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.
  • Were you possibly wondering...

    ... about that picture on the front page of today's NYT, showing a little shop in Beijing with Obama-related memorabilia in honor of the president's visit? There's a prominent hand-lettered Chinese sign in the upper left-hand part of the picture. Wonder if it says, "Welcome President Obama"? Or, "Resolutely support the development of mutually-respectful relations between China and America"? Or, "Strongly resist splittism"? Or some other topical greeting?

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8154.JPG

     
    Actually, no. It says "Help wanted -- shopgirl." [ 招店員(女) ] Nice to see the practical-mindedness of the Chinese business class shining through. And a welcome indication that retail sector hiring is underway!

  • "Nine Nations of China"

    Even if President Obama weren't getting to China just now, it would be worth checking out the illustrated feature "Nine Nations of China," by Patrick Chovanec, which has just gone up on our site. Given the visit, it's all the more timely.

    Chovanec.jpg

    I've mentioned time and again over the years how the big, unified- and imposing-seeming "China" of American imagination should really be thought of as a billion-plus individuals, tens of thousands of contending companies and small businesses, dozens of provincial or regional-loyalty groups, and lots of other subdivisions. In some circumstances, this agglomeration can act as one big, momentarily-unified "country" - especially when the national dignity is thought to be under attack from overseas. In most other cases, the big country of "China" is really a fluid congeries of interests and ambitions.

    Patrick Chovanec -- who teaches in Beijing, and whom I knew there -- has provided another way to think about how China is organized and divided. You can see it here. Congrats to him and to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz and Anup Kaphle of the Atlantic's web site for putting it together.

  • I hate to keep picking on the WaPo...

    ... so I'll start with the positive. Very good combo Outlook/Book Review section today, including a nice number, by Neil Irwin, on the fat target of Super Freakonomics. Sports section always excellent. Tom Toles remains the best editorial cartoonist I'm aware of. Keith Richburg does a good exploration of racial attitudes in China, in the wake of the Lou Jing controversy (the charming fashion model from Shanghai with a Chinese mother and a black American father, who has run into lots of prejudice in China; previously here, also here). And much more! Glad that I subscribe.

     But I do have to keep wondering, as before and here, about such basics as copy editing. Consider this cover line for the (also good) story about the writer Edward P. Jones in today's Washington Post magazine.

    Thumbnail image for IMG_8146.JPG


    The detail worth noticing:

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    C'mon!!! The intention behind this line is clear. But it is literally nonsensical unless it has a word like "other" or "before" in there some place. ("...has rendered the soul of black Washington in a way no other writer ever has";  "in a way no writer ever has before"; etc.) Or, making the second "has" into "had" ("in a way no writer ever had.") This is the kind of thing they put on the basic command-of-English portion of the SAT. In a blog post or a late-breaking story, OK. I make hasty errors like this all the time in email messages and drafts of stories. But on the cover of a magazine? How many people had to have seen this before it was published?

    Back to the positive: lots of good stories! I'll leave it on that note.
  • More on Mao, Lincoln, the lamas, etc

    I mentioned yesterday the oddity of a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman welcoming Barack Obama to China with a triple-backflip metaphor linking Chairman Mao to Abraham Lincoln, since both Lincoln and Mao fought against secessionist rebels. From a reader with experience in China and America this response:

    "Thank you for pointing out the strange logic of the foreign ministry spokesman in this bizarre lecture to President Obama. I have been living in the U.S. for twenty years and as a citizen for the last ten, but i often can't help feel ashamed often by remarks like these.

    "I know I shouldn't, but I lived my first 26 years in this great country [China] after all. What a shame it is represented by such cynical officials. I say cynical because I think they often know better than what they say. They say it that way because it is not only safe but potentially profitable politically. They don't really care about the effect of their remarks globally. Their audience is inside the ministry and the government. I once had lunch with [a very prominent government official], while he was [in an important position] in the Washington embassy. He said when he wrote reports to the ministry, he needed to know what the ministry's opinion was so he would not be too out of line.

    "Maybe this is true for all bureaucracies, but it is practiced to such a degree for so long in China that it is one of its most deep-rooted diseases. Reading the histories of Qing and Republic of China, once sees many examples of how officials often opted for the politically safe path at the expense of national interests. Today, one also sees the same practice in dealing with tough political issues such as ethnic tension. Because harsh measures and blaming the "splittists" is always safe and potentially rewarding for their careers, they become the only chosen policy options, even when that create more problems for the county in the future and draw international scolding."

    Let me say that this rings 100% true to my observation of the situation. Individuals are often very sophisticated about outside realities; the system keeps their attention directed inward. 

    My discussion of this and related Obama/China questions this afternoon on All Things Considered, with Guy Raz, here.

  • James Lilley

    I was sorry to hear that James Lilley has died in Washington, at age 81.

    LilleyChinaDaily.jpg

    Lilley, who was born in Qingdao and mainly lived in China until age 12, was a very important figure in the modern US-China rapprochement. He was a career CIA agent who served as CIA station chief in Beijing during George H. W. Bush's time as chief of mission there (before the US and China established formal relations). He is the only person to have been ambassador both to the Republic of China on Taiwan and to the People's Republic, in Beijing, which is a convenient shorthand for his maintaining a long-term balance between the positive and the negative aspects of relations between the US and China. He kept working to expand the positive and cooperative potential between the countries, without forgetting or suppressing the areas in which they disagree. This was most notable after the Tiananmen crackdowns 20 years ago, when he was on duty as ambassador in Beijing and forcefully criticized the repression (and offered protection to the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi).

    Frontline interview with Lilley from 2004, about the Wen Ho Lee case and related US-Chinese nuclear and military tensions here. Very recent interview with the China Daily (which goes easy on his intelligence backgrond) here. Statement yesterday on his death by Hillary Clinton here. I did not know him well but met or interviewed him half a dozen times over the past twenty years in Korea (where he was also ambassador) and in Washington. He was personally gracious and a skillful public servant.

  • Here's why the China trip matters

    Nearly thirty years after he left office, the most important achievement of Jimmy Carter's time as president was his cementing the relationship with China that had begun under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (Second-most important: Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Third: showing that it was possible, at least for a while, to increase the energy efficiency of cars, buildings, power generation, and industry within the US.)

    Thirty years from now, the most important aspect of Barack Obama's interaction with China will be whether the two countries, together, can do anything about environmental and climate issues. If they can, in 2039 we'll look back on this as something like the Silent Spring/Clean Air Act moment in American history, which began a change toward broad environmental improvement. If they can't....

    Today the Asia Society's "China Green" project ran a full-page ad in the New York Times -- good to see support for the print media! -- and launched another online display dramatizing why such cooperation matters. This one is called On Thinner Ice and documents the accelerating disappearance of the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau that feed nearly all the major rivers of Asia. (Previous Asia Society displays on this topic here.) Sample clip from the display:


    For an earlier project by Michael Zhao of "China Green," documenting air quality in Beijing in the year leading up to the Olympics, see this discussion and the Olympic-air site, here. A week ago, according to the BejingAir Twitter feed (background here and here) the city's air quality was in the almost-unbelievable "hazardous" range. My friends in Beijing say that the skies are fresh and blue today, hours before Obama's arrival. Good! Every non-polluted day is a victory. But let's hope the two sides concentrate on cleaning up for the long run.

  • Those silver-tongued spokesmen in Beijing

    I have marveled many times (eg a year ago in the magazine here) at the lack of savvy Chinese government spokesmen often display when presenting their country's case and face to the world. Locus classicus #1 is the description of the Dalai Lama as a "jackal in a Buddhist monk's robes," as a government official once called him. Number Two was the handling of "authorized" protests at the Beijing Olympics last year. Anyone could apply to protest any domestic or international issue -- but the authorities rejected all such requests and locked up some Chinese people who applied.*

    Now we may have candidate #3, in the form of the welcome offered yesterday by Qin Gang, the official spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, to President Obama on the eve of his visit to China. Qin observed that Obama should be especially appreciative of China's need to quash "splittist" factions in Tibet and elsewhere. Why? Because Obama's race should give him a particularly acute sympathy to the plight of enslaved peoples. From the Reuters story (additional press comment from the FT here and China's Global Times here):

    "He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln's major significance for that movement," said Qin.

    "Lincoln played an incomparable role in protecting the national unity and territorial integrity of the United States."...China's stance [in opposing Tibetan "splittists" was like Lincoln's, Qin said.] "Thus on this issue we hope that President Obama, more than any other foreign leader, can better, more deeply grasp China's stance on protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Qin.

    What is Qin talking about? This whole concept makes little sense from an outside perspective unless you recognize two taken-for-granted parts of the argument, from the Chinese point of view:

    • Black slaves in the South, before the arrival of the Union armies = Tibetan peasants under the lamas' rule, before the arrival of Mao's forces;
    • Lincoln with his steadfast insistence that the Union not be sundered = Mao and his successors with their steadfast insistence that the PRC not be "split."

    The truth of the first equation is assumed by people at all levels of Han Chinese society, and is reinforced by exhibits like the one I mentioned here.
     
    The truth of the second is a top-level tenet of Chinese government strategy. Maintain internal order; prevent "splittism" (whether in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, or elsewhere); and develop the economy -- with those three propositions, you can predict quite a bit of what the government will do.

    If you were going to argue a case to an audience inside China, you would do well to be aware of those assumptions in the listeners' minds. But if -- as with the Foreign Ministry spokesmen -- you were making a case to the world at large, you would do well to realize that Americans won't automatically think "Oh, yes, Abraham Lincoln was just like Hu Jintao" or "Oh, those Tibetan lamas were just like Simon Legree." The main point again is the tin-ear touch, the failure to recognize how these arguments will come across outside the People's Republic.

    Here's hoping that we've seen an atypically awkward beginning to what will be a successful trip. FWIW, yesterday on Tom Ashbrook's On Point program, from WBUR in Boston, I discussed Obama's Asian trip along with Susan Shirk of UCSD and Shen Dingli of Fudan in Shanghai. The program is here.
    ___
    * For Chinese readers, a reminder: the point of my article is that the reality of modern China is much more varied, open, and flexible than the spokesmen manage to convey. So we have an official PR apparatus that generally succeeds in making the country look less appealing than it really is.

  • The right kind of "security theater"

    It is not surprising that we'd find good sense about security in the words of Bruce Schneier, but this recent essay does the best job I've seen of explaining the balance between "real" and "symbolic" steps against terrorism; why some purely symbolic steps can be worthwhile; but why much of today's "security theater" is so misguided.

    Read the whole thing, but crucial concepts are these. First, what we mean when we talk about "security theater":

    "Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards." [My emphasis]

    On why the steady accretion of "fighting the last war" security measures, especially involving air travel, are beyond the point. E.g., because there was once a shoe-bomb plot, we all now take off our shoes; because there was once a plot involving liquids, women have perfume and gels seized from their purses, etc. There's always a demand to do "something," and...

    "Often, this 'something' is directly related to the details of a recent event: we confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on aeroplanes. But it's not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.... Terrorists don't care what they blow up and it shouldn't be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets..."

    On what the right kind of security theater would mean: I think this is the most important and, to most politicians and readers, novel part of Scheneir's argument. He says that the best way to reduce the damage terrorism can do is to act as if we're not scared of it.

    "The best way to help people feel secure is by acting secure around them. Instead of reacting to terrorism with fear, we -- and our leaders -- need to react with indomitability.

    "By not overreacting, by not responding to movie-plot threats, and by not becoming defensive, we demonstrate the resilience of our society, in our laws, our culture, our freedoms. There is a difference between indomitability and arrogant 'bring 'em on' rhetoric. There's a difference between accepting the inherent risk that comes with a free and open society, and hyping the threats...

    "Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country's way of life; it's only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage."

    I am predisposed to welcome this argument, having made my version of a similar case three years ago (with guidance then from Schneier and others). But this is an unusually strong formulation from an unusually well positioned authority. Please do read what he says.

  • More on the undercover TSA officers

    Two days ago I mentioned the delightful story about the TSA's plan to place "behavior detection officers," or BDOs, in airports and to disguise them in ... TSA uniforms. Herewith several relevant responses.

    1) About the plan's underlying genius:

    "There are so many security officers at the airport that one no longer notices them.  It's like policemen at the US capitol building, or people wearing orange clothes at a Clemson football game.  Clothing that would be conspicuous in normal situations becomes the best way to blend in at the airport."

    2) About how it may be working in Seattle:

    "I witnessed this in action at SeaTac airport on this past Sunday morning. But I have to say the quote: "They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, does not ring true.

    "As I (a nicely dressed white middle aged woman) sat there a young woman of Asian heritage was approached and asked for her boarding pass. She complied and I didn't think anything of it but realized it was a newly established check point. Then a few minutes later another TSA agent approached the same woman and asked again. Hmmm, was she so nervous looking? Not to me, she looked like the rest of us bored and waiting to go folks. She did have a nice long conversation on her cell phone in a language I could not understand but there are thousands of people who do this. Another young white woman who was sitting to my right was shocked and said "but they just asked her". Yep. So they don't focus on nationality, race or ethnicity? I am not at all convinced and will be observing to see how this plays out." [JF note: Like all law enforcement work, this is tricky. Eg, in any sensible risk-based system people in their 20s would deserve more attention than people in their 70s or 80s. The trick of course is drawing the line between that sort of common-sense triage and blanket categorization. Let's hope TSA is working on it.]

    3) An account from inside the system:

    "I [have a relative] who is in fact one of the Behavior Detection Officers your item today mentions. She is a very nice, petite Asian woman, and she finds it pretty entertaining that she is now a BDO and gets to flag people for extra security, question them, etc.
     
    "Some of her comments to us about her job raise some questions (for me at least, I don't think she thinks this critically about her job) about how these officers are regulated, and their approach to screening.

    More »

  • A bucolic world capital

    Our back yard, 2pm yesterday afternoon, three miles from the White House in northwest Washington DC. I think this is one of the fawns from the summer, grown out of its dappled phase. It sat there thinking and observing for an hour or two, about 50 feet from our house, until a drizzle turned into a downpour and it went somewhere else. For Chinese friends, that is indeed a bamboo stand in the background. We lack pandas so make do this way.

    IMG_8142.JPG


  • Doing Business in China: Legalese (updated)

    Before launching a business plan in China, it's essential to understand its legal system.

    Nearing the end of our Doing Business in China clips, here's the story of a Western businessman who went to the Chinese courts for relief -- and got it. Larger point involves the uneven way that "rule of law" applies in China. Some place, yes; many places, no; but the number of "yes" zones is increasing.


    UPDATE: In introducing the previous clip, I said that there was one sentence in it I completely disagreed with, while all the rest rang true. In case you were wondering, it was the sentence saying that in Shanghai and Beijing, "it is hard to find someone who doesn't speak English." If you define "Shanghai and Beijing" as meaning, "inside a five-star international hotel in Shanghai or Beijing, among the staff trained to deal with foreign guests, when the first team is on duty," that statement is exactly right! Otherwise....The statement appears around time 1:20, so you can put it in context and see the source.

  • Placeholder on presidential rhetoric

    I agree with my Atlantic colleagues Marc Ambinder and Andrew Sullivan that Barack Obama's speech yesterday at Ft. Hood was another exceptional match of message and moment. It also highlights the forced nature of an analysis I meant to mention earlier: this past weekend's NYT "Week in Review" assertion that Obama's rhetoric has  grown stale. Saying more about this topic is next on the internal to-do list, after turning in an article later today. But I didn't want the whole of Veteran's Day to pass without a mention of this performance.

  • Great books to give as presents: kicking off the series

    Whatever your occasion for giving presents, books are the present to give. (I try like crazy to avoid the generic term "holiday," so I'll say: Christmas presents for me, Hanukkah presents for you,  Kwanzaa for somebody else, and general midwinter cheer for another person. Whatever they are, I'm going to call them "presents," and we can all get along.)

    One worth considering: The Fourth Part of the World, by Toby Lester. It's a great, absorbing, richly illustrated, makes-you-feel-smarter-and-better-for-having-read-it chronicle of the race to map what became the Americas five centuries ago. Toby Lester explains the idea behind the book in this clip:


    There's also a nice Flash-based interactive version of the influential 1507 map at the center of his story, here. Toby Lester is a friend and one-time Atlantic colleague -- but part of the reason we're friends is the sensibility and intelligence he exhibits in this book. Worth checking out.

    Lester.jpg 

  • Going undercover, TSA-style!

    I do love this story. There's good news from a report about the TSA in yesterday's Washington Post! In addition to relying purely on the screening techniques we all know so well from airport security lines, the TSA has people roaming the airports checking out travelers who give off a suspicious vibe:

    "To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.

    "They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

    "We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors," she said."

    Good idea! The whole complaint about rule-based, one-size-fits-all screening systems is that they're not sufficiently flexible, discriminating, or directed toward more serious threats.

    On the other hand, this charming detail from the story:

    "It's not easy to spot detection officers. Working in teams of two and clad in TSA uniforms, they blend in with those performing screening chores at the security checkpoint."

    Yes, there is no chance the bad guys will spot them! Like plainclothes cops, cleverly hidden from drug dealers etc when they are disguised as regular policemen.

    Of course, maybe this article itself is part of an elaborate cover operation, lulling plotters into thinking that the only people they have to watch for have TSA suits on. Yes, that must be it. [Thanks to D Lippman]

  • Doing Business in China: Lost in Translation

    Although unprecedented numbers of Chinese people are learning English, communication can still be challenging.

    Ah, the mysteries of language. This little clip, next in the Doing Business in China series, actually does a nice job of introducing some of the tangles and intricacies of the "what language are people speaking, when they say they're speaking English?" question. There is exactly one sentence in this clip, from an interviewee, that I completely disagree with. Will let you guess which one it is. The rest all rings true, even when people contradict one another and themselves.

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