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: Ethnicity

  • More on 'Muslim Life is Cheap'

    The ongoing argument over "Islamophobia" takes new turns

    (See Update below, item #6.) I've already had my say on the merits of this one. My purpose now is to summarize several developments in the "Muslim life is cheap" controversy surrounding Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic. Subsequent installments will include samples from the large quantity of eloquent comments I have received, both pro and con the argument I was making.

    Listing the "for the record" developments:

    1) On the occasion of Yom Kippur, Martin Peretz wrote an "Atonement" on the New Republic's site saying that he regretted his "wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters."

    2) Harvard groups representing Islamic, Latino, and African-American students have issued a letter protesting an upcoming honor for Peretz at Harvard, and have posted a related petition for signature. A similar letter from students, faculty, and alumni of Brandeis, Peretz's undergraduate alma mater, is here.

    3) The Harvard letter includes a link to something I had not seen before, and which seems no longer to be on the the New Republic site. (I could not find it on a site search.) According to this web.archive.org link, in 2006 Peretz wrote, concerning levels of bloodshed in Iraq and the vicinity:

    >>I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.<<

    4) The initial Harvard response to the controversy was not one of the university's more impressive efforts. In an Emily Litella-like statement to Benjy Sarlin of the Daily Beast, a university spokesman said, "It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views." Of course no sane person has questioned Peretz's right to express his views. The disagreement involves the university's planned honor for him and his work. (Also from Sarlin here.)

    5) A few days ago Matthew Yglesias forcefully argued that the impending Harvard fellowship named for Peretz was unlikely to be jeopardized, for reasons involving the fundamentals of university finance.

    5a)  A logical extension of Yglesias's argument is that Harvard and its donors might most effectively be urged not to revoke this fellowship but to create another, matching one, preferentially for Muslim students from the U.S. or abroad. Growing-pie solution; win-win-win. To the best of my understanding, many fellowships that are preferentially for people from certain geographic, racial, or even religious backgrounds already exist at Harvard.

    Update 6) My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates goes straight at the argument that, whatever Peretz's excessive views, he has been a wonderful influence in journalism. Worth reading very carefully.
     
    Now, let's move to reader comments. I will start with two interestingly offsetting ones. The first is from a Westerner with childhood experience in an Islamic culture. He writes:

    >>My father was one of the last British officials of the Raj. After partition, he worked for ten years as a district official for the new Pakistan government and I spent my early years in a tolerant Baluchistan, safe and happy. Decades passed and I found myself a US citizen and living in Florida on 9/11. Then, despite a generally liberal constitution, I spent several years loathing the name of Islam and the fact that moderate Muslims had seemingly failed to prevent the tragedy.

    Now comes a further turn in my life: the latest upsurge in Islamophobia has brought me back to my philosophical roots. While not fully able to account for the phenomenon, I am appalled by its manifestation. My inclination is to blame a combination of a bad economy and demagoguery from the likes of Glenn Beck. When we so desperately need them, where are the moderate Republicans of stature to put a stop to this foul nonsense?<<

    After the jump, a different reaction from a Westerner now in Saudi Arabia.

    More »

  • A Primer on Bigotry

    Why it's as wrong to talk about "the Muslims" as about "the blacks" or "the Jews"

    (Please see two updates at the end.)
    This is a tussle I never imagined I would get into, as I pointed out the first time. But I've gotten a variety of messages and seen a variety of online response that together make me think I should go one more round.

    The starting point was whether there was anything objectionable about a mainstream magazine's editor-in-chief, who is about to have a fellowship named in his honor at the world's most famous university, writing on that magazine's site, "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap."

    I suggested that if such a person were any less well-connected, or if the sentiment had been about any other religious or racial group, he would be taking much more heat. (See: Marge Schott, Al Campanis, Trent Lott, Mel Gibson, Pat Buchanan, Dinesh D'Souza, Helen Thomas, etc. Think even of the flap over Lawrence Summers's comments about gender differences in math-and-science skills, or James Watson or William Shockley on racial differences in IQ. Try to find in one of these cases something approaching "Group X's life is cheap.") The question was all the more salient because, when called on this claim by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column, the editor doubled down and said that "Muslim life is cheap" was "a statement of fact."

    The dissenting mail I've gotten has fallen into two main categories. Category one: He's right! Islam is a culture of violence, and Muslim life really is cheap! Category two: That was an unfortunate statement, but he's a great guy with a big heart.

    I want to consider these together, because they combine to illustrate what I consider an important point. This takes a little space and comes after the jump.

    More »

  • Pictures from Urumqi

    Before disappearing offline last week, I posted a number of items from Uighur, Han, and foreign observers in XInjiang during the ethnic violence there. Alistair Thornton, a young researcher / scholar I knew in Beijing, has just returned from Urumqi (largest city in Xinjiang) and posted a number of photos of the way it has looked recently. They are on the always-interesting "The Interpreter" site of the Lowy Institute in Australia. Here's one; more, and narrative, at the site.

    UrumqiLowy.jpeg



  • A Uighur speaks about pork

    After I posted this picture from Shannon Kirwin, three days ago, of a help-wanted notice at a restaurant in Kashgar that said "Han Chinese only," one response ran through the vast majority of messages from readers in China. It is the argument I quoted here. "Uighurs are Muslim," many correspondents said. "Chinese restaurants serve pork. It would be an insult to the Uighurs to suggest that they apply."

    I had my own guesses about the response, but I asked another correspondent who (to the best of my knowledge) is a Muslim Uighur who reads Chinese. I asked: would Uighurs in Kashgar view the sign as a favor to them? Here is the reply I just received, with some addenda from the same correspondent after the jump.

    "Han Chinese only" simply is a discrimination.  Uyghurs are desperate to have jobs and long have been complaining about "Han Chinese only" requirements.  Uyghurs don't eat pork, but "Handling pork" doesn't mean eating pork. That ad includes not only chef position but also waiter/waitress and supervisor positions, which don't require to taste the food.  In fact, I've seen many Uyghur students both in United States, Europe and Japan work as waiters/waitresses. They don't eat pork and bacon,  but happily perform the task. They have no problem with carrying the plates, and cleaning them. 
    "The job ads I've sent to you earlier [quoted after the jump here, and very much worth re-checking] was posted on Kashgar Teacher's College web site. One of them is about "Dean of College" position, which also has "Han Chinese Only" requirement . The other ad is about several positions, including computer instructor and lab assistant position.   Most of them have "Han Chinese Only" requirements, which explain that an Uyghur can not apply for the jobs even if she/he has the similar educational background and skill set to her/his Chinese counterpart, simply beacuse she/he is Uyghur.     

    "Postal service is a government institution in China. "Postal Hotel" [the one with the "Han only" sign] is Postal service owned company. The Kashgar Teacher's College is, an institution which has has more than of half of the student population is Uyghur, also a government owned institution.  If the job ads by government institutions are so discriminative, the situation in private chinese companies is anybody's guess."

    More »

  • On Uighurs, Han, and general racial attitudes in China

    Three more views on racial attitudes and tensions in China, following this and previous dispatches.

    From a foreigner with experience in China
    :

    Regarding the "no Uighurs" sign, that type of thing is pretty common in China.  Many advertisements for foreign English teachers will include something like "Whites only" or a "Looking for Caucasian teachers" sentence somewhere in the text.  Additionally, many a native speaker have flown from their country to China only to find upon arrival that  regardless of the applicant's qualifications, the job could only be performed by a white person.  At these times the Chinese are usually polite and a little embarrassed (most Chinese are very nice people and mean no harm), but they will remain very firm in their conviction that a person with darker skin than theirs could not possibly make a good teacher.

    I have experienced this on a number of occasions.  But after living in China for a while I realized that what we would consider racism in the West is simply a deeply ingrained cultural characteristic of mainland Chinese people.  White skin (the Chinese like to consider themselves white) and or being a Han (the dominant ethnic group) means a person is good.  Dark skin or not being Han means a person is inferior (and more likely to be a bad guy/a thief/incompetent etc.).  It does not equal KKK style hatred.  It does not even mean a Han Chinese wouldn't be friends with a person from India or Africa.  It simply means that if a person is non-white or a member of certain Chinese minorities, they simply are to be considered less smart, less competent and less trustworthy than the average white person or Han. [Ed note: This accords with my observation, with the caveat that I have observed this all as a middle aged white guy. Early discussion of Obama in China fit this pattern -- but changed after he took office.]
     
    On a lighter note, the Chinese are not inflexible and when exposed to nice people of color they usually will change their minds quickly.  [Agree, as with Obama.] However, the tendency towards ethnic and racial chauvinism is a current running through Chinese culture that is unlikely to change in any meaningful way anytime soon.  "Truths" are rarely challenged here.

    From a person with a Chinese name:

    Your mentioning the sign ["Han Chinese only"] in Xinjiang provides half the question.  It's pretty obvious why the Uighurs are angry, but that doesn't explain why Han Chinese in Xinjiang are angry. I think that if you see this simply as a majority group trying to crush a minority group, then you miss the fact that the average Han Chinese in Xinjiang probably feels as oppressed and repressed as the Uighurs, and since they are competing for the same pool of jobs.  Just because you are Han Chinese doesn't mean that you are going to be in the Politburo.

    More »

  • Weekend Xinjiang / Uighur / 愤青 update, #2

    More from the mailbag:

    1)  A reader with a Chinese name points out another aspect of the story -- the extreme reaction inside Turkey, where the "reality" of events appears to be as one-sided as it has been portrayed within China:

    "Have you noticed the reaction in Turkey?  Here's what appeared in today's two big papers.

    "The nationalist Hurriyet reported the riot "has claimed the lives of hundreds of ethnic Uighur Turks." The other big daily reports the released breakdown of the death toll but as background reported the retaliatory attacks by Han against Uighurs but did not mention Uighur attacks against Han. And the Prime Minister stepped in to declare that the riot was "almost genocide."
    "I'm amazed that despite the free flow of information, open parts of the world can still live in different universes.  A reader in London will read an article in The Times about the "butchered" Han family while on the same day a Turkish reader will read about the massacre of Uighurs."

    The point about separate fact-universes is one of the sobering marvels of the modern info-age. It's true within the United States, as discussed long ago here; and it's true between countries, as China, Turkey, and the rest of the world all digest different versions of the Xinjiang "truth." Main point: the internet, mobile phones, and other info technology, far from eliminating the country-by-country differences in information and belief, in some ways may increase them, as each little info-sphere is able to reinforce its own view of the world.

    2) From reader Yuan Song:

    "To be frank, I'm astonished to see such a big post [the "Han Chinese only"] sign, explicit, yet cold. If I were a Uighur that could read Chinese, I would have felt so insulted. Last time, one of my Canadian friends told me he that when he traveled in Austria, he saw an advertisement to let room saying "no Jewish or Northern Italians" (I forgot the original German word he used that actually means people from Northern Italy.) My Canadian friend was obviously very much annoyed by that advertisement. So was I. Then I had worsening impression of Austria after that.

    "Anyway, thanks a lot for giving me more insights in the situations in Xinjiang. I've never been there personally. The fact that I, being a native Chinese, rely on this source of information to understand Xinjiang, is funny, though. The Chinese media should have done better job. I don't know whether you have heard of Phoenix TV, a mandarin TV station. They have good reputation for giving objective and insight reports on different issues. [Agree]

    "Are you from US? I heard in US, there is a law that guarantees the proportion of employees from different ethnic groups hired by each employer should resemble that of the whole society. Is it true?"

    3) A reader with a Chinese name points out that the real news is not the "Han Chinese only" aspect of the sign but rather the "ages 18-30 only" part. The reader says:

    "And, because the problem is bigger, discrimination against minority (and favoritism toward minority, as adding grade points to minority for "Gao Kao" [the nationwide university admissions exam]) is not actually that unique, or big, a problem.

    More »

  • Weekend Xinjiang / Uighur / 愤青 update, #1

    In response to three previous posts (here, here, and here), a series of reactions and updates. First, from a reader with a Chinese name*, a measured discussion of some of the reasons behind the frequently thin-skinned, defensive, 愤青 (fenqing, "angry youth") reaction from China to critical comments from abroad:

    "You discussed Chinese people's "tone of response to outside criticism" in recent posts. I agree that many Chinese people do not react well to outside criticisms, and that's certainly something worth their self-reflection. But around this particular event-time, it would be helpful to put these people's emotions within the context of many foreign media's portraits of the unrest in Xinjiang:
    "1. Initial western media reports tend to gave readers/viewers the impression that most of the dead must have been Uighur demonstrators killed in police gunfire (this might have been most western journalists' assumption, as Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford conceded). And when it was later discovered that actually most of the dead were Han Chinese (often murdered brutally), many western media reports only mentioned this crucial fact in passing (often buried deep in the middle of their reports), or simply ignored it (e.g., NBC's July 10th Nightly News). The impact of such portraits on the public opinion in the West is clear: numerous people on Twitter, perhaps the majority of the commentators in the first couple of days, condemned the perceived Chinese police's slaughtering or even genocide of Uighurs. Wouldn't an ordinary Chinese person get emotional over such media portraits and the resulted public perception?  

    More »

  • The Uighur issue in perspective

    The NYT online has a very nice graphic just now showing the parts of China with significant "minority" population. Minority, in this sense, means one of the 55 recognized groups other than Han Chinese that together make up about 8 percent of the country's population. The screen shot below is not the default version of the graphic, which shows all counties in China with at least 10 percent minority population. Instead it's the version that shows counties where at least half the people are something other than Han.

    EthMap.jpg

    In a sense the map is misleading, in the same way "Red State / Blue State" electoral maps are misleading about real division of opinion within the United States. The big western areas marked as Tibetan or Uighur are rugged territory that is very lightly populated (think Alaska, Nevada), compared with the dense, mainly-Han areas of the east. For instance, the ethnic Tibetan areas are shown as covering not just Tibet proper but also parts of the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu (in all of which places I have been to Tibetan villages). But the total ethnic-Tibetan proportion of China's population is something under one percent. Still, the graph gives an idea of the control issues China has with some of its minority groups.

    After the jump, three responses on the 愤青 -- fenqing, "angry youth" -- tone of response to outside criticism I mentioned earlier.
     

    More »

  • More on "No Uighurs"

    A few hours ago I posted a picture from Kashgar of a Help Wanted ad that concluded, "Han Chinese only." Recently I've received a wave of messages, mainly from readers with Chinese names, similar in content to the one below. (In fairness, not all have been this huffy in tone*):

    I came cross your website and read the article "No Uighurs Need Apply" written by Shannon Kirwin [ie, quoting S.K.], hinting the unfair treatment of Uighurs by Han. It showed how ignorant she and your web editors are, because you don't even know that Muslims don't touch any pork while Hans do. In addition it'd be a humiliation and insult to Muslims if you ask them to work in Han kitchens. I think it's typical that you Westerners are so unfairly to spread twisted information around the world, while smiling to your local Han friends.

    Now, at the level of simple, cold logic, there are some obvious responses to this argument. If observant Uighur Muslims don't want to work with pork, then they're not going to apply for the jobs anyway. So why bother to say they can't? Or: maybe not all Uighurs are observant Muslims or even Muslim at all, and perhaps they'd like the job. Or: maybe there are other ethnic groups in the area who are not Han but would still be happy to work with pork. Why rule them out? Or: maybe some of the jobs listed, as supervisors, don't involve touching food at all. What about those? And so on.

    But to me the responses are more interesting on two other, sociological levels. One is the theme that runs through much internal Chinese discussion of relations with its minority groups: that whatever is going on is obviously and overwhelmingly for the minority's own good. In the case of the Kashgar restaurant, sparing Muslims the sacrilege of dealing with pork. In the case of a Beijing exhibit on the history of Tibet I mentioned last year, bringing modern prosperity to a backward people. In this context, it doesn't make sense to ask, "Well, what if the Uighur wanted to work in the restaurant?" or "What if the Tibetans wanted to choose a different path," since the benefits to them are so plain. This attitude is obviously not confined to China: it typifies America's attitude toward its minority groups at many points in our history. But the attitude is more broadly shared and less internally-debated in China now than many other places.

    (Beijing exhibit photo, showing a Tibetan woman grateful to have a modern fridge full of beer.)
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5628.jpg

    The other theme this illustrates is the much-discussed readiness of the Chinese "netizen" population to take offense at foreign criticism. Being away from China even for a few weeks, I am aware of how this reaction can be mis-read in the outside world. Day by day over the past few years in China, I've been in a sea of highly varied, tremendously individualistic, and generally very good-humored and approachable people. This touchy, net-based tone did not at all characterize the daily life I observed anywhere in the country -- very much including interactions with foreigners. But it is part of the mix in China's dealings with the outside world, especially when "foreign criticism" comes up.
    ____
    * It is possible in the case of this note that I have fallen for an elaborate hoax. The sender's email address contains the initials "LOL" repeated twice with numbers in between, and his or her listed Chinese name is 笑生, which also has a jokey connotation. So who knows. Many of the other notes seemed quite serious.

  • "No Uighurs Need Apply"

    From Shannon Kirwin of Beijing, this photo of a "Help Wanted" sign outside the Postal Hotel (邮政宾馆) in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region a few days ago. Click for larger.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/KashgarHotel.jpg

    Here's the significance of the sign: It's an advertisement for restaurant staff at the hotel, in roles from cooks to supervisors. Kashgar, of course, is a historic trading town on the extreme western frontier of China, much closer to Lahore, Kabul, and New Delhi than to Beijing. The original population there would be of Uighur or other Turkic ethnicity, rather than Han Chinese. But the last line of the advertisement says, "This offer is for Han Chinese (汉族) only, ages 18-30."

    Shannon Kirwin writes,

    "I completely agreed with Glenn Mott's analysis of the riots as a variation of the same race riots we have experienced in the US.  In large part the frustration with the Chinese regime that many Uighurs expressed to us throughout our travels in Xinjiang seemed to stem from everyday insults and degradations such as the one pictured here.  We were also told by people in several different cities that there is an unofficial policy of denying ethnic Uighurs passports until they reach retirement age, particularly if they are applying to visit Mecca. 

    "Just to describe the scene a little more, the hotel, the 邮政宾馆, is located on a major street corner that is a neighborhood gathering spot for fruit peddlers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and residents.  The sign is enormous and impossible to miss."

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