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: Foxconn

  • Rectification of Names, 鸿海 Division

    A new Chinese company that you have to worry about? Not exactly.

    This is interesting. If you looked at the inside pages of the Wall Street Journal today, you saw a valuable story from China about the challenges facing an Apple subcontractor called Hon Hai Precision Industry. And in case you missed the name, I've highlighted the 20-odd places where Hon Hai is used in the story plus accompanying map and captions.


    Now you might be thinking: Oh, no! Another Chinese company whose name I have to remember and that I have to care about. Calm down. As people who operate in China know, and as one "by the way" clause in the story points out, Hon Hai Precision Industry is none other than our old friend .... Foxconn

    From the start Foxconn, like a number of other Asian-based companies, has operated under an assortment of names:
    • Foxconn, the name you have come to know and love;
    • Hon Hai, its "real" name, written as 鸿海 in the simplified Chinese characters used in the mainland and 鴻海 in the traditional characters used in the company's home base of Taiwan;
    • 富士康, or Fushikang [approx 'Foxconn'], which is what the Chinese characters over its factory gates say.

    To me this is interesting, as opposed to "mattering" in any heavy-weather way. The interest is that someone at the Journal has apparently decided that the paper is going to tough-love its readership into using proper Chinese names for foreign companies -- at the obvious expense of short- and medium-term comprehensibility. That is: if you were scanning the paper for news about Foxconn and saw a map with "Hon Hai Production Sites," odds are that for most Americans the synapses wouldn't fire.

    Not long ago, the Journal was making the opposite trade-off between comprehensibility and linguistic fidelity. For instance in September:


    The accompanying video, full of interesting insights about changing labor conditions in China, refers to "Foxconn" as consistently as today's story talks about "Hon Hai." FWIW.

    A different level of interest lies in two quotes in today's story from Louis Woo, an official of 鸿海 / 富士康 who plays a major role in my current story that is part of our cover package (subscribe! *). One of his comments is about the importance of speed, rather than rock-bottom production cost, as the forcing factor in where and how the world's work is done. He says:
    Introducing robots into the production of many consumer electronics would be inefficient because of their short production cycles, said Hon Hai spokesman Louis Woo. "By the time you are familiar or stabilize the process it is already the end of the product [manufacturing cycle]. Then there is another product coming up," he said.
    The other is Woo's comment about changes in the work force like those I observed and reported on in my latest trip to southern China:
    "The younger generation of workers these days, they don't want to continue to do boring, mundane, repetitive work, especially in the manufacturing sector," he said. "We have to begin to add more value in the process, otherwise it will be difficult to attract a young generation of workers."
    Again, I am noting-for-the-record this aspect of the Journal's story, rather than complaining about it. I am thinking, though, that I need to change the title of my own article. Obviously the updated version should be: "Mr. Zhongguo Comes to America."
    * Yes, yes, this is my own little joke. But I've learned recently that it's more than a joke. Actual paid subscriptions, both the "real" magazine and the soon-to-be-remarkably-improved iPad version, remain a quite significant part of our revenue. So, it's the holiday season! Give early and often. And thanks to the many people who've written in saying that they subscribe.
  • Mr. China Thinks of Becoming Mr. America

    For years, 'new stage in globalization' meant 'new problems for American workers.' That might be starting to change.

    Our new issue is out. (Say it with me: give the best gift of all, a combined print-and-online subscription!). Although I've worked for the magazine for a very long time, I make a point of not looking at in-process versions of the articles or the ever-shifting story lineup but instead reading each new issue as it arrives. That lets me react in real time as other readers would -- and to be freshly enthusiastic (most of the time) rather than jaded about what it contains.

    This new issue contains a lot in the freshly enthusiastic category, but if you're looking for a guiltily easy way in, I will suggest James Parker's column on the alarming end-times genius that is Daniel Tosh. Parker's reaction to the tosh.o spectacle is very similar to mine, so naturally I think his column makes good sense. You should look for it on page 36 of the print issue. OK, I'll add a link down below. I'll point out some other stories as the month goes on.

    I also have an article in this issue, describing a set of simultaneous complex changes (a) in China's economic, workplace, and social situation, (b) in America's economic, workplace, and social situation, and (c) in the manufacturing, design, and distribution technology that connects the U.S. and the international (especially Chinese). The surprising upshot is that after decades in which "new phase in the globalized economy" essentially meant "new problems for American workers," several of the trends are moving in favor of US-based manufacturing. Charles Fishman has an accompanying article on some of the larger international forces pushing in the same direction.

    We've also put up a video, based on photos I've taken in Chinese factories starting six-plus years ago and as recently as last month, plus "real" photos by professional photographers. It gives you a brief look-and-feel introduction to the trends I'm talking about -- and the man, Liam Casey, whom I jokingly gave the title of "Mr. China" in a cover story five years ago and who is directly involved in many of these changes. He's just now opening an office in San Francisco as an aid to US-based manufacturing startups. ("Mr. China," by the way, is a longstanding, informal, usually half-jokey honorific, similar to People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" title. Jokes aside, right now Casey is as good a contender as any for the title.) 


    My new article is here; Fishman's is here; and, as promised, James Parker's is here. Enjoy.

  • Back to Foxconn: Cameras, Clinics, Hoops

    The world's biggest factory, as it looks via surveillance cameras and from several other perspectives.

    In a few days, the new issue of the magazine will be out (subscribe!), including my article on some economic and technical trends that are brightening prospects for new manufacturing jobs in .... America itself.

    It also discusses my visit to Foxconn, in southern China, early last month. Foxconn is of course the biggest electronics manufacturer in the world. In the past few years it has become famous and infamous for its role as subcontractor for nearly all Apple products, as well as those sold under most other famous North American, European, or Japanese brand names. If you own any kind of electronic device, odds are that some or all of it passed through some Foxconn factory somewhere in China.

    When the new issue comes out, TheAtlantic.com will carry a narrated photo gallery of scenes from Foxconn and elsewhere in the vicinity. As a warm-up for that, here is another set of snapshots from Foxconn's Longhua campus in Shenzhen, where some 220,000 people work and more than 50,000 live, as it appeared on a weekday about last month. For past photo visits to Foxconn, check the items collected here. There are all in the mode of quick snapshots rather than a systematic video assessment of the campus. Still, I think cumulatively they are interesting.

    Surveillance cameras. The very first stop on my tour was the surveillance room, where the cameras were trained on different parts of the enormous main-cafeteria structure. In the last photo you'll see some cameras trained on the "suicide nets," place outside windows, balconies, and other openings after a rash of jumping-suicides in 2010.

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    Two scenes from the food-prep hall. First, a few of the multitude of stir-fry pots used to prepare the day's meals. Then, the biodiesel factory, where (I was told) the left-over cooking oil is made into diesel fuel for use in the factory's boilers. Across China, the handling of left-over cooking oil is a major challenge and occasional scandal -- for instance, when it's collected from gutters or sewers and re-sold. Foxconn made a point of the proper handling of its oil refuse.

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    Now, four scenes from the pharmacy and health center. First, the main drug-dispensing area; then, two shots from the acupuncture and 'traditional-medicine" zone; then a dental-hygiene chart. There were people waiting and getting treatment in the clinic, but I didn't think I should take pictures of them.

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    Hoops. A view out a dormitory window to one of the sports fields.

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    More to come.

  • Inside Foxconn #5: Food

    How people feed themselves in the world's biggest factory.

    Previously in the series, #1, #2, #3, #4.

    Here's the context, as a reminder: These are snapshots from a day last week that I spent inside the (notorious) Foxconn Longhua campus, in Shenzhen, China. That is where some 220,000 workers produce many of the electronic goods you have around you right now.

    Lunchtime in the main "canteen" at Longhua. This is a blurry shot, but you'll see what interested me: No uniforms on the employees. These are assembly-line workers on lunch break. They are eating in a sort of "multi-purpose room," as in public high school: the stage, in the background, was set up for a band concert.

    Thumbnail image for Food4.jpg

    Lunch line in the same building. A company official told me, "Our priorities for the food are: Number 1 Safety, Number 2 Cleanliness, Number 3 Nutrition, and Number 4 Taste. Sometimes the employees really care only about Taste." 

    I don't know the story about the mark on this guy's head.

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    Market forces at work. There is a kind of food-court aspect to this cafeteria. You can see the big lines behind the noodle stand, at the far left, rather than whatever is being offered in the center.

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    Drinks. I think these drinks were 1RMB, or about 15 cents, apiece.

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    . A woman showing me a model of the industrial-scale kitchen that produces some 30,000 meals three (or perhaps four) times a day.

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    More market forces. A bakery, a branch of a popular Chinese chain, outside the main cafeteria.

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    I report, you decide. More to come.

    Also, eventually I'll talk about some reactions to these pictures, pro and con. For now I recommend Brian Glucroft's site Isidor's Fugue, which has long featured evocative realities-of-daily-life photos from China.
  • Inside Foxconn #4: New Recruits, 'Flying Tiger,' CEO

    More looks at the people who make our smartphones and computers.

    For previous Foxconn entries, see #1, #2, and #3. All these are offered as looks at a generally closed place that looms large in the American imagination about working conditions in China.

    Screening job applicants. A room on the main Foxconn site where applicants fill out forms, take tests, and so on.

    Thumbnail image for Foxonn61Recruiter.jpg

    Applicants. People filling out those forms.

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    New worker indoctrination
    . People who have just been hired listen to lectures about pay and overtime policies, vacation schedules, seniority rules, and so on.

    Thumbnail image for Foxonn63recruits.jpg

    'Foxconn University' The sign outside this building. In Chinese it says "IE [Innovation Entrepreneur] Institute Welcomes You."

    . This is not directly connected to recruiting, but it was in the same general area of the site. It's an outlet for eFeihu, or "Flying Tiger," a Foxconn-run e-commerce company. The people inside, Foxconn workers on break, were checking out various phones and cameras. Weirdo touch: the orange and black decorations are cut-paper images of jack-o-lanterns, and the white things hanging from the ceiling are cut-paper Halloween skeletons. 


    And just for the hell of it, here is the building where Foxconn's founder and CEO, Terry Gou, works.


    More ahead.


  • Inside Foxconn #3: Some Dormitories

    Where the workers who build your smartphones live.

    The current workforce at Foxconn's Longhua site is around 220,000, of whom about one-quarter stay on-site in dormitories. Obviously I didn't see all the dormitories, but I saw some, from inside and out. Here's a look. Previous Foxconn installments here and here. For context, remember: this is the hyper-secretive, highly controversial company that makes so many of the smartphones, computers, tablets, and other devices that you use.

    From above. From the roof of one dorm, looking out to several others. They're the angled buildings.


    From in front
    . I saw two pools by dormitories. This is one, which I was told was "standard length," or 50 meters. There was no one in or around it during the working shift when I was there. I was told it was used mainly at night and on weekends.


    From inside a hall. The row of doors in an engineers' dorm.


    A bunk unit
    . The building I saw included rooms with four bunk units per room. In each the bed is on top, desk and closet area below.


    Four people were living in this room; I saw their clothes in the closets and some other goods and laundry on a porch area. I was told that in other dorms for assembly-line workers, which I didn't see, there would be not four but six or eight bunks per room. I have seen enough similar places at other factories and schools to imagine that.

    Here is a badly lit picture to give you the idea of how four bunk units fit. You see two bunks on the right; two others are on the left. The porch area is in the rear.


    The "break room." A TV-viewing area in the same engineers' dorm. This was, frankly, the most prison-looking scene I came across during the day. (Well, apart from the surveillance-camera room, but that is coming next.) But I also know that this kind of plainly square room layout is typical of many Chinese schools, offices, and so on.

    More to come.

    UPDATE: I am hearing from many people in America, "this looks tough." I am hearing from many people who have seen other Chinese factories, "this looks pretty good." More on this too -- and while I'm saving "what it all means" comments for later, I'll say that I've seen enough other Chinese factories, rural schools, villages and so on to recognize that these are on the higher end of the spectrum. Again, for context, please see these pictures in combination with the first two installments.
  • Inside Foxconn #2: Strolling

    More scenes from inside the world's most famous factory.

    Rushing for a plane at the Hong Kong SF airport, so here is a modest additional installment.

    First two further points of context:

    - Since some people have asked, the arrangement for me to go into Foxconn happened at very short notice. It was my idea. I made an "I'm sure there's no chance this could work, but I figure I might as well ask ... " request, through someone I knew, in Shenzhen on a Wednesday afternoon. We worked out the ground rules about not photographing brand-name logos on the production lines or shipping docks; they said OK; and I left for the factory at 9am on Thursday morning.
    Of course there was incalculably more that I didn't see than I did. But -- having been on a number of cherry-picked tours over the years -- I didn't get the sense that very much of this could have been Potemkinized, just for reasons of scale. Take the biggest football stadium in North America or Europe, fill it to capacity -- then double it, and you have the on-site workforce at this Foxconn site. It would be hard to get everyone on message overnight.
    - I present these as plain quick snapshots. The very banality of the scenes, in this the most famed workhouse in the world, is generally what I found interesting. Although the Foxconn representatives showing me around said I could take any picture I wanted (other than of brand-name logos on the assembly line), and stepped out of my way whenever I wanted to take a shot, the reality was that we were walking among people doing their ordinary business. I didn't feel like asking them to stop and arrange themselves. Thus the snapshot look and blur. There was no time to line up a real photographer, and even if there had been I think it would have changed the situation.

    So here we go. Most of these next scenes were at lunch time when workers were walking to the cafeterias or otherwise were away from the assembly lines. This main street has banks, shops, and so on along along the sides. For instance, that's a branch of the Shenzhen Development Bank with the blue sign over on the right.


    Other people outside that same bank. This looked like smokers' corner.



    A group of people walking in the main cafeteria area at lunch time. The guy with the plaid shirt has a bandage on his face; I don't know why. I assumed that the woman in the short red dress is pregnant, but I didn't ask. I just saw them walk by.


    A bicycle rack, and a guy reading-while-walking:


    And, closer to the main entrance gate:

    That's all for this strolling theme. Next up: dormitories, cafeterias, surveillance cameras, recreation rooms, infirmaries, executive offices, panoramas, recruiting sessions, and the rest.


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