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.
  • Explaining a statistic: Haiti and Louisiana

    In an NPR All Things Considered discussion yesterday with Guy Raz, I mentioned that if the worst predictions of the death toll from the Haitian earthquake came true, the loss would be comparable, on a proportional basis, to the death of everyone in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.

    I realize that after a certain point mere numbers are meaningless in describing a catastrophe of this sort. Maybe I shouldn't have attempted such a comparison at all. But in response to several messages and blog posts wondering if that figure could possibly be true (and one flatly though incorrectly asserting that it was not true), the answer is: Yes, it unfortunately could. Here's the math, in a form I couldn't take time to explain on the air:

    Haiti's population is around 9.8 million. The initial death estimates were around 45,000 or 50,000 -- unbelievably terrible in themselves, and equivalent to about half of one percent of the nation's whole population. As I wrote earlier here, a comparable .5% loss in the United States would mean about 1.5 million deaths. But current estimates are that the eventual toll in Haiti could be much higher, perhaps three or four times as high. If that turns out to be the case, with 1.5 to 2 percent of the entire nation dying, then the comparable figure for the US would also be much higher -- four million and up. The total population of Louisiana is about four million, so that is the basis of the comparison.

    Again, at this point numbers become meaningless in what is in any case a barely imaginable tragedy. But this is the basis for my attempt to put the numbers in context on a U.S. scale.

  • Another argument for the Kindle

    My main view on communications media is that new systems usually add to old ones, rather than displacing them. Radio didn't eliminate books and newspapers -- that would come later!; movies didn't eliminate still photos; TV didn't eliminate either movies or radio; and the internet has not (yet) eliminated TV. A few communications systems do disappear altogether, except for specialist/curio use: vinyl records, photos on real film, etc. Usually the field just becomes more crowded and the options more diverse.

    So it will be, at least for a while, with e-readers like the Kindle versus "real" books. My two Kindles -- and the other competing models that no doubt I'll eventually buy -- are more convenient in many circumstances than thick, heavy books. In other cases, the "real" books are just nicer.

    One of the nice elements of a real book is all the physical manifestations of its substance and tone: the look of the print on the page, the kind of binding, the look of the jacket and the illustration on the cover, plus the fact that when you're holding a book in public those qualities somehow become part of your presence too.

    Thus when I ordered a book that I'd heard was good -- The Max, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr -- and it arrived just before I was headed to the airport for a trip, I had to decide: was I actually going to read this in a crowded airport and on a jam-packed plane?
     
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    I decided -- ummm, No. (Yes, I realize this is part of the superb Hard Case Crime series, which features retro-lurid covers as its trademark.) If I'd had it on a Kindle, no problem! But for a man of mature years, I figured this was not the right look for a Sunday afternoon in public. Maybe I need to loosen up. Or just stuff the thing inside a magazine and let people think I'm reading that. Imagine how impressed they will be:
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  • Last on Haiti, China, and Taiwan - plus more Google

    In this post yesterday I quoted a reader's comparison of U.S. response to the Haitian disaster -- which for America is right next-door -- with the much more modest mainland Chinese response. The reader said that this was one sign of the difference in the overall dimensions of national influence between the US and China.

    Then another reader -- rather, one of many -- pointed out that a reason for the difference might be that Haiti is one of the 20+ countries still to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, rather than with the PRC government in Beijing, thus dampening mainland Chinese enthusiasm. I also noted that, as of the time I posted, the announced contribution from Taiwan was also relatively modest - about half a million dollars.

    Two updates since then: current reports show that the Taiwan government has committed at least $5 million to Haitian relief, with more possibly on the way. The PRC government has also added to its initial commitment. I have no interest in turning a historic catastrophe into an arena for mainland-Taiwan rivalry, nor do I think dollar-counts are the real point here. (After the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, comparative donation-counts for big Chinese companies or famous Chinese people took a really unpleasant turn inside China, with campaigns of internet denunciation for those who seemed to be falling behind in the count.) Just updating the initial donation report, for the record.

    One article that does present Haiti as a possible venue for PRC-Taiwan maneuvering is here. Other stories on Taiwan's activity are here in English, and here in Chinese. A reader notes this about activity in Taiwan:

    "Many civil society organizations in Taiwan are also mobilizing around the earthquake relief effort, such as the Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest humanitarian organization in the Chinese-speaking world, with operations in over 40 countries. They just began a global fundraising effort for the earthquake relief, and Tzu Chi doctors and volunteers from the US and the Dominican Republic are preparing relief efforts. Their last aid mission to Haiti was in 2009, after a series of hurricanes that had struck the island."

    Also, below is a fascinating message just in from my friend Patrick Chovanec in Beijing, author of our Nine Nations of China feature. It performs the unified-field trick of linking Haiti, Taiwan, and the PRC back to the other topic of the moment, Google:

    "Despite China's muted practical response to the Haitian earthquake (for a variety of reasons), did you know that the news here in China is virtually wall-to-wall Haiti?  Why?  It's an excellent excuse for not devoting any reporting time to Google.  I don't think I've seen a single report on Google on the official news, and even Phoenix [from Hong Kong] tacked it on as a 30-second spot following about 25 minutes of Haiti coverage.  It's almost as if they said "Thank God, there's some REAL news we can cover and avoid mentioning Google."  If they didn't have Haiti, they might actually have to talk about it."
  • More on Haiti, China, and Taiwan

    In response to my "unified field theory" connecting the Google-China controversy with the US-China contrast in responding to catastrophe in Haiti, a reader writes:

    "About the unified theory. I just wanted to point out the significance of Haiti having diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Beijing as a factor in China's rather muted and limited response to the unfolding disaster. After the tragedy of Sichuan 2008, the rather more generous donations to other disaster locations, and as a country with a large disposable income, I can see no other reason for such a 'quiet' offering from Beijing.

    "In agreement with a point made by one of your email commenters, this reaction (if I read their motives correctly) would also be indicative of a reaction more 'petulant child' than 'globally responsible stakeholder'.

    "I wonder how much aid Taiwan is sending."

    I will confess that I did not know that Haiti was one of the countries that maintains relations with Taiwan rather than with the People's Republic in Beijing. At first glance, it looks as if Taiwan's response to the Haitian disaster has also been "quiet" -- $500,000 and 200 tons of rice, plus a team of 23 rescue workers as of yesterday, according to this story -- but more could have happened since then. On the chance that perhaps I'm not the only one to have overlooked the Taiwan-Haiti link, I pass along this news.

  • China and Google: what we know

    1) Sky Canaves of the WSJ in Beijing has saved me a lot of time (and done readers a favor) by producing a catalogue of the biggest "misstatements and misunderstandings" people have promulgated about this situation. She starts with the most preposterous: that Google deliberately picked an extremely public fight with a notoriously thin-skinned government, merely to distract attention from its commercial struggles in a market where it enjoys "only" a 35% share. That Chinese officials and "netizens" would claim this is understandable. The Westerners who took it up reveal their preference for the counter-intuitive and "clever" rather than the believable.

    2) Speaking of counter-intuitive, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page has weighed in on this subject in a way I agree with. The editorial is here, it is well worth reading, and it raises a cautionary note to which I'll return in point #5.

    3) Two of the developments to date should not be surprising: the silence of the Chinese government, which is at its weakest in decision-making under time pressure; and the jubilation among some in the West, which I think reveals a pent-up reaction to endless stories about China's rise and perhaps to recent Chinese government overreach. To me the more surprising -- and significant -- reaction is the clearly divided reactions within China, with some people reacting with nationalistic anger at Google's insult but others taking the daring step of bringing flowers to the Google office etc. An expat friend who has lived in southern China since the 1990s sent me this note:

    "I just had an interesting comment from a Chinese person - 'do you think Google will desert us?' That person is not an activist but a very proud Chinese person in their 30's who's living the China dream but also a good global citizen.  When I asked why would it matter they said 'Google is like a symbol it's our connection to the outside world.' that person has an MBA from a top European University."

    Reminder for the four thousandth time: China is a big, diverse country with a very diverse range of internal opinion.
     
    4) One item left off Sky Canaves's popular-misconception list is the idea that Google suddenly snapped out of an "ethical coma" and realized that they had "been evil" all along simply by operating in China. Or, as a related point, that Google was willing to antagonize the Chinese government to atone for the bad image was getting for being in China at all.

    I understand the ethical argument for Google's never having entered China in the first place, even though I disagree with it. The case is that obeying Chinese government orders about which words to "filter" from searches was too great a compromise. (On how the filtering works, see this article from 2008.) My counter argument is based on having seen people use Google all across China. Beyond any doubt, its presence has made more ideas and information available to more people than would otherwise have been the case. Is that an ideal arrangement? No. But -- like nearly every other foreign company, university, government, and international organization -- Google calculated that it would do less "evil" by engaging in China than by maintaining its "purity" and cutting a billion people off.

    The calculation has apparently changed because of new harassments and intrusions by (or blessed by) the Chinese government. But that does not mean the arrangement was "evil," unethical, or wrong from the get-go.

    5) As soon as we talk about ethics, we're left to think about consequences. What happens after Google is so roundly cheered for taking so clear a stand? China will still be there; many of its people will hunger for outside information and most will aspire to modernization. What is the way out of this that does the least overall damage to Google and the people who once relied on its services inside China? That is the question taken up here (I have met a number of the Google-China employees shown in the pictures) and the WSJ editorial as well. As that editorial says:

    "it's worth remembering that this is a lose-lose-lose scenario. The most likely outcome is that Google loses access to an important market, Chinese customers lose access to its services, and the government loses face."

    The next step is to find some way to reduce the number of losses -- including, yes, for the Chinese government, since (believe me) absolutely no good will come to anyone anywhere from the government's feeling shamed, humiliated, or newly insecure. It is emotionally satisfying to see the Chinese government thrown off balance after its recent repressive moves. That won't make things better for most people in China.

    Next up, over the weekend: considerations of what the future steps, more- and less- promising, might be. A promising indicator in this direction will be if the story starts receding from the front pages. A discouraging one will be if the US government gets in the middle of the dispute and makes it an America-Chinese showdown of national power. More next time.

  • Unified field theory: Google, China, Haiti

    An expat reader now living in southern China sends this note, placing China's recent shows of strength (as mentioned here) in context of the broader elements of national power and influence:

    "I've been particularly interested in your recent observations that China appears to be heading towards a "Bush-Cheney" stage.  Indeed, in Copenhagen, with Liu Xiaobo, with Google, with Green Dam, and a series of other events, it appears that China is attempting to assert itself in the world, but thus far the performance is rather clumsy.  [Background here.] The fact that this comes at a period of perceived American decline is clearly exacerbating global tensions and will likely further inflame Sino-U.S. relations.  If America under Bush was a blundering giant...than that's exactly what China is turning into.... 
    "I see a China right now that is clamoring onto the world stage, trying to be taken seriously, and flexing its muscles everywhere from Copenhagen to Palm Springs (see Adam Minter's blog Shanghai Scrap on that). At the same time, the world, alongside Google (the company most emblematic of 21st century global values) is starting to recoil. At home, the Chinese are busy building for the future, but out in the world, China looks like an anachronism. Web-filtering software? Picking on Australian film festivals? Please. This is not the behavior of a mature world power but the actions of a teenager that thinks the world should conform to her demands.
    "It is through this lens that American and Chinese responses to the crisis in Haiti are particularly telling...but no one in the media has picked this up yet, at least not as far as I've seen. It begs the question: what is a true superpower?  What role does China really have in the international community if she is simply an economic power and a seemingly irresponsible stakeholder?

    "There are some moments in international affairs that put global power relations into perspective, however. The U.S. is committing $100 million to Haiti, plus probably untold amounts in private donations from aid organizations and religious groups.  President Obama is deploying 5,000 troops including the 82nd Airborne and sending in a carrier task force. American companies are mobilizing humanitarian efforts, and there will likely be dozens of search and rescue teams from across the U.S. trying to land in Haiti. Miami Dade county alone is sending an 80-man search and rescue team.

    "China is committing $1 million and sent 50 guys on an Air China plane.

    "Yes, there is geographical proximity to consider [plus China being on average still very poor], but if this isn't the most obvious display of the massive combined military, economic, and soft power the U.S. can bring to bear if it chooses, then I don't know what is. To me, this shows the still enormous gulf in both power and the responsible use of power between China and the U.S.  For all its faults and recent woes, the U.S. can and will step up and perform the duties demanded of the only indispensable nation.  China, in spite of breakneck growth and a booming economy, cannot and will not." 

    This note rings truest to me in the suggestion of a compounding series of mismatches, or misinterpretations. The mismatch between the Chinese leadership's apparent new sense of triumphalism and the real limits on a still-poor (though fast-developing) country's capacities. The mismatch between how China's leadership apparently sees its recent moves and the way they're perceived around the world. The mismatch between mainstream America's exaggerated sense of China's omni-competence -- eg, here* -- and the very uneven nature of Chinese development and prospects.  The mismatch between the emotional satisfaction many Westerners are taking in Google's "standing up" to China and the complicated effort to figure out what this will actually mean for China, for Google, for the Internet, etc in the longer run.
     
    For the first time this week, today I am actually near a computer much of the day. Will hope to address several of these mismatch points shortly. Including the one with the * mark: Thomas Friedman's series of columns on China's great advances. These are admirably intended to rouse America out of its funk and get us to concentrate on big challenges; more power to him there. But in the process he has, in my view, made China look more smoothly and comprehensively successful than it really is, with consequences that may include tempting China's leadership to believe their own (foreign) press clips.

  • One more from the Google-China mailbag

    While waiting for a chance to write a "real" report, here is another useful dispatch. It is by Damien Ma and comes from a private newsletter put out today by the Eurasia Group. A few excerpts used with permission. Analysis generally parallels what I wrote earlier here: that the Chinese government is moving into a stage of feeling hyper-confident and, for that reason or others, likely to be involved in disagreements with the US and other outside powers. (This is what I referred to earlier as China's "Bush-Cheney" phase.) Brief commentary at the end. Ma writes (emphasis added):

    "China's cyber attack on Google will highlight heightened cybersecurity concerns amidst escalating tensions with the US. The major risk for the bilateral relationship is that Beijing could lose an important support base in Washington as the US business community increasingly turns sour on it. Beijing almost certainly won't allow Google to operate an unfiltered search engine in China, which will amplify the issue in the next few weeks. This episode will also bring to the forefront Beijing's commitment to "innovation, Chinese style," which has meant increasing reliance on securing IP on the cheap through either theft or discriminatory industrial policies....

    "China is unlikely to yield to Google's intentions to not censor its Chinese search engine. Beijing's immediate response has been guarded, however, reflecting the fact that it was thrown off balance by Google's announcement and is still grappling with how to manage the volatile situation...

    "Google's high-profile move has the symbolic significance of making very public what has been private griping among foreign entities for years. Such griping could quickly become much more public and vocal, prompting the US business community, which drives US-China politics in Washington in many ways, to weaken their support for US-China trade and other issues...

    "The path that China has taken in this realm is likely to encounter further resistance from US and global companies....  It also exacts significant reputational damage to the country as a whole. As China is attempting to increasingly leverage its "soft power" around the world, the image it is projecting at this point is more unsettling than soothing."

    Brief comments:

    - The emphasis on the Chinese government being "thrown off balance" by this news rings very true. A known strength of the Chinese style of leadership is getting big projects done in a hurry, like road building. A known weakness is decision making in time-sensitive, surprise-development, crisis management circumstances, like now.

    - As I mentioned many times while living in China, I always noticed when the fire hose of state propaganda and angry Chinese "netizen" sentiment was turned against Japan (for any number of reasons) or France (over the Dalai Lama) or briefly Mexico (over the swine flu -- it's an odd story). As an American, I was relieved at those times that the fire hose was not being turned against the US. The hose is about to be turned in our direction.

    - As an experienced friend in China wrote very recently, this whole situation can turn out either "win-win" or "lose-lose." The mutual win would be if the Chinese government could find a way to accommodate Google's new refusal to "filter" its searches any more (not to mention if it could stop the intrusions on Google's servers); that would allow Google to win by playing an ongoing part in China's development. The all-around loss would be if Google is frozen out in long term from what will eventually be the largest internet market, and if China suffers the various distortions that will come from balkanizing itself from the rest of the world's info flow. I think we'll have a sense soon of which way this is heading. So far the Chinese government has lain low -- see the "thrown off balance" point, above -- but we'll see whether both sides want to make this a louder disagreement or a softer one.

    More tomorrow.

  • As if everyone in New Orleans had drowned

    In the spring of 2008, somewhere between 65,000 and 95,000 people died in the  Wenchuan earthquake in China's Sichuan province. For months afterwards, life across the vast country was affected by the disaster and its consequences -- human, economic, political, cultural. There was really no other story in China until attention shifted with the opening of the Beijing Olympics.

    According to the latest news I've seen, at least 45,000 people have died in the Port au Prince earthquake. Haiti's entire national population is less than 10 million. Something like one out of every 220 people has been killed.

    In proportional terms, this is as if nearly six million Chinese people had died in the Sichuan earthquake.
    It is as if nearly 1.5 million Americans had died during Katrina -- as if the entire population of greater New Orleans and all its environs had all drowned.

    I had registered the stories of individual tragedy but, until I thought about the numbers, had not begun to imagine the scale. It's almost impossible to imagine. One place to help:  http://www.foodforthepoor.org/

  • Why I love America, chapter 1,559

    Downtown Duluth, yesterday. Not only do we see crucial infrastructure-repair work underway, helping America compete in the global economy, but also we have creative reuse of legacy assets, in this case a once-grand theater:

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    In case you can't make out the marquee in the shot above:

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    I considered delaying my return trip; but, alas, I am locked into a "policy" event in Washington on Jan 15. Sigh.
  • Opening up the Google-China mailbag

    A lot of mail has piled up, largely from readers in China, and lots of reactions, sensible and otherwise, from the commentariat. As a step toward working off the backlog, a very interesting message from a reader with a Chinese name. Most of what I have received has been (sometimes interestingly) entirely-pro or entirely-anti Google, or pro- or anti- China. This one has some of both. Also, see a policy notes about language at the end.*

    The reader writes:

    "I have no sympathy for Google. I'd like to describe the situation as 始乱终弃----it's a Chinese phrase that describes a person who starts an illicit sexual liaison and ends up getting hurt and dumped. Google compromised the integrity of its core service by giving people censored search results as if they are not in order to make money "in the long haul". Now it looks Baidu, a late comer and emulator, will continue to dominate the Chinese search market. Google's prospect of of meaningful profitability is looking dimmer in the long haul. So it chooses to exit in this spectacular fashion.

    "The complaint about the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists being hacked seems a telltale sign that this is just a PR drama. It sounds so plausible, even romantic. A shining youthful hi-tech brand that represents personal freedom and infinite possibilities of the digital age refuses to bend over further in front of an anachronic and repressive authoritarian state machine, out of principle. Give me a break! There is nothing new in Chinese hacking into gmail or corporate and government infrastructures. Four years ago I and other friends of Dai Qing's got a fake email from her gmail account. I had to reformat my hard drive because I opened up an innocent looking attachment from my friend XX XX, whose  email account was hacked. The Chinese have been doing this kind of things since before Google entered the Chinese market.
    "But hypocrisy aside, I do think the strong reaction to and universal support for Google's announcement indicate something important. This may be a harbinger for something that China hopefully will take seriously. It shows it may be too early for China to be so arrogant, and that its rise as a superpower cannot rely solely on its economic might. It has to earn the respectability of the world. It also shows that seemingly small matters will matter someday down the road. Calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in sheep's skin, lecturing Obama that as a black man he should distance himself from the Tibetan spiritual leader because he represents slavery, and letting a sub-cabinet level official wag a finger in front of the American president during a Copenhagen meeting, etc. These are all small matters. But people remember them. When you put them together with the more serious matters such as giving a writer 11 years for writing an open letter, maintaining an overly selfish currency regime, aggressive trade practices and energy deals, and now bullying the beloved Google, it creates a narrative that can prove to be very costly for China.

    "This narrative updates and unites the old ideological cliche about communist regimes with negative feelings about China that are more emotional and maybe even cultural. It may make people feel, more than think, that, after all, this rising power is more of a dragon than a panda.

    "I still try to hold on to the faith that China will not be like that. When I listened to people like Qin Xiao, the Chairman of China Merchant Group, the country's largest, and best managed, private bank, spoke recently on the Caijing annual forum and later in New York during the National Committee event, I felt very hopeful that they represent China's future. I hope the massive negative reaction from the United States to the Google incident will strengthen their hands in China by showing those Machiavellian officials that behaving in a stupid, mean and arrogant way does have a cost, and that their way will only lead to a dead end. You may get away by offending an hurting some people sometimes, but not many people all the time."

    ___

    Language note: Usually when quoting reader responses, I leave them just as they are, warts and all. But if I am sure that the note is from a non-native speaker of English, I will sometimes correct small mistakes of spelling, grammar, or usage -- "have" for "has," "hypocracy" for "hypocrisy," -- that would unduly draw attention to themselves. In this note I made three or four of these tiny copy clean-ups while leaving the rest of the phrasing and word choice unchanged. Writing in a second or third language is one of the harder intellectual challenges that exist. (Hey, writing in a first language is not always that easy!) Even though English has a larger share of non-native speakers and writers than any other language and therefore a greater tolerance for "diversity," I think it's justified to remove minor brambles from the writer's path.

    I admit that this practice leaves a logical gray zone. If somebody seems to be a native speaker who just writes sloppily, I don't bother trying to save that person from himself. But if I quickly get the sense that this is not a native speaker -- and within a sentence or two I think I can always tell --  I may do a little cleanup. The gray zone is when the command of grammar is shaky enough to raise questions, but not unusual enough to suggest that the writer grew up with a different language and therefore deserves affirmative-action help. This is all part of the endless saga of language being one of the most absorbing aspects of dealing with different cultures.

  • Behind the curve? Ahead of the curve? (updated)

    Wall-sized billboard in United Concourse B, O'Hare airport, this evening:

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    The ad didn't look as if it had been newly placed, as a épater-type challenge to conventional sensibilities. It was a little faded at the sides. But could it really have been left there unnoticed (by Accenture) all this time?

    OTOH, the whole white-hotness of this scandal already seems like something from another time. We have Harry Reid Conan to think about!

    More on Google-and-China, Copenhagen-and-China, America-and-decline, Nexus-and-iPhone, Duluth-and-beer, airlines-and-security, and other topics once I unpack (and sleep).

    UPDATE: I have heard from readers who have seen this ad, and similar Accenture/Tiger ads, recently in other airports including LaGuardia, Atlanta, Houston, and Hong Kong. None of the ads seem to be newly installed; they're leftovers, with new meanings. From a reader who went through Chicago:

    "The billboard of Tiger Woods at the water hazard has been dislpayed at O'Hare for at least a month.  I was through Concourse B on 11th December, which was the very day he admitted his various wrongdoings and issued the first of his public apologia along with his suspension of his professional golf career.  It was pretty funny to walk past countless TV monitors displaying his remarks (and interminable talking heads dissecting them) and then see that billboard.  I'm surprised it's still up."
  • The Google news: China enters its Bush-Cheney era

    I have not yet been able to reach my friends in China to discuss this story, and for now I am judging the Google response strictly by what the company has posted on its "Official Blog," here, and my observations from dealing with Google-China officials while overseas. Therefore this will epitomize the Web-age reaction to a breaking news story, in that it will be a first imperfect assessment, subject to revision as new facts come in. With that caveat, here is what I think as I hear this news:

    - It is a significant development. Significant for Google; and while only marginally significant for developments inside China potentially very significant for China's relations with the rest of the world.

    - The significance for Google is of the "last straw" variety. For years, the company has struggled to maintain the right path in China. Its policy around the world is that it will obey the law of whatever country it operates in. You might object to that -- until you think about it: in a world of sovereign states, how could a company possibly say, "We'll operate within your borders but won't obey your laws?" (Similarly, Google's national sites in certain parts of Europe obey laws banning neo-Nazi sites and other material that would be permissible in the U.S.) Chinese laws require search engine companies and other Internet operators to censor certain material. Searches conducted by Google.CN -- in Chinese language, mainly for users inside China -- have obeyed those Chinese laws. Meanwhile searches on the main Google.COM have been uncensored for material like "Tiananmen Square" or "Dalai Lama." Anyone who could find a way to get to Google.com - about which more in a moment -- could find whatever he or she wanted.

    Dealing with those requirements has been part of a non-stop set of difficulties for Google in China. More details about this later on. Like most other Western companies, Google has consistently decided to cope with the difficulties and stay in China. Part of the reason was the obvious commercial potential that the Chinese market has for almost any company in any industry. Another part was Google's argument -- which I basically believe -- that the Chinese public was better off with another source of information, even if constrained, than it would be without that option. But, as reported on Google's site, a latest wave of provocations and intrusions was simply too much.

    - In terms of information flow into China, this decision probably makes no real difference at all. Why? Anybody inside China who really wants to get to Google.com -- or BBC or whatever site may be blocked for the moment -- can still do so easily, by using a proxy server or buying (for under $1 per week) a VPN service. Details here. For the vast majority of Chinese users, it's not worth going to that cost or bother, since so much material is still available in Chinese from authorized sites. That has been the genius, so far, of the Chinese "Great Firewall" censorship system: it allows easy loopholes for anyone who might get really upset, but it effectively keeps most Chinese Internet users away from unauthorized material.

    - In terms of the next stage of China's emergence as a power and dealings with the United States, this event has the potential to make a great deal of difference -- in a negative way, for China. I think of this as the beginning of China's Bush-Cheney era. To put it in perspective:

    I have long argued that China's relations with the U.S. are overall positive for both sides (here and here); that the Chinese government is doing more than outsiders think to deal with vexing problems like the environment (here); and more generally that China is a still-poor, highly-diverse and individualistic country whose development need not "threaten" anyone else and should be encouraged. I still believe all of that.

    But there are also reasons to think that a difficult and unpleasant stage of China-U.S. and China-world relations lies ahead. This is so on the economic front, as warned about here nearly a year ago with later evidence here. It may prove to be so on the environmental front -- that is what the argument over China's role in Copenhagen is about. It is increasingly so on the political-liberties front, as witness Vaclav Havel's denunciation of the recent 11-year prison sentence for the man who is in many ways his Chinese counterpart, Liu Xiaobo. And if a major U.S. company -- indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world -- has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment.

    -- Everything in the paragraph above has the similarity of being based directly or indirectly on recent Chinese government decisions. The government could decide (and probably will) to allow the value of the RMB to float again. The government could decide to throw its weight behind an effective climate agreement -- we'll know by January 31 about its post-Copenhagen proposals. The government could have decided not to prosecute Liu Xiaobo. And -- the indirect part -- presumably it could have worked with Google to address the complaints alleged in the Google statement.

    In a strange and striking way there is an inversion of recent Chinese and U.S. roles. In the switch from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. went from a president much of the world saw as deliberately antagonizing them to a president whose Nobel Prize reflected (perhaps desperate) gratitude at his efforts at conciliation. China, by contrast, seems to be entering its Bush-Cheney era. For Chinese readers, let me emphasize again my argument that China is not a "threat" and that its development is good news for mankind. But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google's decision signifies.

  • The thermometer said 6F...

    ... but the sunrise over Lake Superior this morning was worth it. Sort of. (Click for more panoramic.)

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8316.JPG

    Maybe Homer, assumed all these years to be a Greek, actually was a resident of Duluth when inspired to write about "rosy-fingered dawn." My "I love Duluth" policy proves durable enough to withstand my first-ever January visit. (Previously: April, June, July, August, October, and once, perilously, November.) But for the next trip, I'm thinking July. And glad to see that America's ebbing commitment to infrastructure has still left runway-snowplows operational here, for my departure tomorrow.

    IMG_8307.JPG


    Now, on to a Google-and-China initial response, shortly.
  • Placeholder for Google and China story

    For the next few hours, I'm not able to do a posting on this topic; but the announcement from Google about its latest difficulties with the Chinese government is very significant. I had followed part of this story from the Chinese side over the past year and will have more to say this evening. As a first point, credit to Google for making the initial announcement as plainly and openly as it appears to have done. More shortly.

  • On whether America is going to hell

    Thanks to many readers for thoughtful reactions to my cover story in the current issue (subscribe! just a thought). To illustrate the range, a few items here.

    First, from a veteran DC-based writer I know and respect. This is in response to my argument that while every other aspects of American society is subject to constant reinvention, the machinery of government has ossified in ways that make it very difficult to address the big, public issues of the day. A particular problem, I argued, is the Senate:

    "When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry....

    "The Senate's then-famous "Gang of Six," which controlled crucial aspects of last year's proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states--which together account for 20 of the Senate's 100 votes.) "The Senate is full of 'rotten boroughs,'" said James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, referring to the underpopulated constituencies in Parliament before the British reforms of 1832. "We'd be better off with a House of Lords."

    The veteran correspondent wrote back to say that this was too mechanistic a view of the big-state / small-state "rotten borough" problem:

    "Perhaps the Senate more accurately reflects a lack of character among its current members rather than the states they represent. Each on his own way, Mansfield, Simpson, Pell, Chafee and Biden, to name a few, transcended their small-state constituencies in ways that, say, Boxer and Schumer patently do not on the other end of the demographic pole."

    The list, of course, covers "rotten borough" Senators like Mike Mansfield of Montana, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Joe Biden of Delaware -- in contrast to Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York. Fair point. Certainly the full version of the "what's gone wrong" argument would note that we have both problems: a structurally rigged system, and individual politicians who don't try very hard to rise above it. Or rather, we have not just those two problems but about a hundred others: an electorate that rewards being pandered to, news organizations with a million problems of their own, money in politics, etc. So it's worth talking about any and all of these distorting forces to see if there's a chance of headway on any of them.

    Bonus on structural distortions: my friend Tom Geoghegan's excellent op-ed in the NYT yesterday on Sunday about the logic of getting rid of the Senate filibuster. It follows his previous argument about the filibuster last summer in the Nation, here. Gist of the op-ed:

    "[T]he Senate, as it now operates, really has become unconstitutional: as we saw during the recent health care debacle, a 60-vote majority is required to overcome a filibuster and pass any contested bill. The founders, though, were dead set against supermajorities as a general rule, and the ever-present filibuster threat has made the Senate a more extreme check on the popular will than they ever intended."

    Now, for another perspective, a letter from a reader who doesn't really identify himself, but makes an argument similar to many others I've received:

    "I recently read Your article entitled "How America can rise again".  It is a very simple solution and that is to expose Freemasonry, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knight's Templar, the ancient mystical order Rosae Crucis, International Socialism, Communism, etc., etc., etc. because You will find ALL of them to be the same.  Our government is the Constitution of the United States.  If we lose what's left of that, we will lose our freedom and so will the rest of the world.  The present war we are fighting is an educational battle.  I do my part to try to make it a point exposing these deceivers and those who are bringing about a One World Totalitarian Socialist State.  By reading material published by these "Mystery Schools", we can see what is in front of us and who belongs to them by learning their language and symbols.  America will not fail, but rather Mystery Babylon will fail.  It is a system designed to fail.  "The Truth will make You free"  - Jesus Christ."

    I believe that the last two words are intended as a quote-attribution, rather than an exclamation. I offer this for the record.

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