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.
  • James Lilley

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


    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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

  • Two language updates

    There's lot in the queue about language, all-in-one devices, slippery slopes, and other lost topics. Deferred while doing "work." To start back, two language items:

    On Presidents and verbs:
     Last month I mentioned that in Japanese the term "to Obama" -- Obamu,  オバむ -- had been accepted as a verb signifying hopefulness despite obstacles, "yes we can," etc. A reader with experience in Japan reminds me that there is a precedent:

    "I was living in Japan 97-98 at the height of the Lewinsky brouhaha.  At that time, Clinton's name became a joke of sort in the Japanese press.  They were referring to him as Bill "Furinton".  You see, in Japanese, "furin" [不倫] is the verb "to commit adultery".  So they were calling him "Furinton Daitoryo" or essentially "President Adultery."

    On la vie Francophone:
    Background here, with my assertion that Japan = France when it comes to dealing with outsiders who try to handle their language, whereas China = the United States. A reader writes:

    "I just wanted to share my experiences of living, though briefly, in Francophone cultures.  A year ago, I spent a couple of months living and working in Belgium.  Where I lived, Brussels, is decidely Francophone.  With that said, most of my attempts to use French within the city were politely but quickly rebuffed as the person I would be speaking to would switch to mostly flawless English.

    "Although I was staying in Brussels, my work was at an office twenty miles north in Mechelen, which is decidely Flemish.  Most of my coworkers there were Flemish, spoke three languages (Dutch, French, English) fluently and often a fourth one (German) fluently as well.  As I got to know them I would try speaking French with them as well, since I did not know any Dutch.  They would compliment me on how well I spoke French; which I interpreted as an exaggerated compliment reflective of the expectation that few Americans can speak anything other than twangy English.  They would humor me for a couple of minutes then state "I don't like to speak French" which would usually be followed by an unloading, in perfect English, of their resentment of the Francophone population (Walloons") within Belgium....

    More »

  • What has happened to the F-35?

    Seven years ago I wrote in the magazine about the genesis of the F-35 fighter plane, known back then as the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF. ("Uncle Sam Builds an Airplane," June, 2002.) At the time, the JSF was supposed to be the solution to one of the modern military's worst problems: relentless and "unexpected" cost growth. Year after year, ships, missiles, tanks, etc go up "surprisingly" much in unit cost, so year after year the numbers in the inventory go down. The JSF was explicitly designed to break the cycle. In three complementary models, it was supposed to suit the differing aviation needs of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Like a car or computer meant for a broad global market, it was intended from the start to fit the needs of a large number of allied militaries.

    As part of the story said:

    "The JSF matters because of both its scale and its conceptual ambition. The planners at the Pentagon and at Lockheed Martin imagine that as many as 6,000 of these airplanes may be bought, at a total cost of as much as $200 billion, over the next twenty-five years. If all goes according to plan, about 3,000 of the JSFs will go to the original "investors" in the program--the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, plus the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in Britain. All have shared the cost of developing the plane. The other 3,000 are supposed to go to customers in the rest of the world."

    That was then.

    lockheed-martin-joint-strike-fighter-f-35-lightning-ii.jpgIn this new column at Military.com, Winslow Wheeler -- part of the group of defense thinkers I mentioned yesterday -- talks about what has happened to the JSF as it has evolved into the F-35. Main plot line: cost has gone up, reliability has gone down, capabilities have fallen short of promises -- all of these "unexpected" changes forcing the planned number of purchases down, which in turn has pushed unit cost up further still. Check out the full account at Wheeler's column. And consider this part of the original article in light of what has happened seven years into the project: 

    "The ambitious idea behind the JSF is to address several chronic problems of U.S. military acquisition policy simultaneously. If it succeeds, it will put military procurement on a more affordable, more effective track. If it fails, it will underscore how deep those problems are."
  • The other shoe drops at Caijing

    According to Ian Johnson in the WSJ just now, Hu Shuli, the founder and editor of Caijing magazine in China, has finally resigned, along with her deputy Wang Shuo. This is Hu, at the magazine's big annual conference last year in Beijing. (I didn't take this picture but was at the event. Update: WSJ story now has co-byline with Sky Canaves.)

    At Johnson explains in his story, tension at Caijing had been rising for some time. Also see previous links, including to Evan Osnos's profile of Hu in the New Yorker, here. The reason this news matters is that Caijing, a business/finance magazine that had in its 11 years become the main vehicle for independent reporting and criticism of all sorts, has been the very important exception to the rule about the strictures and limits on the Chinese domestic press. "Yes, the press is subject to tight controls, but at Caijing..." For instance, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, Caijing played an important role in questioning the government's story that everything was under control. (Disclosure: one of my sons was an intern at the magazine then.)

    The potential silver lining, in character for the irrepressible Hu Shuli, is that she is apparently already planning to launch a new magazine. More to come on this topic, but news of the change itself is worth noting.
  • Mad magazine takes on the birthers

    I don't know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they're still around, here's an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

    A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its "Strangely Believe It! Strangely True" series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley's Believe It or Not. It concerned -- well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore. [Thanks to reader JS for title catch.]


    The punch line -- hardee har! -- is that news of the baby girl's birth had to be telegrammed to her mother, who had missed the plane on which the surprise birth occurred.

    What's the connection to the birthers? If Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya, then his mother would have to have been in Kenya too! I don't think anyone has dreamed of suggesting that his mother was other than the one he has always claimed, Stanley Ann Dunham. Presumably somewhere in the passport records of the United States or Kenya is information about whether his mother (a) left the United States, or (b) entered Kenya in 1961 when her son was born. If she didn't leave the United States, including the fully-fledged state of Hawaii, in the summer of 1961, then by definition her child has to have been a natural-born U.S. citizen.

    I recognize that if this were a matter of -- how do we say? -- "reality" or "facts," it would have been settled long ago, as it has been for everyone except the birther stalwarts. But this is an interesting additional angle worth considering; plus, it's great to see these detailed old Mad drawings. FYI, you can see a zoomable full-page version of the "Strangely Believe It!" illustration, by Wallace Wood, if you click on the smaller image below.



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