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.
  • 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:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8338.JPG


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

    IMG_8339.JPG


    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:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8340.JPG

    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.

  • What happened in Copenhagen, #4

    Previously here. Three more accounts today. I hope to have a report from another Inside Observer by this evening, and then it will be time to wrap things up.

    - What about Obama? From a reader in Europe:

    "A familiar situation. When all are to blame, each of the culprits tries to point the finger at the one, only, uniquely blamable fiend who spoiled it all. Personally, in this particular circumstance I found the US President's decision to arrive at the last minute and put on the pretense of saving the day as objectionable as the resistance of the Chinese to discarding Kyoto and being blamed as the main destroyers of the planet's climate balance. What about an equally penetrating inquest on the true motivations and behaviour of the US and other key Western delegations?"

    Fair question. My initial reply, subject to amendment below as noted, is: Whatever one thinks about the theatrics of Obama's last-minute intervention, there does not seem to be much mystery about his motives. He was trying to show his "relevance" and influence over world affairs -- remember, this was one week after his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; he was trying to build momentum for one of this year's upcoming and difficult legislative battles, the climate/energy bills left over from last year; he may have been trying to show that his talks with the Chinese leadership during his much-maligned Asian trip would really pay off. (The long-term tests of a Chinese-US understanding will also involve whether they are able to find common ground about Iran, North Korea, currency values and general economic rebalancing, on top of these crucial environmental/ climate questions.) I don't know of a worldwide burble of curiosity and confusion about what Obama was "really" trying to do in Copenhagen, comparable to the effort to interpret the Chinese strategy.

    - "Extreme outburst." An expat reader in Beijing writes to comment on the line from Kenneth Lieberthal's analysis, which includes this line, "The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama." The reader adds:

    "This really caught my attention - hard to imagine a Chinese official shouting at a foreign head of state!  

    "So, I checked and in the Chinese media it was reported that representatives of Brazil, India and South Africa were meeting privately with Wen Jiabao and the Chinese team, when Obama "impolitely" ( "失礼") [shiji - rudely, lacking manners] entered the meeting uninvited. The Director of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, Jie Zhenhua, gestured and exclaimed, "Get out!"  to Obama. Premier Wen then instructed the translator not to translate this 'extreme outburst' and personally left the room in order to speak with Mr. Obama. See http://www.chnqiang.com/article/2009/1222/mil_12610.shtml. [A nationalist-toned site called 强国网.] Sounds like Premier Wen was very diplomatic.
     
    "The headline for the piece suggests that at least in certain quarters, Xie's actions were viewed positively:  中国雄起:铁血解振华愤怒指着奥巴马命令其出去!  Something like "China's Might Rises Up: Valiant Xie Zhenhua Angrily Points at Obama and Orders 'Out!'"

    - No mystery to the Chinese. From a reader with a Chinese name, a similar argument:

    "I have been following your posts on the objective of the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen. It seems like you are only citing English sources. My casual reading of the Chinese media (mainly the Southern Weekly) [the relatively independent paper also called Southern Weekend in English, which did the interview with Obama during his visit, and whose editor was later punished for doing so] is that the Chinese was upset that the developed countries had been trying to go back on principles behind the Kyoto and Bali agreements. The Chinese press have played up a story about some "secret" draft the Danish host was circulating without the input of the China and other developing countries at the beginning of the conference. [This also got a fair amount of coverage in the US.] Obviously, one should not trust the Chinese press entirely. But it strikes me that in this case it might be easier to infer what the Chinese want from reading the Chinese media. Whether what they want is reasonable is a separate matter.
    "I think the notion that the Chinese is set against all deals is simply ridiculous. They are only against all deals that developed countries thrown at them. Developed countries would be against any deal too if it were the Chinese and India doing all the proposing."

    Obviously another fair point, which takes us back to the first commenter. Perhaps Obama's motives seem more obvious to me because I can effortlessly take in anything that's said or written about them in the U.S. press. Versus the slog of dealing with Chinese-language material. Or perhaps that's just part of the explanation. For now, this is additional grist for the mill.

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #3

    More on the accumulation of blind-men-feeling-the-elephant efforts to determine whether the Chinese delegation was actually working purposefully to scuttle any climate deal (as originally claimed here), why they might have done so, and what it all might mean in the longer term. Complete Copenhagen chronicles here. Three more accounts to consider now:

    1) An article last week by two guest analysts for UPIAsia.com, here, who use the same Rashomon image that I invoked yesterday -- hey, a cliche is not really a cliche if it doesn't occur to many people simultaneously! -- but who say that the prevalent focus on China's role is wrong. A different billion-person fast-developing country deserves the spotlight, they say:

    "The big surprise was India. After sending some mixed messages before the conference, New Delhi finally made it clear that as far as it was concerned the meeting was about long-term strategic options. It questioned the good faith of the Western negotiators, with at least one Indian strategist pointing out that some of the same people involved in credit default swaps that contributed to the collapse of the global financial system were involved in setting up carbon trading. In some quarters, the financial crisis has substantially undermined trust in Western-backed financial mechanisms.

    "India didn't like or trust the proposed deal and wanted to show the West that a compliant India could not be taken for granted. Just as important, it wanted to show that, should a perceived fair deal with the West not be possible, it had other options, namely a closer relationship with China."

    Much more on the implications of an Indo-centric (or Indo-Chinese centric) interpretation in their essay.

    2) An article to be published tomorrow in the Sydney Morning Herald, billed as "the first detailed interview since Copenhagen with Western media by a Chinese official." In this version of reality, China's ambassador for climate change, Yu Qingtai, tells John Garnaut that far from China being the culprit, someone else was to blame. The real obstacle to agreement was the United States, plus rich countries in general:

    "Yu Qingtai, told the Herald that the climate change summit was "a step in the right direction", but repeatedly blamed a breakdown of trust at the conference on rich countries ganging up on China.

    " 'During and before Copenhagen there was a concerted effort by a small group of developed countries who believed that by joining hands [they could] force us to go beyond what we are responsible for or capable of,' Mr Yu said.

    " 'But Copenhagen proved that those attempts will not be successful. In fact they should have known better. So what the developed countries need to learn from this whole process is to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China.' "

    3) Finally, for the moment, another whole line of analysis: that the apparent sidelining of one of the well-known rising stars of Chinese diplomacy could be due to China's perception of its "failure" at the Copenhagen talks. This argument was presented last week in the Guardian here, and it involves a man named He Yafei. This is a person so well-connected in diplomatic and journalistic circles -- imagine, more or less, a Chinese version of Richard Holbrooke -- that I think I might be the only person who has lived in both Beijing and Washington DC but doesn't know He Yafei. Here he is at the conference, in Guardan photo.

    COP15-He-Yafei-Chinese-Vi-002.jpg


    Intriguingly, a counter-narrative has also emerged, holding that Mr. He will actually be rewarded for leading a staunch Chinese resistance at the Copenhagen talks. Evidence inconclusive until it becomes clear what his next job turns out to be and whether he seems to be heading, up, down, or in a holding pattern. Who said international negotiations were dull!

    Upcoming: a business-strategy analysis of China's negotiating objectives, and a view from the U.S. side. And a reminder of why this matters: quite a bit about the prospects for dealing with climate change, plus the larger prospects for China's "peaceful rise," depends on the interpretations of what just happened in Copenhagen, and why.
  • Google's Nexus One phone: trouble in paradise?

    I mentioned several days ago that, with one caveat, I am a big fan of the new Android-powered Google Nexus One phone. The caveat remains -- I still don't like typing with the on-screen touch keyboard, similar to the iPhone's -- but the more I try the phone's features, the more impressed I am. And I do recognize that on-screen touchpads are the way things are going to be, so I might as well adapt.

    - Feature that I'm just starting to use but see big potential for: Google Voice, which in addition to Skype-like free-calling aspects also can convert spoken voice-mail messages into text and send them as email. So far, the conversion system seems to do the job: names sometimes garbled, but words and -- importantly -- phone numbers rendered OK.

    - Related feature that still has my attention: voice-recognition internet search. This morning I said into the phone "weather duluth minnesota" -- where I'll be tonight -- and four seconds after I stopped speaking, the screen showed that the temperature in Duluth was 10F, with a 15mph wind. (Hmmm, maybe I should say into the screen "tickets to someplace warm....") I didn't have to push an enter button or otherwise touch the screen in this process (after hitting the "voice search" icon). I do realize that voice-enabled Google search also works on iPhones and most BlackBerries. But I hadn't used it before, and I find (unsurprisingly) that it is well-integrated with the Google phone and (surprisingly) that it works well enough to be practical. Main reason I'm stressing this is that the quest for really reliable voice recognition software has long seemed as if it would never reach that point of real reliability. (Eg, see this report from nine+ years ago -- or an eternity ago in tech terms.) Systems that allow one user to "train" the software to recognize his or her individual voice have been improving; "speaker independent" voice recognition is obviously much harder but evidently has made big steps. I think this is one payoff of Google's control of "big data" -- having so much information on what people are likely to search for, and what terms most likely go together, and what range of sound patterns people use, that its systems can make plausible guesses -- and, again, at least for me it's surprising.

    On the other hand: I just got a note from an American friend during our time in China who like us has recently moved back to the U.S. He pointed me to this thread on the Google support forum about complaints over the Nexus's 3G connectivity on the T-Mobile network.

    The specific issue here concerns the 3G question itself. (Summary of the 400+ comments on the thread: some people report that in exactly the same physical location, on exactly the same T-Mobile network, often using exactly the same SIM card swapped between an older phone and a Nexus One, they get worse signal-strength and data speed with the Nexus than on the other device. Antenna issue? Firmware issue? False positive? Not yet known.) I have not had this problem, but a number of users have and are on the warpath.

    The broader issue involves the can of worms that Google may have opened for itself by going into the direct-retail business, in a way it never has before. As mentioned earlier, part of the drama of the Nexus One's approach is breaking the connection between buying a phone and choosing a mobile network provider. Although there is discount pricing for T-Mobile customers, in theory anyone can buy the phone and then use it on any network. But one consequence of this approach is to bring to the mobile business an unappealing part of the personal computing experience. All along the the Apple model of personal computing has been, We make the hardware, we make the software, you've got a problem, talk to us. (Actually talking to them is a different issue, but still...) The PC model is, One company makes the hardware, another makes the software, another makes add-ons, and if the customer has a problem those companies often point the finger at one another.

    Coming as a "bundle," mobile phones so far have mainly followed the Apple model for support. But the un-bundled Nexus One approach has given rise to comments like the following in the complaint thread:

    "Well, this is where this is going to get interesting.  Given the retail model for this phone, we're going to get a lot of the following:

    "TMobile:  Talk to HTC [Taiwanese manufacturer], as they made the phone
    "HTC:  Sorry, its the TMobile network

    "The only way this will get fixed is if there is a mass uprising...Google is probably in the best position to cause action here.  After all, if they don't be proactive this model is going to fail miserably." 
    And, a similar account:
    "This is ridiculous, I've had bad CS [customer service] before but HTC takes top notch. Let's see I call twice.
     
    "1st person tells me the phone doesn't support t-mobile's 3g bands. I hang up and call back.
     
    "2nd person says it's not their department, and to call technical
     
    "Technical says it's warranty's problem.
     
    "Warranty doesn't know what the hell is going on and says it's the network and couldn't possibly be the phone.
     
    "I called earlier in the day as noted, and was told it couldn't be the phone.
     
    "Are you serious?  Congrats Google, you're about to have a PR nightmare with this CS."

    I see that last night T-Mobile put up a notice saying that, along with Google, it was investigating the issue. This will be interesting as Google's baptism in the nightmare of dealing with actual retail customers, in large numbers, already so well known to the airlines, the retail industry, and so on. Now on to Duluth.

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #2

    Previously here. The idea of this and the next few installments, all with the Copenhagen category tag, is to lay out some of the various Rashomon* accounts of what the Chinese delegation did, and why, in appearing to torpedo an agreement at the world climate talks last month.

    Two additional accounts to consider. The first is by Alex Wang of the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Beijing, with two colleagues. It came out this week and is here. Whereas the account by Mark Lynas in the Guardian that kicked off most discussion claimed that the Chinese delegation was dead-set on blocking a deal, both to show it could throw its weight around and to thwart any impediment to its industrial growth, Wang says there is a more benign explanation for the Chinese approach:

    "China's reported actions could be seen to reflect its disagreement with developed countries on how future mitigation burdens should be allocated considering historical responsibilities, rather than a flat-out desire to block any long-term deal as Lynas suggests. [Ie, the US and Britain have been polluting for centuries; why shouldn't China have the same chance?]...  These are substantive differences among the countries that need to be worked out, and we do not get any closer to resolving these differences with accusations of bad faith. In any case, China and the rest of the world will have an opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their commitment to addressing climate change in the coming year..."

    Alex Pasternack of the Treehugger blog, in a post ten days ago here, offered a complementary analysis, which also stressed (a) how the "fair chance to develop" situation looks from China's perspective, including their expectation that the US will do much more than it already has, and (b) what it may take to get practical progress, whether or not now-developed countries agree with the Chinese "it's our turn to pollute now" logic. Parts of his "what it all means" takeaway, with emphasis in the original:

    "- The world treated COP15 like a trade treaty, not a peace treaty. Every country, not just China and the U.S. came to the conference to debate on terms and needs specific to their own country, even though the effects of global warming are distributed globally... If the world needs the biggest emitters, not every country, to sign onto cuts to launch a global low-carbon economy, perhaps much of the work on a climate treaty should be left up to talks at the G20...

    "- However powerful China may now be -- or however powerful people wish to perceive it --the most powerful actor on the climate stage is the United States, led by President Obama.... But his role in the future will be determined in no small part by the success of climate legislation in the U.S. If he can succeed at convincing the United States that a low-carbon economy is a sustainable economy in every sense of the word, he will be able to make the U.S. a leader at climate talks and assure an American economic advantage...

    "- The fragile sense of trust exposed in the aftermath of Copenhagen cuts both ways. For a good-faith deal to come about, the West and China specifically both need to work on improving not just their relationship, but more fundamentally, how they perceive the other. The summit has illustrated China's ascendance to world power, even as it reinforces the country's role as leader of the developing world. We owe it to China to keep the pressure on, as they are the world's largest polluter, and maintain big expectations commensurate with their strength. But we also need to keep reality in mind, recognizing not only the country's limitations but its suspicions that the developed world wants to limit China's growth.

    " - The leaders of the developing world have a lot to do. The developed world has to do more. If the US and rest of the developed world can cap emissions and innovate to meet new standards, they will not only be addressing their historical responsibilities and kick-starting a global low-carbon economy. They could well be assuring their own economic futures. New standards would lead to technologies they could sell to rapidly developing countries like China, which will need such solutions as their own standards increase."

    And there's a lot more. For the moment, these two additions to the analysis; later, we'll pull the threads together and see what they suggest about what happened last month and what should happen in the months to come.

    Bonus: for the completely opposite perspective, a blunt dismissal of the "it's our turn to pollute" claim from China and India, from Willem Buiter in the FT last summer, here. Offering it now in the Rashomon spirit; sorting-out later on.

    _____
    * I have learned to spell out all allusions. On the implications of Rashomon, here.

  • Not a promo, a public service!

    I have no business connection of any kind* to the company that makes the LiveScribe Pulse pen. Therefore it is solely out of a public-spirited desire to improve the lives of my fellow beleaguered reporters, students, meeting-attenders, and so on that I have repeatedly touted the thing, starting six months ago here. (Photo below taken when I first used the pen in China.)

    IMG_7876.JPG

    I mention it again because I just got this note from a friend who writes for a major newspaper:

    "For Christmas I received the Pulse Livescribe Pen you described on theAtlantic.com blog last year. As you report this is change-your-life good. I cannot believe I had not discovered this technology, or it wasn't invented before."

    More in the same vein from other writers and reviewers at the company's "press clips" site.

    Here is why I consider myself especially public-minded and self-sacrificing in passing along this info to others who might benefit from using the pen. This is still a niche product. Therefore most people I am interviewing don't recognize the pen or realize what it is -- and therefore aren't really aware that, while I appear to be just scrawling down notes, I'm actually recording the whole conversation in high-quality audio. Of course I would never be so ignoble as not to say, "I would like to record this to be accurate, is that OK?" etc.  Perish the thought!! But I am just observing that people who don't see a recorder in their presence tend to forget it is there. 
    ____
    * A year ago, a friend who is connected to the company gave me a sample of the pen and said, Try this. I did -- and, consistent with my policy of "pay for anything you're going to write about or actually use," I promptly sent the company a check for the price. A few months later, while I was still in Beijing, that original pen developed an odd defect. It would simply stop recording from time to time. The Beijing branch of the company swapped that for a replacement model, which has worked fine ever since. Now I have a reliable recorder-pen  -- whose on-screen info is in Chinese, providing a daily refresher course in character-reading.

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author