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: Olympics

  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

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  • Unsung Heroes of the Olympics: Ted Robinson

    Hmmm, where is this NBC announcer really from???

    Thumbnail image for Robinson.jpegAttentive readers could possibly have noticed my mentioning, a time or two or twenty, the tendency of NBC Olympic announcers to refer to the site of the 2008 games as Beizhing, with an artsy Frenchified zh- sound, rather than plain old "Jingle Bells"-style Beijing.

    But wait! When calling yesterday's prelims, semi-finals, and finals of the men's 3-meter springboard diving, our man Ted Robinson -- that's him at right -- talked time and again about Beijing. His co-announcer, ex-diver Cynthia Potter, didn't take the hint and kept on Beizhing-ing. But we noticed here at home.

    More amazing still, Robinson did a creditable job during his many references to the defending Olympic champion in this event, He Chong of China. Mr. He's family name (He, or ) is a sound that doesn't really exist in English. It's like some combo of hehh and huhh, but farther back in your throat -- as I say, for us it's not a normal sound. But there was Robinson, saying it again and again. (Cynthia Potter was going with "Hay" or "Ay," rhyming with "day.")

    I am the last person in the world to be prideful about foreign pronunciation, since I sound like a Yank whatever language I am supposedly trying to speak. And I certainly am not saying that the job of an announcer in one language is to try to parrot all the sounds and names of another language. U.S viewers would rise as one in protest of any NBC newscaster who showily said "Paris" or "México" the way the locals do. But having piled on much of Team Peacock for this anomaly I wanted to note the exception.
    ____
    And, hey, maybe this all actually matters. This dispatch just in from a Sinophile reader:

    THANK YOU for taking up the issue of how to pronounce "Beijing." PLEASE continue to push this: The soft "French" pronunciation is a national (USA) DISGRACE.

    I am a China scholar [from an Ivy League university] who has been studying China for 50 years, with an ex-wife who was Chinese, a Mandarin teacher who was Beijingese, numerous Sinological publications, and so on. During the Beijing Olympics, I was astounded that the American networks couldn't absorb the simple fact that any northern Chinese or CORRECT standard Mandarin speakers with whom they were interacting pronounced Beijing like Jingle Bells.. Those were, after all, the BEIJING Olympics! Not getting THAT right was simply inexcusable.

    I really don't know whether this ongoing linguistic atrocity reveals (1) some fatal linguistic ethnocentrism on the part of ALL Americans, or (2) some overall anxiety about confronting a "rising China," or (3) simple incompetence on the part of specific network functionaries in 2008, since perpetuated by similarly incompetent network functionaries (including sometimes on NPR!). I DO know that, in an increasingly symmetrical relationship between the USA and PRC, one country's systematically mispronouncing the name of the capital of the other -- mediated by mass media -- augurs poorly for the mispronouncing country. If the media can't adopt an attentive attitude toward THIS, toward WHAT can we count on their being attentive?    

    To repeat, THANK YOU for raising this issue. Doing so challenges our media to attend to more than just issues of pronunciation.

    I feel emboldened! But I may now let this go for a while.

  • Olympic notes: good for Rio

    1) I love Chicago, but Rio is the best choice overall. Probably better for most people in Chicago (I speak from having lived through the ramp-up to the Beijing Olympics these past few years), although some of them may not feel that way right now. Certainly better for the whole spirit of the Games.

    The US has had a lot of Olympics; no country in South America has had any. I think that these events feel more special, and get a better all-out push from the host country, when they represent some kind of inclusive "first ever" achievement. Japan marked its post-WW II recovery as before and after its 1964 Olympic games. South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008 used their host role, in different ways, as big national milestones. Athens in 2004, too, had some kind of closing-the-circle fulfillment in bringing the games back to their original home. Whereas for Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, and I assume London three years from now, the Olympics are mainly big logistics challenges to be coped with and endured.

    2) Obama was in a no-win situation about his personal lobbying. The other candidate chiefs of state had also made personal pitches. If he hadn't made the trip and Chicago lost, you can imagine today's right-wing theme being: he didn't care enough about his country even to try. (Probably because it's not really his country. Now, if Kenya had been a finalist...) Since he did make the trip, the theme is: what a loser.

    Yeah, yeah, his advisers "should have" had a clearer sense of the nuttiness that is the modern Olympic governing process; and yeah, yeah, knowing that, he should have limited his exposure by letting his wife be his representative. But -- and I would have said this if John McCain were president and had made the trip -- it was never really about him.

    3) It's superfluous to link to anything in the omnipresent BoingBoing, but in this item, yesterday, Cory Doctorow made an important point that everyone outside the U.S. knows but that few resident Americans take seriously: It has become a tremendous nuisance, and often a humiliation, for foreigners to get through U.S. customs-and-immigration clearance. Lots of people still want to immigrate to the US, but people who have a choice are often glad not to travel here. (How to imagine this, if you hold a US passport? Think of your most unpleasant TSA screening experience, and multiply it by a hundred -- with an extra dose of, Why should we think you're not a terrorist? Yes, I hold a US passport, but I've heard tales like Doctorow's too many times not to get the point.) It's hard to know how much this affected the Olympic bid but is worth realizing as part of our connections with the rest of the world.

    4) From a Chicagoan:

    "As an unabashed Obama-phile, I'm distraught at how badly he miscalculated in going to Copenhagen.  Not only because the failure could be damaging in itself, but also because, as you promised after Obama's health care speech, the time has finally come that he wasn't able to "pull himself out of pinch with a big speech."...

    "This latest speech may not perfectly fit, as Obama didn't think he was in a pinch in the first place.  Still, his failure does break his string of very good luck  (which included, for example, his three-point shot in Kuwait)."

    The theme of luck brings us back to the main point: Anyone who appreciates big cities should always love Chicago, but best of luck to Rio.

  • I thought it got easier to breathe back there in August!

    As attentive readers may recall, the air in Beijing through the six months before the Olympic games was almost unbelievably horrible. Lest we forget: this was the view out my window in mid-June, which was not that different from how it had been day upon day through the spring and early summer.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3823.jpg

    But even as I was wheezing my way around town and truly getting depressed by no view of sun and sky (and being told by a doctor that I should stop smoking, when I'd never started), I was reporting in the Atlantic on plans to get things cleaned up by the time of the Olympics. The first two days of the Games looked pretty bleak -- but then a line of thunderstorms moved through, and the air looked far better, and the environmental threat to the Games was averted.

    Since then, the air in Beijing has seemed better -- not all of the time, God knows, but more than before. How much of the improvement is due to factories being shut down because of the recession? (They must have been running 40 hours a day in the spring, given how bad things were then.) How much because of typically strong late-fall winds blowing in from the northwest? How much an actual long-term change? I don't know.

    But, courtesy of a tip from an engineer at NASA, here is new evidence that all the anti-pollution steps taken because of the Olympics really did make a difference in air-quality measures in August -- and, it seems, some of the time since then.

    The NASA map below will make more sense if you read the full report, here. Highlight version: the deep red west of Shanghai and north of Hong Kong (where Shenzhen and Dongguan are), plus through the central coal-and-factory belt in places like Shanxi province, is a bad sign. The light green around Beijing is relatively good! (The red zone on the coast just east of Beijing is the city of Tianjin.)

    297375main_beijing08_HI.jpg

    As the NASA report says of Beijing's special Olympic anti-pollution rules:
    During the two months when restrictions were in place, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) -- a noxious gas resulting from fossil fuel combustion (primarily in cars, trucks, and power plants) -- plunged nearly 50 percent. Likewise, levels of carbon monoxide (CO) fell about 20 percent.
    Why does this matter? Because it shows that corrective steps can improve even the most hopeless-seeming environmental disasters. It's worth trying to do something, rather than just hunkering down in bed and trying to take very, very shallow breaths -- my strategy in the months from April to July.

    In other words, Yes We Can.

  • Paradise Beijing

    I have a slight modification to propose to the International Olympic Charter. I suggest that the Olympics, and the Paralympics, be run back-to-back, nonstop, month after month and year after year -- and always in Beijing. It could be tough on the athletes, but think of the golds they could win! And with this system, the city might continue to enjoy the phenomenal blue skies and beautiful weather that have prevailed for most of the last four weeks. This morning, Sept 12:

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5220.jpg

    Yesterday afternoon, Sept. 11:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5222.jpg

    The traffic and factory shut-down rules that started on July 20 will still be in effect for eight more days, thanks to the Paralympics. The Paralympics have been moving and impressive in ways I'll describe later. For now, we're enjoying these moments while we have them; assuming nothing about the future; but hoping that the Chinese citizenry and leadership have noticed how transformed the city is when it looks like these pictures -- and not the one from two months ago, mercifully after the jump.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5233.jpg


    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5234.jpg

     On July 20:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_3834.jpg

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  • A farewell to 加油

    It's the first day of the rest of Beijing's life. I have no further thoughts to offer about the Games and their aftermath, so I bid them adieu with these few notebook items.

    I also take leave of blog-land for the next week, because of (happy) family gatherings and other duties. The Democrats in Denver and the tennis players in New York will keep everyone occupied:

    - The most riveting detail in today's NYT story about Olympic TV ratings success is fingering the person responsible for scheduling the games in the hottest time of the summer. It turns out to have been NBC's Dick Ebersol, and not, as everyone I've talked with had assumed, some astrology-conscious faction within the Beijing Olympic Committee that was obsessed with having the opening ceremony on August 8. Of course that's 08/08/08, heavy on the most traditionally "auspicious" number in Chinese culture.  Details in the very interesting NYT story. Years' worth of pop-culture analysis of modern China, right down the drain!

    But maybe it was local people who added the flourish that the ceremonies start at 8:08 pm.

    - The last big-deal event I saw was a big deal indeed: gold-medal football/soccer match, Argentina 1-0 over Nigeria. (Tickets offered by a foreign friend at the last minute.*) As a viewer,  I was reminded that soccer is the sport that suffers most in the transition from in-person to TV. TV can capture a whole court's worth of action in basketball, and tennis, and usually baseball and football, though each is different when seen for real. But the soccer field is so big that what you see on TV is little isolated chunks of action rather than any larger flow -- or else, in the wide shots, a whole field with tiny dots moving around and kicking.  

    Despite the appeal of on-scene viewing, despite the Argentinian team's long-standing popularity among Chinese fans, despite the gold-medal stakes, and despite everything else, once again the arena was not full. As at most venues, the cheap upper tier seats, where tickets had been opened for sale to the public, were all occupied. A lot of the fancy seats were flat empty. (Click for larger.)

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5108.jpg


    Note in the shot below the Chinese participants who I think edge out the opening-ceremony cheerleaders for the gold medal in stoicism. During the entire match, they had to look constantly into the crowd. This was presumably to be on guard if  anyone tried to charge the field or -- much worse! -- take out some kind of banner. How you could sneak a banner in through the security screenings is mystery on its own. Not once did I see a one of them turn around, even when the crowd roared and the stadium seemed to pulse with excitement. They didn't move or flinch at all. Assuming that they were actual people and not mannequins, I say: Well done! Jia you!

    (Note also the optical illusion in the shot: with the curved lines, it looks as if the picture is a trapezoid, with the bottom edge sloping up toward the right, rather than a rectangle. Or maybe the Games have destroyed my eyes and mind.)

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5110.jpg


    - Speaking of empty venues, the photographer Zach Honig went to the Olympic Green some 12 hours after the closing ceremony, and: ghost town!  You can see more of his pictures here.

    3.jpg

    Enjoy the convention and the US Open. Signing off from Olympic coverage and all things  Internet for a while.
    _____

    * I benefited from the strange ticket distribution system, in this way. Before the games, my wife and I felt lucky to have come up with any ticket whatsoever: a first-day, standing-area only ticket to preliminary heats out at the rowing center. Over subsequent days, we ended up seeing quite  a lot of the action, in every case because people who had gotten tickets overseas or through companies ended up with spares. Thanks to our benefactors Tom B, Ken S, Andy R, Howard S, Eliot C, and Melanie C.


    ** For those joining us late, the headline refers to the Chinese phrase 加油, jia you!, which means roughly "let's go!" and was the de facto motto of the Games.

  • Catching up on two Olympics points

    1) Nationalistic coverage. Background: previous comments about the quite impressive Sino-centrism of what China Central TV chooses to broadcast.

    Right now as I type, some of the marquee events of track and field, on the last night of competition, are underway at the Bird's Nest Stadium a few miles from here. And CCTV is showing instead: a ping-pong match between a Chinese player and a Swede, a diving contest involving two Chinese stars, interviews with a foreign coach of a Chinese team, and replays of week-old swimming events in which Chinese athletes did well. These are at the very instant that the men's 5000m is underway. Same thing during men's 800m.  Will this apply to the men's and women's 4x400 relays?? Arggh! One world! One dream!
     
     Update: Indeed, nothing from the final night of track & field was carried on the normal Chinese stations available on our normal Beijing TV set -- except, who knows why, the women's 1500. No problem, no one from China was in any of the races, but still I don't see even the "nationalistic" NBC doing it just this way.  Similarly, we're getting the bronze-medal women's basketball game, China-v-Russia, but not the gold medal women's volleyball game, US-v-Brazil. (And now we're getting a replay of a taekwando match rather than the volleyball championship. This makes me realize that I haven't ever seen on CCTV the live-action cutaways taken for granted in US sports coverage: "Let's go now to the Water Cube, where the final round..." ...) But whenever I feel down, I realize: we've got wall-to-wall ping pong.

    2) Translation vs Transliteration. Background: some people have written in to hint -- gently! -- that I might be exaggerating in saying that crucial maps and guides for international visitors to the Olympics were written in Chinese characters plus transliterated "English" versions of those Chinese words. After the jump, proof that I wasn't!

    A map of one of the Olympic bus routes to get you from the subway to the venues. (Click for larger and more legible.)


     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5126.jpg

    Why Guojiatiyuguan couldn't be "National Stadium" or "Bird's Nest," I can't say. Or Aolinpike Beigongjiaochangzhan couldn't be "Olympic Transport Station - North." Or Aoyuncunxi instead of "Olympic Village West." Why the legend about the 1RMB payment (waived for most people with Olympics tickets) is in English but info on where they're going is not.... again, who knows. But for the record, this is what a map looks like.



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  • Blue skies

    For the last week, Beijing's skies have been, mostly, glorious. I went for a long run this afternoon, and got sunburned while doing so, a risk I had not previously feared.

    Out the window today
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5089.jpg

    Same window two weeks ago (and much of the preceding six months)
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_4802.jpg

    All credit to whoever and whatever made this happen, from the Chinese scientists I quoted a few months ago saying that it would play out more or less the way it did; to the Chinese officials implementing the factory- and traffic- shutdown plans; to the American scientist who accurately predicted that the wind would shift to the proper, cleansing direction two or three days into the Games; to whatever powers were fundamentally responsible for the change of wind. The Japanese concept of 神風 -- kamikaze, "divine wind" -- unavoidably comes to mind.

    In the bleak days just before the opening ceremony, I wondered whether the air could be such a problem that it would, through sheer shock, force a reconsideration of China's environmental policies. Now it's possible to imagine the opposite prospect: that Beijingers, having for once seen how transformed and pleasant the city can be when not under a pall, might resist being pushed back into the blear. As Jake Barnes once put it in different circumstances,  Isn't it pretty to think so.
     

  • On the ages of the female Chinese gymnasts

    I haven't watched any gymnastics, live or on TV; don't follow the sport; and have no opinion on how old members of various teams look and how much that matters.

    But this new post, from the Stryde Hax blog, does an impressive technical job of finding information that has not yet been removed from caches of official Chinese sites. At face value it makes a strong circumstantial case that one of the gymnasts, the double gold-medalist He Kexin, was born in 1994 rather than 1992, making her 14.

    235312.jpg

    The post also includes links to two cached screenshots of Chinese birth records that, for now, still exist. (Many others have been very recently removed.) See them here and here.  No harm in saving or printing a screen shot..... These are Chinese charts that show name, sex, date of birth, place of birth. The name in question is 何可欣, and one of the lines where it appears says:

    618,"何可欣","女","1994.1.1","湖北"


    (# 618, He Kexin, female, Jan 1 1994, Hubei)

    Worth further looking into.  A very nice touch is that Stryde Hax shows us all his work, so the searches are checkable.  (Thanks to John Scott and of course Slashdot.)

    Update: Really, I don't care about gymnastics! And as noted before I'm delighted that China is doing so well in these games, and sorry about Liu Xiang. What interests me in this case is the technical sleuthery of the guy who found the cached pages, and the deeper issue of "transparency" in the Chinese system. Revising public records is not something Chinese people or outsiders should want to see.


  • Take me out to the ball game (Beijing version)

    Monday night fun, watching Team USA take on Team China at the Beijing Wukesong Olympic baseball field. The Olympic basketball stadium, which stands next door, is destined as a lasting addition to Beijing's sporting patrimony. The baseball field, like the velodrome and (sigh!) the beach volleyball area in Chaoyang Park, is destined to vanish as soon as the games are done.

    Beforehand, much good natured cross-national cheering in the stands. The US team was the favorite but this was not necessarily a gimme. The Chinese team had, for the first time ever, beaten the Taiwanese. (I mean, the team from "Chinese Taipei.")

    Stands were almost full! Perhaps because of the unmolested presence of hordes of scalpers outside. At many venues, scalpers can't do much because you need a ticket to get within a mile of the arena. Oh, yes, also it's illegal. In the jovially packed house, there was a polite cheering alternation as one group of fans would yell the ever-classy "U - S - A! U - S - A!" and then the other would give the equally imaginative Zhongguo! Jia You! Zhongguo! Jia You!
     



    Then everything became a mess, as detailed in this story. Executive summary: China's best player, the catcher Wang Wei, was knocked out of the game when American Matt LaPorta bowled him over and scored. In the next inning the backup Chinese catcher was knocked over in a similar play. When LaPorta next came to bat, the pitcher promptly drilled him right in the head -- the ball bounced so hard off LaPorta's helmet that it came nearly back to the mound.


     
    In the end, LaPorta left the game (but is apparently OK), the US won 9 -1, and the Chinese fans got some satisfaction when the backup catcher, Yang Yang, hit a 9th inning home run. Yang showboated as he rounded the bases, leading to apparent ill feelings on the field. But most in the stands seemed to miss it, and a relatively good mood prevailed in the crowd on departure, considering.

    Main athletic point I learned by seeing this in person: most noticeable overall difference between US players and Chinese was how hard and accurately they threw the ball. It was not just the difference in the pitchers: the US starter Jake Arrieta throwing above 90mph early in the game while China's pitchers were in the 70s and low 80s. I think the one that hit LaPorta was clocked at 68. The throws across the infield and from outfielders also looked different. It's always amazing at Major League games to see the ease with which the 3rd baseman pegs it across the infield or the center fielder throws toward home. From the stands, that was the easiest way to tell the teams apart.

    Update: Ouch! Team China's final game was tonight against the mighty Cubans. The game was called by the mercy rule at 17-1, after the Cubans had batted only six times. On Friday Cuba meets the US in one semifinal, with South Korea vs Japan in the other,
      

  • Empty-seat mystery, cont.

    In several previous posts I've mentioned the paradox of Olympic tickets being flat "sold-out," yet huge tracts of seats sitting empty. Many people have written in to solve the mystery. This, from Alf Hickey, reflects the consensus view:

    Large amounts of empty seats are actually quite common at Chinese concerts or sporting events that claim to be "sold out." The reason for this is that a large amount of tickets are given to the bigwigs who organize the events so they can guanxi them out ["build relationships"] as needed. Since the Olympics had so  many different organizing bodies, the central government, the local Beijing government and the Chinese Olympic committee, I'm sure there were vast amounts tickets given to various officials.

    The reason that these tickets are not used is that by the rules of Chinese guanxi, you don't refuse a gift, especially not from someone connected enough to get Olympic tickets. So the tickets to the rowing finals are probably in the hands of people who have no desire to see the event, but just needed to stay in the good graces of some random Beijing bureaucrat. I suspect that the tickets have already changed hands more than once, passed along like a box of moon cakes that no one actually wants to eat.



  • Saying something nice about CCTV

    As I've harped on before, in posts too numerous to link to, China's state-run network CCTV has been unashamedly nationalistic in choosing which Olympic events to show. OK: most people watching are Chinese.

    But the play by play expert commentators seem surprisingly non-home-team in what they say. Sports broadcasting is its own stripped down dialect in any language, and the CCTV team seems about as willing to apply the standard Chinese versions of "beautiful" or "well done" or "not bad at all" terms to a nice dive, three-point shot, good serve by a rival as to one of their own. And they usually say "China" rather than "we" for the home team.

    Of course, my sample could be skewed, since I haven't seen any Japan-v-China events.

    In a crew race where the Chinese women's team came from behind for a dramatic upset victory, the announcer screamed himself hoarse and raised his voice two octaves as the boat crossed the finish line. But that was straight out of America's own "Do you believe in miracles?!?!?" Olympic play book.

  • Biggest news of the Olympics for China: Liu Xiang is out

    Incredible.  During the entirety of our past two years in China, Liu Xiang has been the face of the upcoming Olympic games. He is China's greatest-ever track and field athlete, defending Olympic gold medalist in the 110m hurdles, the man whose smile and whose action-shots soaring over hurdles we have seen in maybe ten thousand TV ads, billboards, subway signs, and every other medium.

    In happier times, as Olympic champion in Athens:
    Liu_Xiang.jpg

    He stumbled just now in a heat in which someone else false-started; then he withdrew from the event. As I mentioned a month ago, Liu has probably been under more individual pressure than any other person involved in these Games. It would be as if Michael Phelps were the only American ever to have won a gold medal in swimming -- Liu's position among Chinese male track and field athletes -- and would be racing only once, in the 50-yard freestyle.

    Liu has known for four years that a billion-plus people in his country would be watching -- and that, in something less than thirteen seconds, he would be celebrated forever as the man who helped glorify the Olympics and his country, or reviled as a big disappointment. I don't have them on hand at the moment, but there have been many recent quotes to the effect of: "If Liu Xiang fails to win a second gold, on his home soil in front of his countrymen, everything he has achieved so far will be dirt." Etc.

    Probably there's something so wrong with his foot or Achilles tendon that he couldn't even try to compete in the re-run of the heat. But it would be natural and human if it were something more too: perhaps better not to try at all than to be captured forever on tape coming up short. It's hard to feel sorry for someone as rich and celebrated as Liu Xiang. But you can sympathize.

  • Halfway through: #4 (and last for now)

    4) The imposed order and absence of protests is creepy, to say the least.

    Before the Olympics, I had thought that the most likely way the whole event could go wrong would be this: Someone, somehow, was sure to mount a protest about Tibet, human rights, or any other issue. When that happened, the authorities, bast on past performance, were sure to over-react.

    As it turns out, they've over-reacted in advance by buttoning everything up so tight that no dissent of any sort shows. Three big venues have been set aside for "authorized" protests, but these last few days it's been clear that no authorizations will be granted. (And that smart Chinese groups realize they shouldn't try.) I see that Nicholas Kristof has today published a column on this very topic, so I needn't explain any more.

    Related: papers in Australia and the UK have been publicizing what they say is a leaked memo from the Chinese propaganda ministry, with 21 do's and dont's for the Chinese media in covering the Olympics and possible protests.  One version of the text, from the Sydney Morning Herald, is here (background here) and includes this item:

    9. In regard to the three protest parks, no interviews and coverage is allowed.

    I can't be sure whether this leaked memo is legitimate. Most China veterans I've asked say that it probably is, since it sounds like other, similar guidelines (including one I quoted in this article about the Great FIrewall) and in fact is not news at all, since it reflects no more than established policy.
     

  • Halfway through: #3

    3) Logistics. On the whole, they've worked pretty well. In particular, the new subway line 10 has been a godsend for getting people to the main Olympic venue. Sometimes line 10 shuts down earlier than the Olympic events do, but that's a detail. And the young volunteer guides are numerous, friendly, and eager to help.

    There are three notable exceptions, which I say based not just on general reports but on repeated personal experience with all of them.

        - Food. Spectators are searched for food and drink on the way into the venues, and any consumable item is confiscated. (After previous confiscation episodes, my wife got away with smuggling a small Toblerone bar into a stadium. The guard held it up skeptically and asked what it was. "Medicine," she said in Chinese. He made her taste some, which she did quickly without letting him look too closely at it -- and got through.)
     
        The problem is, it is very difficult to find much else inside. The relatively abundant food stands sell snack-junk only: potato chips, popcorn, sweet rolls, ice cream cones, plus cheap beer and Coke. I have not yet seen even one spectator at a venue consuming anything heartier -- say, sandwich, hotdog, you name it. Is McDonald's, the monopoly fast-food sponsor, responsible? It has a huge central outlet on the Olympic Green, but not any at the sporting venues. Some other business obstacle? I don't know. Believe me, I'm not the only one to notice.


         Update: Indeed, I see that the WSJ also covered this story in its Aug 13 edition, in a dispatch by Sky Canaves and Geoffrey Fowler. Sample: "China is famous for its culinary treasures, but its Olympics are starting to be known as a dining disaster... At many [venues], all that's for sale are saltine crackers, dry instant noodles (no hot water provided), plain bread rolls and potato chips."

     Also, they offer this observation, which connects to my next logistics point::

    The shortages highlight one of the thorniest problems of China's massive Olympic project. While impressive stadiums were completed with dazzling speed, there's still a long way to go to develop the know-how to run them.

       - Transport, information, and "signage." For instance: pity the non-Chinese-literate visitor who is naive enough to try get to the "Olympic Green Tennis Center" by going to the "Olympic Green" itself, or exiting at the "Olympic Green" stop on the special Olympic subway line. Either error will cost an hour or two of extra travel.

    The real route, which one learns only by doing (in defiance of advice from volunteers who steer travelers to the Olympic Green), is to get off at the Beitucheng subway station and then take a K1 or K2 bus that loops around the whole Olympic site. Challenge for most visitors: the stops on the buses' routes are listed in Chinese characters and in "English" transliterations that will be meaningless to most outsiders. To get to the tennis site, you want to get off at the stop listed on the route maps as AOLINPIKEGONGYUANWANGQIUCHANG, and announced that way by the Chinese conductor. I don't know how a visitor who is looking for "Olympic Green Tennis Center" which is what that means in English, would have any idea where to get off.

      - Empty seats. This truly is amazing. A few marquee events have drawn full houses, like last night's 100m sprint final. But much of the time, huge swaths of seats have sat empty. This is unfortunate, given how many people, Chinese and foreign, would love to see those events. It's also strange, given the repeated announcements from Beijing Olympic officials that every single ticket to every single event was snapped up long ago.

    Illustration: my wife and I tried hard, and repeatedly, to get tickets to yesterday's and today's rowing finals at Shunyi. Not a one could be had. The best we could get were cheap-seat standing-room tickets for the heats a week ago. But when we watched the Saturday finals on TV, we saw thousands of vacant places in the grandstands. Also: If the bronze medal match for women's single tennis, which includes China's own Li Na, is shown where you are today, check it out. It's on an intimate court, which doesn't take many spectators to fill up -- and it's mostly empty.

    (Update: the heavyweight -champs rowing races are the finals of the men's and women's eights. In both of them the U.S. has plausible entries. On Sunday afternoon CCTV carried live coverage of the other rowing events where Chinese boats had made the finals. But now it's switched away just before the eights begin racing. No Chinese boat in either event. Grrrrrr.)

    I have no theory on why the empty-seat pattern is so. That it is so, is widely noticed and strange.  (Update: including in this Business Week account, which has the delightful detail that "Even the world's richest man, Bill Gates, had to settle for tickets to badminton.")

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