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: Obama in asia

  • Why Obama Didn't Sign the Nobelists' Letter

    Why did Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama sign a joint letter from Nobel Peace Prize winners -- while Al Gore and Barack Obama steered clear?

    As mentioned previously here and here, 15 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize signed a letter this week asking the Chinese government to release the latest winner, Liu Xiaobo, from prison and his wife, Liu Xia, from house arrest. Earlier discussion concerned why three prominent names were not on the list of signatories: Al Gore, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

    I spoke this evening with a representative of Freedom Now, the group that has worked for Liu's release after his imprisonment and issued the open letter. Here is the news, from Freedom Now's perspective, on why those three people did not sign.

    Barack Obama didn't sign because he wasn't asked. That is because the letter was addressed to him, along with several other heads of state, asking their support for an entreaty to the Chinese government. Even if he had been asked, Obama would not/could not have done it: as a sitting head of state, he can't really sign things in a personal capacity. (The same would apply, despite their less powerful executive roles, to Nobelists Shimon Peres, president of Israel, and Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor.)

    On the other hand, in his role as U.S. President Obama did all that the Liu family and Freedom Now could have hoped, in immediately issuing a White House statement congratulating Liu and urging the Chinese government to release him.

    Nelson Mandela was hard to reach, for health and logistics reasons. Desmond Tutu himself was (as has been reported) away a prolonged ship voyage for "Semester at Sea" teaching duties and not in a position to make sure Mandela signed on.

    Al Gore didn't respond to numerous faxes, phone calls, letters, and messages. The Freedom Now people believe he received their requests, though they can't be sure. In any case they say they never heard back from him.

    They didn't even bother asking Henry Kissinger.

    The name on the signers' list that most inflames the Chinese government is the Dalai Lama's. Was there any hesitation about including him? The Freedom Now official pointed out that on the morning of the selection, Liu Xia, speaking for her husband, began by thanking three people who had nominated him for the prize: Desmond Tutu, Vaclev Havel, and the Dalai Lama. (PDF of statement here.)

    After the jump, a few messages from readers and other links. Then the "mystery of the Nobel letter" is finished here until further notice.

    A sampling of mail on this topic. From an American academic:

    >>Isn't it also possible that Gore, being asked to sign, checked with the Obama administration first and was told that it would not further American policy goals? Gore was VP recently enough that he might be thought to speak for the administration in a way that Carter would not.

     And shouldn't the Dalai Lama stayed away from this? Won't his presence on the list just make the Chinese government angry and dismiss the whole exercise as an attack on Chinese sovereignty, honor, etc.? Maybe the Dalai Lama should have followed Gore's example. It's one thing for Tutu and Wiesel, et al., to sign, but quite another for interested parties like the Dalai Lama, Gore, and Obama, who also didn't sign.<<

    As we know now, those could have been Gore's reasons, but he didn't convey them to Freedom Now. And invoking the Dalai Lama was apparently the Lius' choice. From another reader with a Western name:

    >>Given the Chinese government's views of the Dalai Lama, I'm really wondering what good adding his name to an appeal would have. Couldn't that have a negative effect?<<

    In the same vein, from a Chinese-American reader:

    >>A question that is not easily answered about the 15 past Nobel Peace Prize winners: would it have been better to leave the Dalai Lama on the list of writers or off the list of writers?

    I think yes, even though the reason is pretty stupid (in my Chinese-American eyes). If you're looking to catch more flies with honey, you may not want to include the PRC's "jackal clad in Buddhist monk robes." (Eye roll.)<<

    Damien Ma has a good analysis here on the Atlantic's site of the longer-term prospect for Chinese political reform. The tragedy, of course, is that nothing would make the Chinese government look stronger or more confident in the rest of the world's eyes than releasing Liu and other political prisoners. Most people, most of the time, go about their lives in China without this kind of political fear or meddling. But many members of the government are still at the stage where they think that only by being extra-tough about dissent will they appear to be in command. In thirty years the country has come a long way, but there are still struggles ahead.

    More »

  • From an American traveling in China

    About the ripple effects of Barack Obama's disastrous and embarrassing trip to Asia:

    "I have just returned home to Connecticut after a month in northwest China.  I know you've probably exhausted yourself in venting your outrage at the pitifully poor coverage of the Obama visit to China by our 'mainstream' press, but I'm writing to add just one more voice to the chorus of people with on-the-ground experience in China, who can't seem to wrap our heads around what actually happened and what was reported. 

    "I was literally stopped in the streets of Yinchuan [Ningxia autonomous region, pretty remote, where these pics were taken], due to my being easily spotted as an American, by people of all walks of life who spoke and gestured enthusiastically about the impact that this American president was having and would have on their very lives.  It was exhilarating for me, having all too often suffered through explanations about why American leadership doesn't 'get it' where Asia is concerned.  My dinner conversations were enlivened in ways I wouldn't have imagined even three years ago.

    "In a region where one dares not discuss the 'human rights' agenda of the West, we talked openly and loudly and positively, frequently led by young aspiring Party members, about Obama's subtle but effective challenge to China's leadership to open up the society.  Almost all of my university colleagues and most of our students have Facebook accounts and use Twitter in this remote region of China, and all are upset... yes, angry... that they can not communicate using what they know are the most popular social media tools in the West.... 

    "As one who has long been worried about the direction of our fourth estate, I'm feeling little comforted by what I read and watched in our Western press and cable news while in China.  As an American far from home, especially during one of our most hallowed of holidays, Thanksgiving, I felt even more distant from that proverbial 'City upon a Hill.'"
  • Asian politics, American politics, press fail (updated)

    My colleague Marc Ambinder has just published a very astute and important, and in its way very depressing, analysis. It is an assessment of the Washington press corps' reluctance to look outward, to what we might quaintly call the "real" world, as opposed to informing itself purely with its own inside assessments of "narratives" and "perceptions" and "optics."

    Yes, all those "perceived" things matter. In the real world, Gerald Ford had been a collegiate all-star football player; in the world of optics, he became a stumblebum, thanks his misstep on an Air Force One stairway and the virtuosity of Chevy Chase's subsequent riffs on SNL. Ford lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to Jimmy Carter in 1976; the bumbler image was part of the reason. I was working for Carter during that campaign, and we exulted in a front-page photo of Ford at a stop in Texas eating a tamale -- corn-husk wrapper and all, which fit the bumbler theme.

    Perceptions have always been part of political life, and always will be. But the purpose of the press is supposed to be giving reality a better chance. And as Marc Ambinder demonstrates, this past two-week episode of Obama-in-Asia represents a really flagrant and consequential failure in that regard.

    Ambinder's assessment tees off a new Politico item by John Harris that is a distillation of the "perception is all we care about" approach to the world. Yes, I realize -- as Ambinder obviously does -- that the topic of the Politico item is perception itself. But in talking about a damaging story line (one of seven!) the Obama Administration has to fight, the item asserts as truth something that simply is false*, and that seemed "true" only to White House reporters judging a diplomatic trip as if it were a series of stump speeches on a campaign swing. Actually, it's worse than that. If the trip to Asia had in fact been a campaign swing, political reporters would probably have been amenable to a more sophisticated analysis: what matters isn't the boilerplate at the press conference, it's the developments we see over the next weeks or months. That's a kind of looking-beyond-the-obvious that politicos would pride themselves in when thinking about, say, pledged-delegate counts or vote-wrangling in the House. For whatever reason, it didn't happen when it came to the substance of dealing with China.

    Essentially we have journalism about an important topic -- America's relations with the country that has a lot to do with our environmental and financial well-being, plus with the prospects for containing Iran -- presented as if it were coverage of another branch of pro sports. What's the difference? In sports, the only thing we finally care about is how well the game is played. People in Washington are depressed because the Redskins are so terrible, but that's not going to cause a run on the dollar or lead to international crises. The interestingness and drama are the only point. But the "sport" of negotiating with China involves something that are objectively very important -- as Ambinder, to his credit, goes on to examine by asking, "is the damaging story actually true?"

    This is about as destructive a case of "who cares about the realities?" press mentality as I remember since miscoverage of the Clinton health care plan 15 years ago, as described here and here. (I am excepting the buildup to the Iraq war, when there were a lot of other factors at play.) I have said several times before that I'll give the theme a rest -- and maybe this time I finally will, leaving it in Ambinder's hands. But it matters.
    * Arguments that it is false and jejune: here, here, here, here, and further links from those items too. Later today I'll create an omnibus "Obama in Asia" category for these posts. UPDATE: As a way out of this topic, I have now tagged all 12 related posts, including this one, with the "Obama in Asia" marker, and they can be found in reverse chronological order here.

  • Before the Afghanistan speech, two more views on China

    Two readers with hypotheses about Obama's mission to China and its "failure." First, from a reader with a lot of experience outside the United States:

    "Those media people who portraited Obama's visit to China as a failure simply had little idea about Chinese political culture. The way the Chinese government does things is that they cannot give people the impression that they are yielding to other governments' pressure. So if you come to lecture the Chinese government, you'll be disappointed. But if you come and show your respect and humility, you may well get what you wanted. Last time the Renminbi was re-evaluated [allowed to float], it did not occur when American politicians were lecturing China to do so, but when the shouts from Washington were relatively mild. This time, China stressed that its announcement of carbon emission targets was a "voluntary" action, even though we all know it had something to do with Obama's visit. [JF note: This all rings 100% true to me.]

    "When it comes to international reporting, American media is generally too quick to draw conclusions and too much on the surface. Maybe now you can have a better idea of why so many well-informed Chinese people are often so frustrated at American media's coverage of Chinese affairs. It is not because they are just "Chinese nationalists", as American media like to believe."

    Then, from a reader in the US:

    "Just a thought -- is it possible that the media's negative portrayal of Obama's China trip is giving the Chinese government cover to be more conciliatory than it otherwise might have been? As persuasive as Obama might be in private, the Chinese might be reluctant to give him the appearance of a major "victory" over them; but since his trip has been viewed as a "failure," they do not lose face when they make concessions.

    "Perhaps the media actually helped Obama's case!"

    And perhaps this is long-sought conclusive proof of a liberal media conspiracy to prop up Obama! For the record, I take a much more positive view of Obama's efforts and results on the Asian trip than I expect to about the new buildup in Afghanistan, if that is indeed what he will announce. More on that anon.

  • The humiliating Obama-in-Asia failures mount up

    NYT front-page lead story today:
    From the story:

    "WASHINGTON -- The United Nations nuclear watchdog demanded Friday that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once secret uranium enrichment plant,  a sharp rebuke that bore added weight because it was endorsed by Russia and China...

    "Administration officials held up the statement as a victory for President Obama's diplomatic efforts to coax both Russia and China to increase the pressure on Iran. They said that they had begun working on a sanctions package, which would be brought before the United Nations Security Council if Iran did not meet the year-end deadline imposed by Mr. Obama to make progress on the issue....

    "In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been painstakingly wooing Russia and China, the two permanent members of the Security Council most averse to imposing sanctions... Persuading China has, so far, proven more difficult. After meeting with Mr. Obama in Beijing, China's president, Hu Jintao, said nothing about additional pressure on Iran.

    "But administration officials said that behind the scenes they had been working hard to get China on board, and expressed hope that those efforts would pay off.... Rahm Emanuel,  the White House chief of staff, said China's support on Iran and its decision to set a climate change goal on Thursday showed that Mr. Obama's trip to Beijing was producing results despite criticism of the visit. "This is the product of engagement," Mr. Emanuel said, adding that it was "a direct result" of the trip."

    To the NYT's credit: the online version of today's story contains a link back to an influential earlier "we didn't see anything happen in public, therefore nothing happened" story (by one of the same correspondents) about the "failure" of the trip. It's the link in the third quoted paragraph from the story, starting with the words "Chinese president Hu." So, no joke, this is a relatively classy gesture by the Times and better than we've seen from any of the networks or talk shows or other publications. It would have been very natural and easy to leave that link out. We'll take our progress where we can find it!

    And to be clear on one other point: the areas in which the Administration needed to engage the Chinese -- Iran, North Korea, climate issues, currency value and economic "balancing," human rights in general and talks with the Dalai Lama in particular -- are obviously all difficult. China's initial offer on emissions targets is nowhere near "sufficient"; similarly with its RMB-and-economic commitments; the Iran problem is far from solved; and so on. But ten days after the trip's completion, the apparent results are closer to the high end of what the Administration could reasonably have expected than to the across-the-board humiliation and disappointment that "analyses" of the trip generally proclaimed. There is evidence of at least first-stage engagement by China on all the issues that mattered to the United States. First-stage is not completion, but it's something -- and something most of the press, viewing the trip as if it were a campaign swing, missed at the time.

  • Yet more evidence of pathetic failure of Obama trip to Asia

    From the NYT just now, under the headline,  "Iran Censured Over Nuclear Program by U.N. Watchdog":


    Previous evidence to same effect here. And for previous discussion from "senior government official" on what Obama told the Chinese about Iran, go here. Will wait to see if this weekend's talk shows or opinion sections offer any "hey, wait a minute" reconsideration of their unanimous judgment last week about the way the Obama team was manhandled and stonewalled by the Chinese. I'll wait, but I won't hold my breath.

    (Updated thought: Seriously, when does an official part of the chattering class -- one of the weekend talkers, someone from the leading newspapers -- look back on these past two weeks in journalism's effort to represent reality and ask how the dominant narrative could have been so wrong, and wrong in a way that was easily noticeable at the time? Just curious. The guiding motto for the inquiry should be the deathless subhead on Tish Durkin's article: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    Also, when talking about "leading newspapers," I should make clear that accounts from the WSJ, which still has large bureaus in Asia, were far more balanced and accurate throughout this process than anything else I saw.)
  • Thanksgiving special: more evidence of failure of trip to Asia!

    Today in the NYT:ChinaEmissions.jpg

    Today in the Washington Post:

    Today in the (state run) China Daily:

    Today also in the China Daily:

    Along with the failure indicated yesterday, also in the China Daily:

    Yesterday on Xinhua.net -- announcement of the 40-45% reduction target for emissions:


    I am thankful for the prospect of more such failures ahead. (And to Jeremy Goldkorn and others for leads.) And on this festive day am thankful to have decided not to bother linking these stories back to the "humiliation and disaster" coverage of the trip to Asia while it was going on. Gratitude all around.

  • Last words on Obama and China

    Yes, there are more!

    1) We All Know that Obama was humiliated and stonewalled by the haughty Chinese leaders, in contrast to the titanic American presidents of yore who spoke sternly to Mao and his successors and therefore always got just what they wanted in Beijing. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has reminded us of his fecklessness again.

    And yet...  my favorite newspaper of all, the (state-controlled) China Daily, has just indicated in its November 25 edition that China's recent year-long freeze on the value of the RMB may be about to end. (Thanks to my friend Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei.org in Beijing, for the tip.) If Obama had "demanded" this in public, or insisted that it be announced while he was standing next to Hu Jintao in Beijing, his "toughness" might have received better one-day coverage in the U.S. press or on SNL.  But the chances of his getting what he was after would be nil. Of course, the chances are still uncertain. But this was the major item on the economic-rebalancing agenda; and the Administration's argument all along was that influencing China's behavior was a long game. This news story is not conclusive but does support rather than weaken the long-game approach.

    2) We All Know that the Shanghai town hall was an embarrassment, because the audience was packed with young Communist Party stalwarts who could be depended on to ask anodyne questions. ("What's the best step toward a Nobel Prize?" etc.)

    But remember the moment when Obama turned to Ambassador Jon Huntsman and said more or less, "Jon, did any questions come in via the internet?" I now have heard from enough different informed sources to be comfortable saying that the Chinese government did not know this was coming, and that the ensuing discussion about the Great Firewall was not at all according to their script. Jeremy Goldkorn adds a note about that question -- whose answer, as I mentioned earlier, has the potential to resonate within China. Goldkorn says:

    "The Great FireWall question at the Shanghai town hall came directly from the blogger briefing arranged by the Embassy and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

    "I attended the briefing and live tweeted it. The bloggers included Anti and Bei Feng, two of the loudest voices calling for open media in China at the moment, but also Rao Jin from AntiCNN.com. The most common question, asked several times by different bloggers, was if Obama knew about the Great FireWall and if he would do something about it."

    3) Most Americans don't know about the Southern Weekend interview -- the one interview Obama gave to a Chinese publication, and not to the People's Daily or CCTV but to a Guangzhou-based paper that is famed in China for its muckraking exposes of corruption and abuse. It would be as if a visiting head of state passed up CBS and the NYT and spoke instead only to Frontline or Mother Jones. The Obama team was well aware of what their meeting with Southern Weekend would symbolize -- not necessarily to the traveling press but to the educated population of China. As the government official I have previously quoted explained to me, "We wanted to highlight an edgy, aggressive Chinese paper that has run stories that others don't run. That was meant to be a statement encouraging serious journalistic effort in China."

    As Jason Dean explained in the Wall Street Journal and Jeremy Goldkorn did in Danwei, the authorities then interfered with the distribution of Southern Weekend in a comically ham-handed way. For instance, they (apparently) tore out pages containing Obama's interview from copies headed for foreign news bureaus -- but let them in for ordinary Chinese readers. The government official said, after marveling at the crudeness of the censorship, "I read a piece somewhere saying how naïve we were thinking we could get it out that way. But we did get a message out to a fair number of people. Did we expect it to be uncensored? No. But again think what the episode shows about the American government, and the Chinese."
    As Thanksgiving draws near in America, readers can give thanks that I will bid adieu to this topic. To sum it up: the Administration may or may not end up getting what it hoped for from this trip to Asia, especially China. But its members had a clearer idea of what they were after, how they could get it, and how to represent American interests and values than most coverage gave them credit for. The words that stick with me through this whole episode are those in the subtitle of Tish Durkin's piece last week: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    And I'm not even getting into the whole "Obama carries his own umbrella" brouhaha! Read about it here, if you want.  Happy upcoming Thanksgiving Day.
    obamaumbrella_CV_20091116220111 (1).jpg

  • Manufactured failure #6: the wrapup

    I think this is it for a while, in three extensive sub-parts! Background here.

    1) Today the Columbia Journalism Review published part 2 of its interview with Howard French; first part was here and was discussed here. It is long and convincing, but here is the heart of its criticism of the dominant "Obama was a wimp" coverage. French says:

    "I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist [JF note: this is very true], so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China.... But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there's a kind of implicit premise [that...] is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don't think there's any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary."

    2) From the U.S. government official who has appeared twice before, these final comments on the trip and its consequences:

    On atmospheric payoffs of the trip:

    "Two of the press conferences, in Japan and South Korea, both began with the same elements. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama got up and gushed that "my friend Barack calls me 'Yukio.'" Then the Korean press conference began with [president] Lee Myung-bak saying, 'We have become close friends.' That says something. Those are not just routine polite words. It meant that Obama is profoundly popular in those countries.  Hatoyama's poll numbers are high but dropping, Lee Myung-bak has been embattled, though recovering. But both saw it as enormously important in terms of their own agenda to be identified with Barack Obama. In my mind, the personal popularity and respect for him is a strategic asset. And not one that gets you results in a day. If you have foreign leaders who see their own fate tied up with Obama, that becomes a chip you can draw on. If you need a last minute shift on climate change, they do not want to separate from Barack Obama. Everyone wants to be his best friend."

    What about the view that Obama caved to the Chinese on human rights?

    "Here are the things we tried to do. Number one, he made a robust statement in Shanghai. Number two, have that reach as many tens of millions of Chinese as possible. You can argue about the degree of success, but the message got out. They had a chance to see him in a setting no Chinese had seen before. And beyond that was to be explicit and direct in the private meetings about the importance of our values and the effect on our relations. And then we put in references in the press conference statement to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and the importance of rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of the rights of minorities, which was an obvious reference to the Uighurs and Tibetans. We went straight to Tibet in the statement, saying that we consider it part of China and urge direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama."

    [NB: This following paragraph is from me, JF, and not the official. Before the trip, Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the DL said in public that was fine with him, since smooth US-Chinese relations at the start of an Administration were important. Obama said that the fact of a meeting was not in doubt, only the timing. I said then and still think that the test will come in the next three or four months  If Obama meets the Dalai Lama during that period, he will have preserved the tradition of his predecessors in treating the D.L. as a substantial religious and cultural figure who has earned international respect. If he doesn't, then it will be time to talk about "caving."]

    About non-China aspects of the trip:

    [This is the official again] "We thought the Southeast Asian part went well. We showed up a day late because of the Fort Hood memorial ceremony. But Obama got to the dinner, which the leaders liked. And the funny-shirt part, which they also liked. [See below - a tradition at meetings of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC.] And the ASEAN meeting [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. He announced he was going to Indonesia next year, which soothed some of the feelings from his not being able to go there on this trip. The Indonesians love him.  Lee Hsien-Loong [prime minister of Singapore; son of Lee Kwan Yew] was very positive about US presence in the region. As for Burma, of course they were at the ASEAN 10 meeting. Kurt Campbell [assistant secretary of state] had just gone to their capital, the first executive-branch representative to go there since almost forever. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, and we are seeing some preliminary results. There's a little bit of the ice breaking there. I wouldn't overstate it.  Maybe we'll see some developments, but it will take time. And the other ASEANs feel they are getting attention that they haven't gotten before.

    "With Japan, it's a new and untested government. It's the first time in power for their party, and they're finding their sea legs. Everyone understands that. We were not trying to knock them off their uncertain sea legs, particularly in public. Not make them lose face or back them into a corner. But at the same time, we wanted to provide a degree of clarity about the future of the bases there. We announced a working group about the bases, and 99 of the 100 press outlets in the room understood that this meant we were not changing the agreements. We're making some adjustments around the edges, we want to show sensitivity to local concerns about the environment and other issues. But we're definitely not throwing out the agreements. Unfortunately, one person got it wrong, and [the New York Times] portrayed it as a stunning "concession." It was the exact opposite.

    As for Japanese prime minister Hatoyama's calls for a new "East Asian Community," which would explicitly leave the U.S. out:

    "We were very clear privately and publicly that the U.S. is going to be in on the ground floor on consultations about new international institutions. The key countries in the region really don't want a line drawn in the middle of the Pacific. There's a general concern over any attitude that would leave us out. No one is going to speak openly about any concerns over China's rise. Everyone understands that it's better to have a prosperous China than the reverse. But a robust U.S. presence in the region is widely seen as the best counterweight in the long-term."
    About trade and financial imbalances between the US and China:
    "Obama talked a great deal in public and in private about the need for the Chinese to increase demand. He made clear that we're simply not going back to the old model. [Old model = China makes, saves, and lends; US borrows and buys.] So we are moving down what will be a long path. [US coverage has implied that China is the dominant paymaster in the US-China relations, but:] Their positions on climate change and rebalancing the economy all reflect an awareness of internal fragility and a reluctance to do anything that would affect their export industries. The nervousness over the Shanghai town hall was also a reflection of internal fragility and the need to assert and demonstrate control."

    Comparing bubbles:

    "From inside our bubble, we thought we were doing what we should be doing. From inside the press's bubble, I think it came across fine except for China. I think some of them wanted us to be rude to the Chinese leadership. That seems to be the standard for effectiveness. Not only is it bad form in general to be rude, and ineffective in Asia, but the last person on the planet who would be rude is Barack Obama. That is part of the reason he got elected."

    3) Bonus! Selections from a note from a reader with experience around the world.

    "-  No one should assume that because the Obama visit was only aired on limited TV outlets (I understand his town meeting was aired in Shanghai), that it will not be seen throughout the country.  Download videos, live streaming videos, etc. will circulate over the next weeks and it will be widely seen.

    "-  Americans tend to view most relationships through the prism of win/lose.  Asians (as you well know) tend to be more subtle.  This is why Americans often have difficulty bargaining for goods in Asian markets.  They want to 'win' the transaction.  The transaction as seen by the Asian is to try to find a price where each party feels that they got something of value and feel that each party is responsible for protecting himself from being cheated.  It's up to you not to be taken... I have suggested Richard Nisbett's "The Geography of Thought" which addresses differences in ways of thinking of things east and west.

    "-   From the Asian perspective bowing to the older Japanese leader is a sign of strengthOne does that because the power is not questioned, not because it is.  Will Americans ("just win baby", "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing") ever understand this?...

    This does it for the time being.

    More »

  • Manufactured failure #5: views from China

    I won't go on in this vein forever (previously #1, #2, #3, #4), but the topic is important enough to bear a little more elaboration, IMHO. Part of the importance: there is no country with whom America's interactions are more consequential, or perpetually more complicated, than China. Another part of the importance: how the American public understands these interactions makes a big difference, in recognizing the points of disagreement and the areas of possible cooperation. Tomorrow, one more installment from the US government official who participated in important meetings and whom I have quoted twice before. For now:

    This morning on the Chris Matthews show I mentioned earlier, a White House reporter for the Washington Post said that the Shanghai town meeting was another item on the disappointment/failure docket for America. Her argument was essentially: the Chinese outsmarted the Obama team and kept their countrymen from seeing it. I don't remember whether she said it was not broadcast at all or only on one "local" network; as mentioned yesterday, that one network reaches 100 million households.

    So to a member of the traveling press pool, viewing the session mainly as a campaign stop whose advance work went either well or poorly, this looked like a bust. Here is how it looked to a foreigner who has just written me -- a person who has lived in China for two decades, still does business there, and speaks Mandarin:
    "In your series, you touched on the Shanghai town hall, quoting from President Obama's opening and his response to the Twitter/Great Firewall question, and gave voice to a White House insider as to the power of his words and their likely reach inside China. There's been some buzz among western journalists about how the town hall "reached no one".

    "I've been monitoring the China internet in the wake of the town hall and, based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:
    'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time.  I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hearIt forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'
    "Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."
    After the jump, two other reader responses, one with an additional Chinese perspective and one with a historical comparison.

    A reader writes:

    "We were watching the Bejing dinner highlights on cable at home (CT state), via CCTV network [China Central TV, state controlled] and saw a very close friend among the group of musicians/artists performing. My wife woke me up to tivo it, then she called our friend in Shanghai (he had already returned the next early morning).
    "He apparently accompanies the bigwigs when they travel and/or entertain foreign guests, etc. For instance, he was in Moscow last year when Hu saw Putin. So unlike other performers, he gets to see the leadership withforeign dignitaries on a routine basis.

    "Anyway, long story short, from his local chinese perspective, it was obvious to him that the Chinese leadership were clearly enamored with Obama. They sincerely enjoyed our President's company, it was obvious from their body language of some connection with Obama.   Obviously the state press wouldn't show that.....hopefully this visit established some mutual 'trust'.  We'll see...."

    Another writes:

    "One of the things that struck me when I was reading one of the NYT's stories on the President's visit to China was their odd way of contrasting it to past presidential visits.  As I remember, the reporter(s) writing the story as much as said that Mr. Obama had not "gotten" any concessions on this and that unlike how it used to be in the good ol' days. [WaPo story to that effect here.]

    "You remember those days right? when the U.S. President could helicopter into China and come back with the RMB exactly where we want it, no more internal censorship or repression, all political prisoners freed, China ready and willing to impose sanctions on country A and help invade country B, and of course solid enforceable contract law appearing by magic all around the country, and whatever else comes up in these silly articles."

    I am most certainly not saying that all the coverage was negative, nor that all the negative coverage was wrong. Nor that all of the coverage was misinformed. Pretty soon, out of fairness, I will do a compliments-list compendium of enlightening stories from the trip: one that instantly comes to mind is Jason Dean's in the WSJ about the mysterious half-censored interview Obama conducted with Southern Weekend newspaper. If, as I'm saying, we should judge the trip on its long-term results, it could turn out to be a failure when we see what China and Japan actually do over the next year on contentious issues. But my very strong impression is that the overwhelming tone of coverage was campaign-like and unnecessarily negative, and that the resulting bias is worth noting. If you haven't gotten the point yet!

    Bonus update!
    My friend and occasional Atlantic contributor Adam Minter writes from Shanghai in partial defense of the MSM:

    "I remain sympathetic to the traveling press corps and their coverage, in part because I think the White House did such a lousy job about conveying its goals for the trip during and in the immediate aftermath of the visit. Put differently, I've learned more about the administration's hopes from the mission from your post-facto interview with  the un-named gov't official, than I did from any statements given to the media by the White House during the mission. Why couldn't the un-named official have briefed the press corps in the same way that you are being briefed while everyone was crossing the Pacific? Clearly, they didn't. So, to some extent, I think the blame for negative coverage - and, true, I'm sympathetic to some of it - must be laid at the feet of the White House and those responsible for getting the press corps up to speed."

    More tomorrow.

    More »

  • Manufactured failure #4: more on Obama's trip

    Things are warming up on this front. Previously here, with backward links. Today's points:

    1) Many people have forwarded me a posting from my friend and former colleague Chuck Todd, saying that people who criticize the press's horse-race, instant-analysis coverage of Obama's trip are guilty of the same horse-race, instant-analysis thinking themselves. Ie, Hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable -- mon frere!

    With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign "pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an announcement is a "failure."

    2) Many people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip. (Distillation of my complaint in an On the Media segment here; also, it was one theme of my All Things Considered discussion with Guy Raz yesterday.)

    2A) As a bonus, here is what the Post's page showed yesterday for discussion of Obama's trip: was it a success or "an embarrassment"?


    3) Below and after the jump, more comments from a US government official who was on the trip and knows first-hand about many of the meetings with foreign dignitaries. Earlier from this person here.

    About the "humiliating" bow to the Emperor of Japan:

    "Obama's attitude was, this is an elderly gentleman in a country where this kind of greeting is customary. It does not seem extraordinary to show this kind of gesture to him. The Fox news poll said that 67% of Americans thought it was a good thing for him to have done. When the president heard that some people had complained, I'd characterize his reaction as: The notion that the United States is somehow humbling or humiliating itself by showing respect for a local custom, when it is transparently the most powerful country in the world, leaves me speechless."

    On what Obama "got" from China on climate/environment issues:

    "We closed some of the gap but not all of the gap. The Chinese do not wish, three weeks out of Copenhagen, to be seen working hand in glove with the US to impose a "G2" solution to the G77. They have their own reservations about how far things should go. But they also don't want to be seen as the stumbling block or odd man out.

    "We kept making the argument, We're the #1 and 2 emitters, so we have a special responsibility, a special role. We got some movement. They are taking substantial mitigating steps, which they didn't enumerate but we know what they are. As best we can tell, they are prepared to submit those as their "target" in Copenhagen, and of course we want them to be "commitments" rather than targets. There is still a stumbling block on the issue of accountability, which is always a hard one with the Chinese. We'd like to have an independent peer review of whether doing what you said you would do.  There are lots of different ways to do that... But we haven't closed that part of the gap yet.

    "Prime Minister Rasmussen [Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark, with obvious involvement in the Copenhagen talks] has been saying that while a binding legal treaty by this December is not possible, he has been calling for a politically-binding accord at Copenhagen. Then there would be the task of turning it into a treaty over the next year. The Chinese have bought into that general framework. And we made a lot of agreements with them on clean energy [details here]. So on climate change, there were no miracles, but we moved them out out of the position of being blockers to being part of the game.

    On what happened regarding North Korea and Iran:

    "North Korea first. We announced that [Ambassador Stephen] Bosworth was going there on December 8. Essentially we want his talks to be followed by resumption of Six Party Talks before terribly long.  We told the Chinese that. In the joint statement, the Chinese did in fact commit to seeking resumption of Six Party Talks at an early date. They agreed to that principle, and they were pretty robust in their insistence that they care about the denuclearization of North Korea. In fact they more than anyone else have reasons to be troubled by the program.  The missiles may not be aimed at China, but they are right next to China. So our perspectives are not identical, but on North Korea, we're doing pretty well.

    "Iran has been more difficult, and will probably become a more sensitive issue. Iran itself is heading the wrong direction. By end of the year, we may have to go to the pressure track. We made a strong presentation, whose gist was: Time is running out, and if this situation continues, several other clocks are ticking. There's the Israeli clock. If Israel decides to do something, we cannot stop them. If it's an existential decision, you don't consult anybody else. And Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Egypt probably would follow with nuclear programs. What's the impact of that on security in the Persian Gulf and the international non-proliferation regime? And on Japan and Korea? It is profoundly in China's interest to stay close to the "P5 + 1." [Five UN Security Council permanent members, plus Germany.]

    "On the one hand, they get it. But as a matter of principle they don't like sanctions and are concerned about their energy supplies, and they always like to free-ride. If the Russians are on board they will be on board too.  At the end of the day, I expect the China will be on board. There may be some foot-dragging about specifics of a resolution, depending on how draconian it is. Russia is the bigger challenge, in the sense that if you get China.

    About judging the results of these talks - and those on economics [about which more in the next installment]:

    "Discussions with the Chinese just don't offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It's water on a stone. They don't reveal their Eurekas to you. While you're there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.

    "Judgments will be borne out over time. Will they cooperate or not on Iran? Will they be spoilers or not on climate change? On North Korea? Rebalancing their economy? None of those is a one-day story. The only fair way of evaluating results will be over time.

    "But I get the sense that many of our critics would not be happy unless Obama punched the Chinese leaders in the nose."

    More to come, from the official and also from sources in China, on the impact Obama's town hall may prove to have.

    More »

  • Manufactured failure #3: insider's view of the Obama trip

    Late yesterday -- after I had recorded my On The Media complaints about mainstream coverage of Barack Obama's trip to Asia, but before I had seen Howard French's and Tish Durkin's similar complaints -- I got a call from a government official who had been on the trip. This person -- for convenience, I'll say "she" rather than "he or she" from here on -- wasn't aware that I'd already weighed in about the coverage, and was calling to say that I, as person who'd recently been living in China, might be interested in how different the events seemed to her from what she'd seen in the U.S. press.

    She agreed to have her views conveyed "on background," which I'll do here and in a few more installments over the next two or three days. Obviously these are the views of an interested party, who was involved in planning the trip and believes it should be seen as a success. But compare them with what you read and heard about the trip last week -- including about the "failure" of the Town Meeting in Shanghai.

    About coverage of the trip in general:

    "I don't care if someone criticizes us, I just would like it to be accurate and in context. I fear I am learning that is not the skill of some in the White House Press corps. They are experts on horse races, and so that is the way everything is cast."

    About what the Administration hoped for from the trip:

    "In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories. You've now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.

    "Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road. 

    "We've got Copenhagen [climate talk] coming up in mid-December. We have Iran heading increasingly likely toward Plan B rather than Plan A, pressure rather than inducements. North Korea. And the Copenhagen session is very far from a done deal. The countries we dealt with are all key players here. And on the economic side, you've got the whole issue of rebalancing the global agenda. None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game.

    "The other thing we had in mind, which has to do with the whole "rising China" phenomenon: we wanted to solidify the relationship with China. To show them that we're not going to have a fluctuating policy. That we know what we're doing, and understand that we are dealing from a position of strength. And at the same time, to all our traditional allies [Japan, Korea, etc], we wanted to reinforce their sense of comfort that our relationship with China won't be at their expense."

    About the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai: Why was it "censored" rather than streamed to anyone who wanted to see it in China?

    "We negotiated endlessly against a very difficult Chinese government on the issue. Their intransigence tells me several things. It was the day before the meeting with Hu Jintao, and there were uneasy about what might be said in a live format. ["Surprise" = "unacceptable risk" in many official Chinese dealings.]  This was also a townhall format of a type they had never had before. [What about Bill Clinton's? That was a roundtable plus a speech, not a town hall.] We wanted to have 1000 or 1500 people. They said No. Security problems, and so on. So, we got to 500. We insisted on live streaming. Endless fights on that. Then live TV. Endless fights. And questions from the internet. Huge fights over who would pose them and who would screen. There wasn't  a single aspect of the meeting that wasn't hard fought.

    "It was tortured enough that we thought about pulling the plug. At the end of the day we decided to go through. The point is that on the Chinese side, this showed more than the usual anxiety. I think there was a genuine anxiety about the possible... force of Barack Obama. I would say a word short of "subversive" or "destabilizing." But something profoundly disturbing to their system of government and control. The anxiety was a tribute to the kind of inspirational force he has.

    "What they actually did, was to put the live streaming part on Xinhua.net. For the opening portion, we studied very carefully Ronald Reagan's speech at Fudan in 1984. It began almost identically: Here is who we are, and these are our values. But Reagan's ended with a poem from Zhou Enlai. Can you Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had ended up with a poem by Zhou Enlai?

    "We know there were tens of millions of hits on Xinhua.net.  And more than two or three tens of millions. Some people complained that this was carried 'only' on Shanghai TV, but that reaches reaches 100 million households.  Of the top 10 Chinese web sites, nine carried news and commentary. Thousands of user generated messages and blog posts.  Tens of millions people in the first instance saw it, and by the time it's over the number is going to be staggering. Whenever we had a discussion about, Should we pull the plug, we thought, if there is an opportunity to talk to tens of millions of people, that is an opportunity we should take. People can draw their conclusions about China and America from the event."

    More to come tomorrow.

    More »

  • Manufactured failure #2: the press, Obama, Asia

    It's not just me. Two colleagues with different perspectives -- from each other's, and sometimes from my own -- marvel at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama's just-ended tour of Asia.

    First, Howard French -- long of the NYT, now of the Columbia Journalism School, friend of mine in both Tokyo and Shanghai. He has a new online Q-and-A with the Columbia Journalism Review, here, in which he says that the traveling press covered Obama's meetings with Asian officials as if this were a bunch of stops in a presidential campaign tour, and as a result missed or misrepresented what was going on. Read the whole thing, but here are two samples:

    From the set-up to the interview, by Alexandra Fenwick:

    "In almost every analysis of the trip, Chinese officials were portrayed as optimistic and newly emboldened to stand up to American interests and Obama was cast in the role of the meek debtor, standing with hat in hand. The line is that little was achieved and Obama was stifled, literally by state television and figuratively by the Chinese upper hand in the power dynamic."

    Howard French goes on to say that these assumptions were flat wrong. He offers many explanations, including this:

    "I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can't be an expert on every question, and so you're part of the Washington press corps and if you're really good and really diligent, you're going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China."

    If you have seen Howard French's coverage over the years, including the five years he was based in Shanghai, you will know that no sane reader has ever put him in the category of "soft" on the Chinese leadership or China's faults. Yet his wonderment and exasperation at what he reads is palpable.

    Tish Durkin, who has written for the Atlantic from Iraq and elsewhere, arrived in China recently. The subhead on her new column for The Week gets across the point:

    "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    While I'm at it, here's one more: a story quoting the new US Ambassador to China, former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman (a Mandarin speaker), to exactly the same effect.

    "Washington's ambassador to Beijing hit out on Friday at negative US media coverage of President Barack Obama's visit to China, saying it failed to take into account important progress on many issues...

    "The trip was the top news story in China, drawing strong interest from the mainland public who, surveys suggest, are largely positive in their view of the American president.

    "However, much of the US media coverage was strongly negative, accusing Obama of failing to gain concessions on key issues such as Iran's nuclear programme and climate change, as well as being weak on human rights."

    "I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. "I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings," he said.

    I wasn't in touch with Howard French or Tish Durkin (to say nothing of Amb. Jon Huntsman) before we all expressed the same amazed and negative reaction at the way our colleagues had missed the main point of what just happened in America's relations with a very important part of the world. We're all familiar with one "crisis of the press," the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based "horse race." As you can tell, this really bothers me.

  • Manufactured failure: press coverage of Obama in Asia

    I have what I think is some interesting new info coming on this front over the weekend; stay tuned, starting Saturday afternoon. For the moment, two more installments in my argument, previously here and here,  that Barack Obama's recent swing through Asia was a relative success, and certainly nothing like the disaster that most U.S. coverage implied.

    Installment one: me talking with Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media just now, about why American fantasies of an omnipotent, rising China may have distorted American press reaction to what Obama said and did.

    Installment two: the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

    November 11, just before the trip:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China on 16 November will produce positive rhetoric, but achieve little on a range of issues from North Korea to economic rebalancing. Washington and Beijing will continue to highlight areas of mutual cooperation and interests, but domestic political agendas will pose serious constraints on the extent of near-term progress....

    "Little to be expected on economic rebalancing and trade... Obama will likely raise the currency issue as part of a broader economic rebalancing framework. But the Chinese will continue to reject greater emphasis on the rebalancing issue, because Beijing interprets it as Washington shifting more of the blame on China for the global recession....

    "No bilateral agreement will be reached on emissions reduction targets that might precipitate an ambitious global climate change treaty next month in Copenhagen. Obama's more modest task is to prevent China from aligning too closely with the G77 developing country bloc in global negotiations, although he has limited bargaining chips to encourage cooperation from China." [emphasis mine]

    November 20 (today), post-action assessment, which boils down to, it went just as expected, and maybe a little better:

    "President Barack Obama's first visit to China met the modest expectations set by the White House, making some progress on creating a more expansive relationship and on clean energy and climate change cooperation...Obama appears to have effectively reassured Beijing that the US does not intend to contain China's rise, creating a framework for mutual assurance that could augur a more mature relationship in the longer term.

    "The US-China presidential summit involved a genuine attempt by both sides to push toward closer cooperation -- producing a robust joint statement that highlighted a range of common interests. In particular, Obama's first visit to China saw deliverables on clean energy and climate change cooperation, as expected. By dampening Copenhagen expectations in Singapore, Obama avoided a potential collision with China at next month's meeting... But Chinese domestic politics prevented Beijing from publicly discussing contentious issues such as currency and economic rebalancing during the trip...

    "While policy disagreements and trade frictions will continue in the near term, Obama took an important step with a very public reassurance for Beijing that the US does not seek to contain China's rise. Beijing's receptiveness to this appeal indicates the intent of both countries to reduce the mutual distrust that has colored aspects of the relationship -- from currency, military engagement, and Taiwan to human rights and climate change. The Obama administration's more public approach, if successful, can promote longer term stability by engaging China on a broad range of issues within the context of a more mature and pragmatic relationship -- and in preventing specific, contentious issues from defining the relationship."

    Why bring this up? Because it's bad all around when American press coverage makes people feel that perfectly predictable results constitute a shameful failure for the country and its leadership. More on this theme tomorrow.

    (Update: later in this series, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6)


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