in, unless stated otherwise; but I don't use anyone's name without specific OK to do so.)

    I live in Washington heights and walk my dog each night about 11.  So do my neighbors who also have a Labrador Retriever.

    [My neighbor] is Bob Dylan's road manager.  I bumped into him Tuesday night.  He just came back from touring in Japan and Korea with Dylan.

    He says there never was a China trip planned.  the whole thing is a story concocted by a promoter and that Dylan had nothing to do with planning any China tour.

    Stay tuned for more.

    More »

  • Maybe Rashomon Was Actually A Story About China

    Three more ways of thinking about Bob Dylan in China.

    Because there certainly seem to be a lot of ways to interpret the real clash of the titans: Bob Dylan vs. Government of China. First version (it was all the GOC's fault) here. Second version (no, maybe it wasn't) here. Versions three and onward are summarized below, from reader mail.

    Dylan's Not Involved In This Anyway. Several people (including Reuters editor and amateur Dylan scholar Robert MacMillan) pointed out that the original claims of censorship came not from Dylan directly but from his Taiwanese tour promoters, Brokers Brothers Herald. So who knows where the complaint really came from? Fair point. You would think that if BBH were just making this up to save face, and that Dylan didn't like their cover story, he would have indicated something as the controversy blew up worldwide. But with these moody poet-troubadors, anything is possible. Conceivably he doesn't know about this or figures it would only make it worse to get involved.

    Dylan Doesn't Back Out Just Because of Weak Sales or other business problems. From reader Marc Syken, who thinks it really was about censorship:

    As someone who has seen Bob on multiple occasions, a couple of quick points - Dylan does not back out of a concert if ticket sales are light.  I've seen Dylan in half filled venues, and he has never canceled.  In fact, I know of no show Dylan has ever canceled b/c of ticket sales.  His tour schedule (with set lists) is here, http://www.boblinks.com/ - he plays at least 50-75 shows a year, which is pretty good for a guy 68 years old.  Dylan has played the far east before, is backed by Sony records, and obviously knows the lay of the land when it comes to the music business. 

    Those facts all militate against Dylan using the history of Chinese censorship as a "cover" to back out of concerts due to his being hoodwinked by an unscrupulous promoter.  Given Dylan's track record as a concert performer (as opposed to a bunch ne'er do wells like Oasis), I would tend to believe the original version of events. 

    And Andrew Sprung, to the same effect:

    it seems odd that a Dylan tour organizer would make outlandish financial requests - Dylan seats are usually pretty reasonable. I saw him in a college gym in Buffalo in about 1995, a venue that was hardly part of a get rich (again) quick scheme.  I've since seen him 2x at moderate cost. Maybe things have changed, or the Taiwanese promoter has its own agenda, but maybe too the 'good authority' [who said it was all about weak sales] ain't so good.

    Maybe All the Explanations Are True. A reader with a Chinese name at a U.S. university says this fits a familiar pattern:

    For an observer from afar, all the explanations you and others given are plausible. Here, I just want to mention one of the tactics that Chinese Government always employs. It is often the case for Chinese Government to use some technicality to hide their real reason for rejection or any other form of action. Like accusing an activist of some sexual misconduct or dissolving certain organizations with the reason of tax filing irregularities.

    All of these make sense to me, which is an illustration of why it is often so absorbing and so frustrating to try to figure out what has "really" happened in Chinese affairs, especially those involving the government.

  • An Entirely Different View of the Dylan-China Saga

    Is Bob Dylan using Chinese "censorship" as a convenient excuse?

    A little while ago I posted something I strongly believe: that the Chinese central government's thin-skinned quashing of "sensitive" topics is a disservice to the Chinese public and an impediment to the country's full development. The (reported) rejection of Bob Dylan's request to hold concerts in China, following a previous turn-down for Oasis, was the occasion for making this point.

    But a few minutes after posting that, I got a reply from Zachary Mexico, a music-world figure and author of China Underground, saying that the factual premise for the comment was probably wrong. That is, how do we know that the Chinese government nixed the concert requests? His first note said (quoted with permission):

    re: Bob Dylan: I have it on good authority that the Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter's outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic.

    re:Oasis: I have heard from several mostly reliable people that the concerts were cancelled by the promoter, EMMA entertainment (they've since gone out of business) for lack of ticket sales, and not for any political reasons.

    Blaming the Chinese government is an easy way out when these tours become financial sinkholes.

    I wrote back saying, essentially: Interesting if true! How do we know these things? He pointed me to this report in China Music Radar and gave a variety of other reasons to be skeptical of Dylan's "censorship" claim. I quote them after the jump.

    I can't judge this first hand, though it's always a positive sign when someone is willing to be quoted by name. I pass on his material because -- assuming it's right -- it adds a different tone to what is becoming a big story; and because this is part of the (valuable) internet tradition of "showing your work" and going public with the process of trying to establish what the truth is. It also illustrates a problem the Chinese government has created for itself, even if it is entirely blameless in this situation: Once you get a bad reputation, you get blamed even for things you didn't do.

    But if Zachary Mexico and China Music Radar are right and the Dylan team is falsely blaming Chinese "censorship," then shame on him or whoever is doing this -- and my apologies for passing along a misleading story. There's enough genuine restriction and censorship to criticize.

    ____
    From the Z.M. email:

    I have some [peripheral] connections in Dylan's camp and was planning to follow him and his band on their China tour. I was warned it might be cancelled because there were problems with the promoter way before the promoter asserted that the Chinese government wouldn't allow Dylan to play.... This whole enterprise was really sketchy to begin with. It had all the hallmarks of promoter difficulty. Dates were posted on the Internet, then removed with no explanation. 

    Oasis was booked into enormous venues when they are simply not that popular in China. They couldn't sell enough tickets to cover costs; the promoter cancelled the show, blaming economic reasons, and then shifted the blame to something Tibet-related because it's a much sexier story. This is well-documented. This article from Reuters re:Oasis is a bit confusing; but, yes, the promoters did claim economic difficulty before finally blaming political problems for the cancellations.

    More »

  • Every So Often It Must Be Said...

    Who is more frightening to "all-powerful" China: Bob Dylan, or Bjork?

    ... that it is incredibly tin-horn and defensive for the Chinese government to deny Bob Dylan permission for concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, as it previously has turned down Oasis (after an "unpleasant surprise" from Bjork two years ago).*

    Bear moments like this in mind as you read the next zillion stories about China's unstoppable rise to world dominance, the attraction of the Chinese social-political model, and so on.

          Threat to public order: Bjork. (From Bjork.com)
    bjork-newpromoshoot02.jpg

    On the cautionary side about Chinese power, this is of course a reminder of why it would be bad to have current Chinese-government** concepts of free expression applied beyond its borders. The Dylan/Oasis/Bjork cases may seem trivial; the jailing of civil-society activists like Liu Xiaobo flows from the same mentality but is obviously much more serious.

    On the other side, pettiness like this is a reminder of the self-limiting aspects of the Communist government's internal controls, and the contradiction between its ambitions to have a vibrant, "creative," high-innovation, high-value productive society and its extreme nervousness about certain kinds of free discussion. "Certain kinds" because in many realms, as I've repeatedly  noted, modern Chinese society is rollicking and wide-open. But in well-known zero-tolerance fields, notably including anything involving the threat of "splittism" (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc), plus other areas that become "sensitive" for no apparent reason, the government allows no leeway at all. Seriously, how "vibrant" a culture of intellectual inquiry are you going to have under a government that is afraid of Bjork? How attractive is China going to be as a talent magnet for the wide world if becoming a citizen means a greater risk of arbitrary imprisonment?***

    As I've also said time and again, China is a much more appealing country seen up-close than its government decisions make it appear. This is an extreme example worth noting; it's a decision unworthy of the billion-plus people in whose name it is made.
    ___
    * At a concert in Shanghai in 2008, Bjork yelled out "Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence." We were in Shanghai at the time, and it was a truly big deal.

    ** It's worth always remembering: while the Chinese public is often tolerant of government efforts to avoid "chaos" and stamp out "splittism" etc, very few people I've met there would be afraid of hearing from Dylan or Bjork. The government is the only one that feels threatened.

    *** Reason #four million why the Guantanamo / detention-without-trial era in recent American history has been so damaging to our image worldwide. Of course American society has standards of rule-of-law that China doesn't come close to. But it is harder for us to denounce open-ended detention of "security threats" elsewhere than it used to be, or should be.

    ALSO I see that the Atlantic Wire has an item on this.

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author