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.
  • A momentous 40 hours, leading to Clinton/China/Internet

    Apart from two obvious pieces of momentous news in the past day-and-a-half -- the new junior Senator from Massachusetts, and the new Buckley v. Valeo (by which I mean today's lamentable, straight-party-line Supreme Court ruling that removes limits from direct corporate underwriting of political campaigns) -- there is one other event today that will have big ripple effects. I mean SecState Hillary Clinton's speech this morning about "Internet Freedom," mentioned here and with a prelude discussion here.

    I'm not going to take time for a thorough gloss of the speech. Instead I highly recommend reading the full text, here, or watching the official video, here. And for now some of the main points while listening (and noting main points down in real time with the handy LiveScribe pen.)

    - In contrast to the dreamy Internet optimism of a decade or so ago -- I'm not naming names, but I remember! -- when many people imagined that info technology, by itself, would undermine oppression and bring the world together, Clinton started off with a very astringent reminder that this technology, like others, was neither good or bad in itself and is already being used in both helpful and destructive ways:

    "Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights."

    And a very nice pivot out of this section, effective because it's so blunt and plain:

    "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does."

    - Underscoring the "this is a big deal" tone of the speech, she enumerated the "Four Freedoms" that FDR proclaimed in 1941, as part of the struggle for the world's future, and said there were a comparable set of Four Freedoms for the Internet age. Check out the speech yourself for details.

    - The China surprise: the speech was a more frontal challenge to Chinese internet and overall censorship policy than I expected, and than I recall in other US-China interactions in a very long time. For instance, early in the speech, an itemization of the places where suppression is getting worse:

    "In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained." 

    Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt -- this is not the grouping of countries that the Chinese government, in its recent sense of rise to superpower status, is used to being lumped with. Compared to the US as a financial power, OK; overtaking Japan in economic size, yes; being a crucial player in environmental negotiations... all that is one thing. Bracketed in the same sentence with Tunisia and Uzbekistan is different. Sentences like this don't appear in formal, big-deal SecState addresses by accident.

    Other passages to the same effect:

    "As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history. But history itself has already condemned these tactics....

    "Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation...."

    And then the Google section itself.

    More »

  • Hillary Clinton's "Internet freedom" speech

    At this moment, I am at the Newseum, in Washington, watching Sec. of State Hillary Clinton deliver a very tough and (so far) very tightly reasoned speech about what she presents as the next great global battle of ideas: ensuring that the Internet remain a tool of openness, opportunity, expression, and possibility rather than of one of control, surveillance, suppression, and division, plus terror and crime. Details and assessment some time later today, but I have the sense while listening that this is an event and a statement that will be studied and discussed for quite a while.

  • Political math: 37 > 63

    As I point out in my article in the current issue, the combination of three forces:
      - The original Constitutional compromise giving two Senate seats to every state, large or small;
      - The post-Constitutional patterns of population growth, which leave California with nearly 37 million people and Wyoming with just over half a million; and
      - The very recent practice of subjecting almost every Senate action to the threat of filibuster, which requires 60 votes to surmount...

    .. means that in theory Senators representing only 12% of the U.S. population could block efforts that Senators representing the other 88% support.

    In reality, the pattern is not that extreme. The Republican minority in the Senate includes some from highly-populated states -- two from Texas, one each from Florida and Ohio. The Democratic majority includes some from low-population states -- both from Delaware and West Virginia, one each from Alaska and Nebraska.

    So in reality, what's the population balance? Counting the new Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent. (Taking 2009 state populations from here. If you count up the totals and split a state's population when it has a spit delegation, you end up with about 112.3 million Republican, 194.7 million Democratic + Indep. Before Brown's election, it was about 198 million Democratic + Ind, 109 million Republican.)

    Let's round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.

    This is just as a point of information. The Constitution was designed as a system of checks and balances. As explained in my article, that image is being replaced by one of brakes:

    "In their book on effective government, William Eggers and John O'Leary quote a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Michael Keeley, on why the city is out of control. "Think of city government as a big bus," he told them. "The bus is divided into different sections with different constituencies: labor, the city council, the mayor, interest groups, and contractors. Every seat is equipped with a brake, so lots of people can stop the bus anytime. The problem is that this makes the bus undrivable." "

    (This item is left over from my previously-announced "temporary radio silence" policy.)

  • Interesting China/Google discussion; housekeeping note

    Interesting discussion: this morning I had the chance to listen in, as moderator, to a very lively discussion on the short- and long-run implications of the Google/China imbroglio and the Chinese government's apparent attempt to create its own info-sphere apart from the external internet. It was a joint production of the New America Foundation and Slate, and was held at the New America HQ in Washington today. Webcast available here; seriously, this was revealing and highlighted both convergences and divergence of view. Panelists:
      --Alec Ross, "Senior Advisor for Innovation" at the State Department, who left before the end, for work relating to Sec. of State Clinton's speech tomorrow on the Internet and Freedom;
     -- Rebecca MacKinnon, now of the Open Society Institute, long-time figure in China/internet policy;
     -- Evgeny Morozov, of Foreign Policy magazine and the Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown;
     -- Timothy Wu, of Columbia University Law School.

    Among the topics covered: the pluses and minuses in Google's decision; whether the company was right or wrong to have entered China in the first place; what divisions may exist inside the Chinese government; what response the US government and US companies should and will make; whether China is limiting its own long-term potential through creating a blinkered, censored info-sphere, and so on.  We even got in two questions from viewers of a webcast in China. All in all, more informative than policy-panels often turn out to be.

    Related housekeeping note: if I live these next few days the way I should, I won't post anything in this space until early next week. That is even though there is a ton of pending, updated material on the Outlook -> Gmail migration, the Nexus One phone, new models of flying cars, interesting software, whether American politics is past redemption, specific suggestions on redeeming politics, the travails of journalism, and other treasured topics. And oh, yes, recent politics. For the second time in the past two years, I've reached a breaking point of overdue chores, messages I actually have to answer, and other things that can't wait any more. (If I've ignored your message, sorry! And, join the club!) Time to plow through all of that according to the rescue-and-recovery gospel promulgated by David "Getting Things Done" Allen, before doing anything else at all. See you in the run-up to the State of the Union Address.

  • About the stakes for China in the Google showdown

    In a first reaction to the Google-China news I mentioned that if Google left, it would have little immediate impact on information-flow within China. "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." But in the longer term, Google's departure might symbolize China's separation from the mainstream of modern, open, global innovation -- and might weaken its technological development and broader capacity to modernize and prosper, through the removal of a leading competitive force.
    A reader who specializes in the history of technology sent this response to my claim about the effectiveness of China's Great Firewall to date:

    "Analogously, in the information revolution following the introduction of the printing press, censorship in Catholic countries (especially Spain) had a similar "non-effect" initially because  there was an active black market in banned books. However, in less than 50 years, in the Protestant countries, where the press was not controlled, people of the crafts-producing class were able to become literate and change the way they produced goods. Over time this new way of producing goods became capitalism.  

    "In Spain, Italy, Portugal and to lesser extent France people of the crafts-producing class did not become literate. They continued  producing goods in the same way as they had in the past. Soon they were out competed by Holland and then England where better goods were produced more cheaply. Over time this had a profound economic impact on the wealth and power of the various countries.

    "Innovation by the "out group" based on access to the benefits of the new information technology that creates new sources of wealth and power. I would conclude, therefore, that China, having made Spain's decision to control information, is now out of the running for world leadership."

    This is in keeping with one of my arguments about the Chinese government's potential to limit the country's development, here and here.

  • Update on Google/China-ology

    For various reasons not spending much time near a computer in the past few days. So two belated points about the still-unfolding Google/China saga, and then one reader message.

    Point one: "soft power" - or lack thereof. In the immediate aftermath of Google's decision, there was assorted mild carping from Western observers about what Google's motivation "really" was. Were they escaping a bad business situation? (no), were they just trying to score PR points in the rest of the world? (not really), was there some other motivation apart from the stated one of exasperation at dealing with the intrusions and harassments inside China?

    In most reasonable quarters that died out (as explained here), leaving the plain fact of strikingly widespread international exultation that someone had finally "stood up" against the strictures of the Chinese state. I'll say more in a second about that whether that reaction makes sense. But its existence and ferocity is simply undeniable. And if I were part of the Chinese leadership, I would be sobered by that fact -- and what it suggests about the limited success of Chinese "soft power" and the pent-up reaction against constant, often-credulous and exaggerated reports about China's all-conquering rise. For instance, the South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong, reported yesterday that "as the saga of Google vs Beijing continues to unfold, the central government appears to be the sole loser at first glance. By almost all accounts, this is one of its biggest public relations disasters in recent years."

    China's inward-looking political leadership (as opposed to its quite internationalized financial and business class) is in fact quite bad at gauging -- or even caring about -- foreign reaction. I hope they are able to gauge this reaction clearly enough to register the moment and what it shows.

    Point two: what happens next? After the moment of emotionally-satisfying showdown -- Google's saying, "We've had enough!" and announcing that it is "reconsidering" whether to stay in China at all -- comes the longer, slower process of finding out exactly who is going to do what, when. The Chinese government still has not made a significant official response (very thorough roundup of some of its minor responses here), which is probably for the best. And latest reports (in English here and here, and in Chinese here) indicate that Google has not pulled up stakes from China and is still operating as if it might have a future there.

    Is that hypocritical? I don't think so: I think it's in keeping with the initial announced intention to reconsider all options. As I mentioned the first time around, I think this situation is likely to turn out either lose-lose-lose -- for Google (outside the Chinese market), for the Chinese government (publicly embarrassed, which will bring out worse rather than better tendencies), and for the Chinese public (symbolically cut off that much more from the mainstream of modern development, and with an internet ecology worse than it could be, with the absence of a major innovative competitor) -- or win-win-win for the same parties, if the government can address Google's complaints in a way that allows the company to remain. I assume that off-stage action toward that end is underway now.

    Below and after the jump, a message from a non-Chinese person now living in China. It conveys the murky "practical ethics" of a case often presented in such clear-cut, black/white terms in the West. The reader writes:

    "1.  While I can empathize with everyone outside of China who is lauding Google, I believe it is so easy for people to praise something like this for which they make no sacrifice themselves.  What I would like to ask those people is "If you were living in China would you want Google to leave now?  Really?" and "Are you now not buying any products or services that benefit China's government in any way?"

    More »

  • Media update: BBC, On Point, Diane Rehm

    For the record:

    - Discussing China-v-Google on Tom Ashbrook's On Point show today, with an array of Chinese and American tech and politics reporters;

    - Discussing the State of the Union after Obama' first year, plus American capacity for renewal, with Kevin Connolly on the BBC's Americana program today, here. (On line for next seven days.)

    - Discussing "America in decline" - infrastructure, renewal, security -- etc along with Stephen Flynn of the Center for National Policy on the Diane Rehm show, WAMU/NPR, tomorrow 11am EST.  

  • Request for tech help: reward offered! The .PST -> Gmail move

    I am finally going to take a step I've contemplated for quite a while. I have at least a dozen years' worth of correspondence piled up in my old, archived .PST files for Outlook, and I am ready to move all of that into a Gmail "cloud" account.

    For the record, here's why I think it's time to take the step. I lay this out for anyone considering a similar move:

     - Affordability. As mentioned earlier, Google has made available essentially limitless amounts of online storage for very low prices. Its announcement here; my earlier comment on it here; price schedule here. I'm currently signed up for an extra 20GB of storage, on top of the 7+GB that comes free with each Gmail account, for $5 a year.

    - Convenience. It's inevitable that every year or two I'll migrate from one computer to the next. I would rather not have to worry about migrating, preserving, updating, etc those physical .PST files each time. Google has its pluses and minuses, but I assume that its engineers are more professionally competent at storing and protecting information than I am. Is there a risk that somehow they'll lose it all? Perhaps. Statistically there is a greater risk that I will (because of theft or fire, because of aging media, etc). Is there a risk that they'll spy on it? Maybe, but I have bigger worries in life. And after all, every email I've ever sent or received has passed through systems that scanned it for spam etc, so it's already been "surveilled" -- like everything else we do on line. (Topic for another day.)

    - More convenience. I keep most of my research and working files up-to-date among my various computers via cloud synchronization with SugarSync. The huge exception is Outlook files. For reasons mentioned below, they just won't work with most online sync programs. So I have to copy them over one by one via USB stick. If all the archives lived in Gmail, I wouldn't need to do this. All my computers would always be up to date.

    More »

  • More on the anonymity of the Kindle

    Yesterday I mentioned that while I usually enjoy the physical vibe of a book -- its heft, the layout, the cover -- at times the vibeless experience of Kindle reading had advantages. In addition to the obvious ones -- when you want to get a book right this second, and can do so via Kindle's wireless download; when you want to have ten books available but don't want to drag around 30 pounds of paper -- there's the one I recently encountered. Sometimes you'd rather that people not judge a book (and its reader) by its cover.

    [Lest We Forget, I'm talking about The Max:]
    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for IMG_8330.JPG

    Three helpful replies from readers:

    Problem: holding a Kindle leads to boring conversations.

    "The example that you later gave was a reason to opt for a kindle.  However, one of the many benefits of reading a book in a public place like an airport or plane is to strike up a conversation with others on what you are reading.  In cramped spaces like airline seats, talking about what you are reading inevitably comes up.  Bringing the right book can not only provide you with entertainment or knowledge, but potentially, an interesting conversation piece.  Whenever I read from my Kindle Classic in a public place, the focus of the conversation is always on the device, rather than what I am reading." 

    Solution: a mini-cover display on the Kindle, though maybe not for this book.

    "The flip side of your argument about lurid covers is the Kindle's anonymity.  My wife is always asking me "what are you reading?"  This gets a little annoying, though it's perfectly reasonable.  I could be reading the NY Times, my email, or, yes, a lurid novel.

    "This gets to my enhancement suggestion for the Kindle and its ilk:   Let people know what you're reading through a low res back cover display taken from your book's slip jacket or equivalent.  Better yet, a display that sits on top of my leather Kindle cover."

    Another solution, including for this book.

    "Pretend you're a Japanese man reading on the subway."

    This last is an inside joke, which will be obvious to anyone who has spent time on the subways of Tokyo or Osaka.  (Explanation here too.)

  • Explaining a statistic: Haiti and Louisiana

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

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

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

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

  • Another argument for the Kindle

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

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

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

    Thus when I ordered a book that I'd heard was good -- The Max, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr -- and it arrived just before I was headed to the airport for a trip, I had to decide: was I actually going to read this in a crowded airport and on a jam-packed plane?
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8330.JPG

    I decided -- ummm, No. (Yes, I realize this is part of the superb Hard Case Crime series, which features retro-lurid covers as its trademark.) If I'd had it on a Kindle, no problem! But for a man of mature years, I figured this was not the right look for a Sunday afternoon in public. Maybe I need to loosen up. Or just stuff the thing inside a magazine and let people think I'm reading that. Imagine how impressed they will be:
  • Last on Haiti, China, and Taiwan - plus more Google

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "I wonder how much aid Taiwan is sending."

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

  • China and Google: what we know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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