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.
  • Yet more on expelling China's long-time foreign teachers

    Below and after the jump, reactions from readers in and around China to some reports (here, here, and here) about foreigners who can't get teaching visas to China renewed, and therefore must leave the country, because they have reached age 60. To boil down the themes that recur in messages I've received:

    1) Circumstances naturally vary place to place and institution to institution. Some people say they're having no trouble staying on, at whatever age; others, that a crackdown really does seem to be under way.

    2) Lots of other countries have mandatory retirement ages of 55, 60, 62, etc; and if visas there are tied to jobs, foreigners sometimes have to leave.

    3) Historically Chinese institutions have used age brackets, or other "categorical" exclusions, as an excuse to move out people they wanted to expel for other reasons.

    4) What seems to be an age-related crackdown might actually be aimed at people who have been in China for a long time -- a related but different objective.

    Details and testimony below. What this all amounts to I can't be sure, but FWIW many people have reported hearing of a new emphasis on enforcing the letter of often-ignored laws about visas.
    ___
    -- About the bottom-line practicality of many institutions, a reader in Vietnam writes:

    "We taught for three and half years on a series of extended student visas in China.
    "We were also paid in cash once a month.
    "There is always a work around in the PRC if there is sufficient guanxi." ["Connections" -- for more, see here.]

    -- More on exceptions and practical reasons for the policy; a reader in China writes:

    "I am not an English teacher in China, though I have lived here for 11 years and have known several. As everything else goes here, there are exceptions to the sixty rule. I know a man who is 65+ and teaching in Shandong. He has been in China for longer than I have been here, and I assume that he will be here a lot longer too. I cannot imagine that he is the only one.

    "My understanding is that much of this depends (surprise! surprise!) on who know, how well you know them, and how much your university is willing to fight for you to stay. Also, being good at your job and being high profile is not necessarily the best thing to be if you want to continue on past sixty. That sort of 'success' draws attention....

    More »

  • Another gift possibility

    In the Atlantic's special on-line "Editors' Choice" gift guide, I aim very high with my own wish-list item, on the principle of "if you don't ask, you'll never know." But in case you're not quite motivated to get me that item (a flying boat), a nice second choice would be the completely solar-powered airplane that took its first flight in Switzerland this past week. Note: the opening scenes in the video below, which show the plane soaring over the Alps, are very definitely in the "artist's conception" category.

    More YouTube shots here. Okay, it didn't fly very long (maybe 30 seconds) or very high (a few feet above the runway surface) -- but it flew, with no external power of any sort! And 106 years ago, the Wright brothers' plane stayed aloft for only 12 seconds the first time. I will never get over the fact that there is an actual photo of that first flight, from the Smithsonian:

    Thumbnail image for new1.jpg

    I'll promised to act surprised if I find any of these craft under the tree. (Thanks to Michael Ham for the idea.)


  • More on the ousted foreign teachers in China

    Earlier this week I mentioned James and Sallie Bishop, foreigners teaching English at a provincial university in China who have been told that they must leave the country because they have reached age 60. Background here and here.

    Many things in China are true where they are true -- and untrue, or true in different ways, in other parts of the country under other circumstances with other local officials interpreting and applying the rules. I've received a large number of reports from across China, some recounting situations like the Bishops', others saying that there's no change and no problem. I'll start with these two:
     
    First, from a young Westerner who has taught in China but is now in Europe as a graduate student. He says:

    "Just a word regarding Mr. Bishop's situation. I am just hearing from two of my expat friends who have been teaching in Chengdu for 3 and 4 years each, that a new visa regulation is being enforced, which will force all but a very select group of people to leave the country for at least one year after having been there for 5 years more or less continuously.  Whats that all about? Great teachers who like their jobs and would be happy to stay are forced to leave the country for a year? I don't want to know how many of them will find a job some place else in that year off and never come back."

    Next, from someone who says there is no problem -- and indeed a market for older teachers:

    "I read your article on the banning of teachers over the age of 60 in China and I just wanted to let you know that this is not true across the country.  For years, we [a volunteer group] have been sending  60-100 teachers a year to teach in a number of universities in China and for the most part, they are retired, over the age of 60 and the schools are now saying that they should be under the age of 80!  Many of the teachers we send are for short-term summer and fall classes, but many stay on for long-term teaching assignments.  I suspect that they are watched closely to see that their characters are acceptable before the offers of longer contracts are made."

    The reader goes on to offer a hypothesis about how Chinese officials have used age limits in the past as convenient excuses to remove foreigners. It raises sensitive issues, which I'll deal with in a separate post. On a constructive note, here is a reader suggestion about a group that has often placed older people in teaching positions in China: Teach For Friendship, which is based in Tucson but deals with teachers from across the U.S. and Canada.

  • China quote of the day

    " 'Maybe it's because we owe China so much money, so they're taking their panda back,' said Desiree Bryce, a mathematics teacher from Hope County Charter School, which was also visiting the zoo."

    On news that Tai Shan, the much-beloved young panda at Washington's National Zoo, will soon be heading back to the birthplace of his parents. Tai Shan, having been born on American soil at the Zoo, is eligible to become president.

    (Tai Shan in his youth, About.com photo.)
    Tai-dec2205.jpg


    Tai Shan was scheduled to go back to China anyway in 2007, at age two; so his extended stay may have been part of a shrewd charm offensive by the Chinese government. For more on pandas in general, check the Atlantic's coverage here and here; on owing money to China, here; on charm offensives or their lack, here. Good luck, Tai Shan! And thanks to panda fan Daniel Lippman.
  • Afghanistan for beginners

    The vast majority of Americans have to take arguments about Afghanistan more or less on trust. We just don't have enough experience there to speak with confidence about tribal relations, or the possibilities of national coherence, or the effects pro and con of injecting more foreign troops, or the many other factors that matter in shaping America's policy. This is true to a degree on all questions of international relations. But it is particularly acute here because the Obama Administration's decision to increase the U.S. commitment, ostensibly en route to decreasing it, rests fundamentally on two judgment calls:

    1) Whether Al Qaeda/related terrorist groups really do depend so heavily on a specific geographic base in Afghanistan that, if the U.S. can disrupt them there, we won't have to apply similar efforts later on in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or anyplace else.

    2) Whether a limited increase in U.S. troops, for a limited amount of time, really can make a decisive difference -- in the long-term stability of the Afghan regime, in the competence of the police and military, in the resistance to a Taliban or terrorist return, and so on, after allowing for any friction or hostility created by the additional presence of U.S. troops.

    I am no expert on either point.* But I know these things: for Obama's strategy to pan out, the answer on both calls had better turn out to be Yes. And my observation of the world over the years makes me assume, fear, and expect that the answer to #2 is going to be No. That is what I meant just after the speech in saying, "I hope he's right." The alternatives are grim.
    ____
    * On the first point: People I respect strongly argue exactly contrary cases. For instance, six weeks ago Matthew Hoh stressed in his resignation letter that the logic of fighting in Afghanistan, "if honest... would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc." Yesterday on NPR Andrew Bacevich made a similar case: we were going to the source of the Al Qaeda problem circa 2001, which may or may not have anything to do with the problem ca 2011. On the other side, genuine experts on Afghanistan like Steve Coll have argued that the circumstances in that region truly are unique, and that a disruption of terrorist activities there would make a significant difference.

    Again, for this strategy to work, both assumptions have to prove true: the goal must be attainable (#2); and once attained it must prove sufficient and effective in addressing the underlying problem (#1). We're back in the realm of hope.

  • Updates: Mullen/Obama in US, old/fat in China

    1) I mentioned recently Charles Stevenson's observation that when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the JCS, testified yesterday about the Afghanistan decision, he was much more detailed and positive in describing how President Obama made the decision than he had indicated in his prepared testimony. By the time I put up the item, the relevant Pentagon site showed only the "as delivered" version of Mullen's comments, not his prepared testimony.

    Thanks to reader E. Rossi, here is a PDF of Mullen's prepared remarks, from the Senate Armed Services Committee's site. It indeed confirms what Stevenson said. The prepared testimony had only one line about the process. ("I support fully, and without hesitation, the President's decision.") The "as delivered" version, reflecting Mullen's actual comments to the committee, went on in quite some detail. "I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues -- especially over the course of these last two years. And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one." Etc. This is just to close an open loop.

    2) I mentioned last night a report from a long-time foreign teacher in China, who has been told that his and his wife's visas won't be renewed and therefore that they will have to leave the country, because they are now over age 60. Many readers have written in to emphasize the (true, and widely known) fact that large Chinese organizations generally have "low" mandatory retirement ages, at least by U.S. standards. Typically for government offices and big companies it would be age 60 for men and 55 for women. As with everything in China, there are of course exceptions. The issue here is the foreign-teachers' argument that mechanistic application of the rule is self-defeating, since it will make it that much harder for their provincial university to maintain the English program they have built up.

    The "news" aspect of the story is whether the government is enforcing the age limit, particularly for foreigners, in a way it hadn't before -- or whether this is yet another instance of varying decisions being made by varied officials across the vast country. On that front I have queries out.

    3) In the same account I mentioned that calling someone "fat" in Chinese, like calling someone "old," was at worst neutral and more often positive.  A reader pointed out that I needed to be more precise about such terms. To my comment, "I don't remember anyone calling me 胖方-- Pang Fang, "Fat Mr. Fang" -- but if they had that would have been complimentary too," Paul Camp of Atlanta says:

    "If so, shouldn't that be 'Phat Mr. Fang?' Nuances count in translation."  Good point.
  • Foreign teachers in China: 老师 who are not too 老

    The Chinese word for teacher is laoshi (老师); the first character, 老, means "old" and almost always has an honorific rather than a disparaging connotation. When a young Chinese person would call me 老方 -- Lao Fang, "Old Mr. Fang," Fang being for a while the Chinese version of my family name (story for another time) -- it was meant in a nice way. I don't remember anyone calling me 胖方-- Pang Fang, "Fat Mr. Fang" -- but if they had that would have been complimentary too.

    Given the respect for 老师 and 老-ness in general, I noted a report from James Bishop, an American who with his wife has taught English at Baoding University, in Hebei Province, since the early 2000s, that he was being told to leave the country because of his age. He writes:

    "China is purging foreign teachers over the age of 60. No new visas. and no exception I know of anywhere in the country. I am on a forum that connects hundreds of teachers here. Smart ain't it? Thus, no retired teacher, those with the most training and experience and the least likely to chase young Chinese women, can be hired into schools that desperately NEED trained teachers who have actually earned their degrees from accredited institutions."

    I wrote back to ask how long he had been in the country, and he said:

    "7.5 years at the same shop. We were honored with the 'Friend Of China' medal in recognition of our teaching efforts. Many modernizations and upgrades of our department were initiated by Sallie and myself. We have the only room dedicated to the use of English I know of in China (It is equipped with furniture and several hundred DVDs we purchased ourselves, two computers connected to the Internet, a satellite TV system providing access to foreign English language broadcast, and many books and magazines.), nightly full length English language films free of charge to the students, a student newspaper, mid day English free talks, 'seminars,' and an 'English only' rule within the building resulting in acknowledged improvement in oral English skills among the faculty and student body. The decision is being made by people who have no connection with, or concern for, the quality of English language instruction in China."

    In the big sweep of China's problems and injustices, this is not that heartbreaking. I mention it partly out of sympathy for the people involved -- but partly too as corrective data for outsiders tempted to think that all efforts in China are seamlessly aimed toward the shrewdest and most efficient pursuit of the nation's developmental goals. A lot happens because of accident, mistake, or foolishness.

    Bishop says that he and his wife "are looking for new worlds to conquer."

  • Textual analysis dept: Admiral Mullen defends Obama

    Charles Stevenson, a one-time teacher of mine and long-time authority on civil-military relations, pointed out an intriguing difference between what Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had planned to say to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, and what he actually said.

    I mention Stevenson's expertise in this field because the difference depends* on trusting his account of what he saw. Early today, Stevenson reports, Mullen's prepared testimony was posted on the Pentagon's site. It began with a fairly anodyne statement of support for the policy that Barack Obama announced last night, similar to what Mullen said in person this morning: "Let me state right up front that I support fully and without hesitation the President's decision."

    The prepared remarks then moved on to an analysis of the broader policy issues. But in his live performance -- captured in the "as delivered" transcript that is now on the Pentagon site -- Mullen went out of his way to defend the way Obama had made the decision, and implicitly to contrast it with the previous Administration's approach:

    "I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues -- especially over the course of these last two years. [Eg, including the Iraq "surge."] And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one.
    "Every military leader in the chain of command, as well as those of the Joint Chiefs, was given voice throughout this process ... [all ellipses in original] and every one of us used it.
    "We now have before us a strategy more appropriately matched to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan ...  and resources matched more appropriately to that strategy -- particularly with regard to reversing the insurgency's momentum in 2010.

    "And given the stakes in Afghanistan for our own national security - as well as that of our partners around the world - I believe the time we took was well worth it."

    Was Mullen volunteering a defense of Obama's "dithering" style of decision-making? Saying something about the previous Administration's approach? I don't know. According to Stevenson, "These implicit criticisms of Bush and even earlier Obama policies strike me as unusually supportive of the president in responding to political criticisms." FWIW.
    ___
    * I have not taken time to rev up the Internet wayback machine to see what that site showed this morning, but eventually I will give details of the before-and-after versions of the speech.

  • Well, I hope he's right

    I don't pretend to know enough about Afghanistan to have a confident view of what to do about it. Fred Kaplan, who knows a lot more than I do, says that he too is torn. But I have been very skeptical of increasing U.S. commitment there, for the reason that Barack Obama tonight identified as one of the sources of possible objection to his policy:

    "First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.  Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.  Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.  And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."

    "Another Vietnam"... well, not exactly. There are far more differences than similarities between the situations. (History of colonialism; effects of partition; charismatic nationalist leader; topography; scale; nature of combat; larger Cold War dynamic and spillover; and I could go on.) And even to say "another Vietnam" discredits opposition in suggesting that it's a reflexive and undiscriminating reaction to the traumas of another age.

    The real question is whether another 30,000 troops and another year or two can make a difference -- whether this new commitment will meet the test that Obama announced a few minutes later in the speech: "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." I have resisted this additional commitment, because I have felt that it went beyond our responsibility, our means, and our interests. Since this is the course we're now set on, I hope his assessment -- that this can make a difference -- turns out to be right.

  • A little more on Cheney

    I have received a number of angry emails (plus supportive ones!) about this item earlier today, complimenting George W. Bush's dignity in his post-presidential year as prelude to criticizing Dick Cheney's angry, hyper-partisan attacks on the Obama Administration.

    The angriest complaints boil down to:
    - What about Al Gore?
    - What about Jimmy Carter?
    - What about Bill Clinton?

    Hyper-literal as this may seem, here are the two important differences between the comportment of previous ex-Presidents and Vice Presidents who have gotten re-involved in political discussions and what we have seen in the past year from Dick Cheney.

    1) In previous cases, the former officials have waited well over a year before criticizing the policies of their successors. After the extremely controversial (to put it mildly) resolution of the 2000 election, Al Gore was notable for his reluctance to question either the legitimacy of George W. Bush's selection or the policies he pursued. He did not clearly challenge Bush's policies until late September, 2002, with his frontal dissent from the impending invasion of Iraq in his  remarkable speech at the Commonwealth Club of California. Jimmy Carter played no significant role in the debate over Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in 1981, nor did Bill Clinton in the debate over Bush's tax cuts in 2001. As best I remember (and as best I can now determine), neither George H.W. Bush nor Dan Quayle played a role in Bill Clinton's big legislative struggles in 1993.

    2) In previous cases, former Presidents and Vice Presidents have been slow to question the character, loyalty, or patriotism of their successors, as Cheney has unmistakably done with Obama. For instance: Jimmy Carter had a very low opinion of Ronald Reagan, but it was many years before he allowed himself to be quoted to anything like that effect. And: I interviewed Bill Clinton for this magazine nearly two years after left office. He went out of his way not to be personally critical of George W. Bush, even though his wife was then in the middle of partisan politics in the Senate.

    So we have a former Vice President who has observed no cooling-off/decent-interval period whatsoever before criticizing the policies of his successor; and who has directly attacked a new president's character, strength, and willingness to defend the nation's interests. We have had bad Vice Presidents through the nation's long history; I don't know of any precedent for this behavior.

  • In praise of George W. Bush

    Since the results of the 2008 election became clear, the 43rd President of the United States has behaved in a way that brings honor to him, his family, his office, and his country. By all reports he did what he could to smooth the transition to his successor, including dealing with the house-is-burning-down world financial crisis. Since leaving office he has -- like most of his predecessors in their first years out of power -- maintained a dignified distance from public controversies and let the new team have its chance. He has acted as if aware that there are national interests larger than his own possible interests in score-settling or reputational-repair.

    The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of another former President or Vice President behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power, most recently but not exclusively with his comments to Politico about Obama's decisions on Afghanistan. (Aaron Burr might win the title, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr was a sitting Vice President at the time.) Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest.

    The mystery is that Cheney has been through this process before. As chief of staff in Gerald Ford's White House, he was in charge of the transition to the Jimmy Carter team after Ford narrowly lost in 1976. Anyone who dealt with him then was impressed by his openness, his awareness of continuing national interest, his lack of bitterness -- and overall his resemblance to the George W. Bush of 2009. Whatever happened to that Dick Cheney is a matter of mystery. If only he would, for one moment, just shut up and follow the post-transition example of all three presidents he served: Ford, Bush, and Bush.

    Update: Please see this followup, if you're tempted to ask: "What about Carter? What about Gore?"

  • Chinese view of greatest threats

    The Lowy Institute, in Sydney, today released a poll of Chinese attitudes about their own country, its prospects, its relations with the outside world, and so on. Like statistics on almost anything coming out of China, opinion-survey results from there should be considered approximations of reality at best. (For instance, it is just about impossible to get reliable results from the poor, rural majority of China's population. Therefore polls unavoidably make the responding public seem more educated, urbanized, richer, etc than the whole Chinese public is.) But taken at face value many of these findings are interesting. For instance, on the major threats to China's well-being:

    LowyPoll1.jpg

    Click for a more detailed version, but the first two on the list are environmental, and the third involves Japan. Number four is possible American attempts to hold China back. Or, on one of my favorite hobby-horses, the importance of attracting Chinese (and other) students to the U.S. for education:

    LowyPoll2.jpg


    The whole report is available in PDF from the Lowy home page, here; ongoing discussion on the Lowy "Interpreter" site, e.g. here.

  • From an American traveling in China

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

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

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

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

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

    I am a fan of nearly every kind of small aircraft, but I might draw the line here:

    Helicopter.jpg

    It's a personal helicopter, really two rotors on a hat. Action video here, from Makezine (thanks to Dave Proffer). As it happens, one of my upcoming New Year's resolutions is to get back into aviation actively. But avoiding this hat-helo would be consistent with two of my rules for a happy flying career: Don't fly anything that's not factory-built (sorry, home-crafters); and fly only airplanes, not helicopters. More on all of this another time.
  • More on "many nations of China"

    Two weeks ago, I mentioned Patrick Chovanec's Atlantic feature, "The Nine Nations of China," which included this map of regional differences within the country:

    Chovanec.jpg


    Shortly thereafter the Shanghaiist had a further riff on the theme, with maps of China representing the mental images of people from different parts of China. For instance, China as seen by people from Shanghai:
    ShanghaiMap.jpg

    And according to people from Hong Kong:
    HKMap.jpg

    The spirit is that of Steinberg's famous map of the USA as seen from Manhattan. Worth checking out.

VIdeo

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author

Just In