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.
  • Beijing construction triptych #1: Mandarin Oriental

    Three and half months ago, during the climax of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year fireworks insanity bacchanalia, the nearly-completed Mandarin Oriental Beijing hotel, designed by Rem Koolhaas, was engulfed in flames. It soon emerged that fireworks on the nearby CCTV tower, also by Koolhaas, had been the source. (Reuters photo of the fire, Feb 9)


    The fire and its aftermath will make a great book topic for someone (not me), because of all the intriguing "this is modern China!" strands involved. The climax of architectural ambition / hubris in Beijing. News media intrigue about exploring the cause of the fire. Backlash against CCTV, for whom the complex (including famous odd-shaped tower) is being built. Many, many other subplots -- as suggested eg here.

    What strikes me at the moment is that the building stands untouched, looking months later just as it did when the ashes cooled. Two days ago, looking east from about half a mile away, across the Third Ring Road:


    Sometimes structures in big Chinese cities appear -- or disappear -- practically overnight. Other times, they sit for a very long period in limbo. I'm not sure of all the reasons why the hotel has this frozen-in-time aspect, but it's startling whenever I see it.

  • On Obama's security speech

    Carried overseas on BBC, and in prepared text here from the Washington Post. WhiteHouse.gov site, by the way, is once again weirdly behind-the-curve in getting material up.

    Argumentative crux of the speech to the left (emphasis added):

    I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.

    This is the reply to people, including me, who think there needs to be some kind of investigatory commission. Taken at his word, he's saying: Congress can do the investigating, the courts (and my Department of Justice) can prosecute. In theory, this works out well. A new president moves ahead; the System provides accountability. We'll see.

    Argumentative / explanatory crux of the speech to the right:

    I do know with certainty that we can defeat al Qaeda. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are.

    This has been, from the start, the central indictment of the Bush-Cheney approach to al Qaeda. Anything-goes tactics may or may not win battles, but they certainly lose wars. Dick Cheney's speech, cut off by BBC about ten minutes in, is ineffective not just because of its anger/contempt but also because what is billed as a response is in fact one cycle late, simply re-stating the claims Obama went out of his way to rebut (rather that keeping up with the cycle by answering anything Obama said).

    Subtle harpoon crux of the speech, in the last paragraph:

    We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America - it can and must be a cause that unites us as one people, as one nation. We have done so before in times that were more perilous than ours.

    The entirety of the Bush-Cheney approach rested on the assumption that there had never been a threat as great as the one demonstrated by 9/11. Condi Rice said this explicitly, in her disastrous (and, in a just world, career-damaging) "al Qaeda was more dangerous than the Nazis" comment at Stanford. The parts of Cheney's speech I saw today, and everything we know about Bush's decisions and statements in office, assumed without argument that they faced choices between due-process and national security more painful than those that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or FDR wrestled with. A reminder that others have faced difficult choices and dire threats is useful for judging our response and placing it in the long context of American values that Obama repeatedly emphasized.

  • For you fans of Chinese reality-TV


    In the spring of 2007 I wrote about a campy / idealistic Chinese reality show called Win In China, which was designed to select, train, and motivate future entrepreneurs. The film maker Ole Schell has produced a documentary about the program and its aftermath, which will be shown at the Asia Society in New York on Tuesday evening, June 2. Details here.

    I haven't seen the film, though I was one of the "what it all means" interviewees, but I watched Ole Schell getting lots of background footage as the show was underway. I think this should be very interesting. Make your Gotham travel plans accordingly!

  • Compare and contrast: "quarantine" in the US and China

    Below on the left, the image from the recent diary of a (perfectly healthy) AP correspondent who, with his wife, ended up in Chinese quarantine for a week, simply because their plane had stopped at a Mexican airport. Starting on the right, an account from a reader in the US who has an actual swine flu patient in her house. The eccentricities of each country's approach are on display here -- along with, as discussed earlier, the reasons why China's reaction might understandably differ from America's or Europe's. The reader begins:

    Quarantine.jpg"In striking contrast to the story of quarantine in China, I am here in Illinois with a house guest with the swine flu, and only the vaguest instructions about avoiding spreading the infection.  The young woman came down with the flu Monday morning, after not feeling great on Sunday.  Since her health insurance is an HMO from another part of the country, it took several phone calls to insurance companies, doctors, etc., to get an appointment - not that the current round of health care reform is likely to address this ridiculous bureaucracy, but that's another topic.

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  • In case you've been wondering about Macau

    You should, of course, start by reading my description of the casino economy as it was fully  opening up two years ago, here and here.

    But on the remote chance that's not enough, it is surprisingly interesting to get the email updates from an operation called "Destination Macau." At first glance I thought it was just another local-booster site. But here is a representative passage from the latest newsletter:

    "If a president of most companies we know were to stand up in public, after having recently posted a solid rise in quarterly earnings amid a bearish economic environment, and announce he is looking to cut nearly a quarter of his workforce, his audience might be forgiven a gasp of astonishment. Not when that president runs the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

    "This week, the company's recently installed president, Mike Leven, announced in Las Vegas that he was going to cut another 3,000 to 4,000 jobs at the Macau subsidiary, taking the total workforce to around 13,000-14,000 from its current level of around 17,500, and down from a high that once scraped the 20,000 mark. This is despite the fact that the Venetian Macao posted a 10 per cent rise in first-quarter EBITDA and continues to hoover up the city's visitor market... Job cuts and the redrawing of organization charts seem to have become routine at Macau's most profitable gaming concessionaire as it struggles under the weight of a massive debt load.

    "Needless to say, the Venetian Macao is not a happy camp for an expatriate to be in at the moment. Given that locals are protected by divine right to employment in an election year, every Filipino, Nepalese, Malaysian, Singaporean and, yes, American and Australian that walks the floors of LVS's Macau properties can be forgiven their long faces...

    "A black joke doing the rounds yesterday was that all of these cuts could be made without having to go beneath the vice-president level."

    For specialized tastes only, but engagingly done.

  • About corruption, meritocracy, and "fairness" in Chinese life

    A recent "Red-diaper perspective" on Chinese schooling and the nationwide "gaokao" admissions tests said that distortions in Chinese education were related to the nervousness of a Chinese elite that was not sure it could pass its advantages on to its children. Here, from another Chinese reader, is a dissent. Climax of the argument below; full text after the jump.

    The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the educational opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.


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  • Chinese newspaper discussion of the "creativity" problem

    Is the discussion about whether Chinese schools foster "creativity" and "critical thinking" confined to foreigners, or to Chinese writing in English?

    Apparently not. Today's People's Daily has a big story on the results of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, just completed in Reno. (The Chinese team, from People's Daily.)

    The article notes that mainland China had a large number of entries and won many minor prizes. But it had no real successes -- and the question was why.
    Intel2.jpgThe three overall grand-prize winners were all young women from American high schools, shown here. For individual best-in-category prizes -- 18 total according to People's Daily, 19 total according to Intel -- all but one went to American students. That one exception was from Taiwan.

    What's the problem?  The article discussed some obvious barriers -- language, resources -- but quoted a number of Chinese authorities saying that the real problem lay in the way Chinese schools taught people to think for themselves -- or, didn't. Too much emphasis on rote, detail, and following procedures; too little encouragement to reflect about the process of discovery. An analysis very similar to what we originally heard from a foreigner. I do not pretend to be able to follow arguments in the Chinese press with any nuance. I offer this (tipped from a contact at Intel, then labored-through by me) as evidence of a parallel, and obviously authorized, Chinese-language discussion, and as a resource for any Chinese reader who might have missed it.

  • Very interesting flu-quarantine diary

    Will Weissert, an AP correspondent based in Havana, traveled with his wife to China for a wedding -- and ended up spending a week in quarantine. His account of the quarantine, here and with pictures beginning here, is very interesting on the nuts and bolts of how the system works. It's not a complaint, though there are some complaining details. Mainly a chronicle, with details I hadn't seen elsewhere.

    Here is his wife in the quarantine-hotel room, as Chinese officials take notes on her condition.

    And here is the intro to his account of how they ended up in this situation:

    My wife and I are in perfect health, but after flying to China for my college friend's wedding we're being quarantined in a remote hotel for seven days. The reason: Our flight from our home in Havana included a layover in Cancun, and China is taking no chances with swine flu.

    Never mind that we were in Cancun for only two hours, that we didn't leave the airport and that Mexican doctors with electronic thermometers checked us for fever on arrival and departure. Never mind that when our Continental Airlines flight from Newark touched down in Shanghai, we and everyone else on board were not allowed to leave our seats until health workers clamored aboard and pointed a blue beam at our foreheads to take our temperatures.

    The Mexican stamps in our passports -- my wife is Chilean, I'm American -- are enough for authorities to pull us out of line at immigration and send us to a medical room where attendants in white lab coats take our temperature yet again and give us surgical masks...

    After 3 1/2 hours, a man in uniform -- speaking by phone with a communist official everyone calls "the leader" -- announces we will be confined to a hotel room for seven days.

    We say we'll simply fly back home. He tells us that isn't possible.

    Worth reading the rest. (Thanks to Daniel Lippman.)

  • Cross cultural exchange

    Above-the-fold picture on China Daily special weekly business supplement. Caption says:

    "The official dance troupe of the Dallas Cowboys (a US National Football League team) perform with local elderly at a downtown park in Shanghai."

    How it looked on the page:

    In the circumstances, the "local elderly" don't look that bad! Must be the morning tai chi.

  • More Chinese education! Or, is it really "Chinese"?

    Previously in our series, the complaint has been that the Chinese school system pushes students too hard and in too rote-memorization a way, leaving the victors undeniably tough but maybe drained of their spark and inventiveness. Along the way, many contrary views and debates about the role of the Chinese nationwide university-admission exam, the gaokao.

    Now, two bits of testimony more or less on China's behalf. First, from a Westerner now teaching in Japan, who says that these problems are hardly confined to China. Then from an American (of Chinese ancestry) about an American counterpart to gaokao-style training.

    First, the Westerner teaching at a university in Japan.

    China, Eastern Europe, Japan, it's all the same story. No, it's not a legacy of Communism. The saying here in Japan is similar to the one mentioned by the teacher in Eastern Europe: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down."

    I cannot get my students to voice an opinion for love nor money. They do not want to call attention to themselves; stand out from the crowd, or be different in any way. This is the Japanese way. If, by chance, they do have an opinion, they keep it to themselves.

    As a result, they are totally incapable of creative/critical thinking or problem solving abilities.

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  • I'm joining the GOP

    First Al Gore, buffeted Democratic champion ca. 2000, propagates boiled-frog ignorance in his (otherwise laudable) An Inconvenient Truth

    Now Barack Obama, victorious Democratic champion ca. 2008, relies on bogus boiled-frog imagery in a Newsweek interview (as my comrade Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out).

    Did you consult any former presidents or celebrities about the fishbowl effect in raising the girls?
    Well, you know, the truth of the matter is that the campaign was the equivalent of me being the frog in the saucepan of water and the temperature slowly being turned up. By the time the inauguration had taken place, we had pretty much gotten accustomed to it.

    Say what you will about the linguistic habits of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin; but at this moment I don't remember any of them talking about boiled frogs. The image of young Dickie Cheney in 8th grade science lab with a frog, though, is one to force from the mind. And if these people did in fact talk about boiled frogs, I'll have to join the Greens.

    What should they be talking about instead? The kitty-litter box analogy, as so brilliantly laid out by Don Rose in the Chicago Daily Observer a few months ago. You have cats in your house; you think everything is great; then visitors walk in through the door, reel back in horror, and say, "What is that godawful smell?"  And I say this as a lover of cats. Or as Rose put it, in a column about the colorful ex-governor Rod Blagojevich:

    Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    I tell them about my cat litter box.

    Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest.

    So it is with the denizens of our city and state.

    And so it should be with us all. As recently as a few hours ago, I was impressed by Obama's use of language. And now....

  • On eloquence vs. prettiness

    Based on its transcript -- here at the Washington Post site, oddly not yet in any obvious place at WhiteHouse.gov [Update: it's now on the White House page, here]-- Barack Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech was another extraordinary performance. "Extraordinary" meaning that it was like his speech last year in Philadelphia about race relations, his speech last month in Prague about nuclear weapons, and, only slightly less impressive, his speech last month at Georgetown University laying out his long term economic plan. Or, on a small scale, his answer in Strasbourg about "American exceptionalism."

    What made these presentations extraordinary was not any single phrase or sentence, nor any paragraph-long flight of fine language. Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given. (Phrases or sentences are to be distinguished from campaign slogans, like "Yes we can" or "not 'red states' or 'blue states' but the United States of America.") Instead the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:

    In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on. A passage from this latest speech after the jump.

    This kind of eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.

    At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."

    The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.

    Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.

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  • US no-show at Shanghai Expo: the hows and whys (updated)

    Last month Adam Minter of ShanghaiScrap, did our initial Atlantic report on the looming self-inflicted embarrassment of America's no-show status at the 2010 Shanghai Expo / World's Fair.

    The strands of the story are tangled, to put it mildly, and have been hard to follow in scattered press reports. So Minter's latest detailed backgrounder is very useful in explaining how things reached this point, why it matters, and what if anything could be done. Among the points he clarifies, in a list of problems that have affected the proposed US pavilion:

    A.  Cost. Shanghai Expo 2010's [one of the US contenders] $61 million pavilion budget - down from an earlier $84 million budget - is inordinately expensive, and surely the most expensive national pavilion after the elaborate Chinese design.  "For that kind of money [$61 million]," an experienced American businessman in Shanghai told me. "You could build a thirty-story residential tower on that site and still have money left over. But these people want that money for a two story pavilion." In comparison, Germany's elaborate pavilion design is projected to cost US$40.8 million; Norway's elegant structure, a comparatively minor US$22 million. And even those might be overpriced. At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, major commercial pavilions were built for around $1000 per square meter - that is, less than US$5 million. So far, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., has failed to provide a detailed public accounting of how it plans to spend its proposed US$61 million, leading to wild and unsubstantiated speculation among experienced China hands in Shanghai.

    [UPDATE: I hear from informed sources that there is some controversy about the importance of whole cost issue, with some other pavilions costing more than this US figure -- and the real question being whether the US can spend this much money in a sensible way with so little time to go. More details as they come in.]

    One image of the proposed US structure Minter is referring to, from this site:

    Full set of images of other countries' structures here. One example I like from that site: the Israeli pavilion, with components of the Whispering Garden, the Hall of Light, and the Hall of Innovations. Israel is a tiny country and this is a relatively small structure, but FWIW Israeli's entire budget for the expo, including construction, is $6 million.


    And here is Italy's (no budget listed). The story is worth following.

  • Europe, America, China respond to the flu

    From Kevin Miller, of the University of Michigan, an observation on why the differing European, American, and Chinese approaches to the current spread of flu might be explained by the respective health threats the areas face:

    I have a colleague, a native German, who went to Germany last week and reported that the general attitude was that Americans were being crazily hysterical about this. It makes sense to me that a) the Chinese are really being hysterical, b) Germans are calm, and c) we're somewhere in between.

    If you look at the medical safety net in each country, this makes perfect sense (plus the big worry that this could combine with bird flu, which they have in China. H1N1 seems to be easy to catch but rarely serious; bird flu is hard to catch but often fatal; flu viruses seem good at swapping DNA within host nuclei. If the same person had both bird flu and H1N1, this could lead to something really bad).

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  • Finale on Colgan / Buffalo crash

    I recognize that it is both heartbreaking and potentially cruel to keep going into details of what exactly led to the commuter-plane crash in February that killed all 49 people aboard the airplane and one person on the ground.  (Previously here.)

    But this story in The Buffalo News, based on the previous week's Federal investigative hearings, clears up one question and raises others about the flight crew's performance.

    The newly answered question is why the plane's airspeed had decreased so much that an automatic "stick-shaker" warning was triggered, indicating that an aerodynamic stall was imminent. Because the earliest reports mentioned that the accident took place in cold and cloudy conditions, I had assumed that ice on the wings and airframe was slowing the plane down.

    But according to NTSB evidence, the effect of icing was minimal. Instead, the flight crew had deliberately or inadvertently slowed the plane themselves, by pulling the throttle back to nearly the "flight idle" position -- and leaving it there. Reduced power is normal when descending or deliberately slowing for an approach, but apparently the power was left too low for too long as the plane's speed decayed to a dangerously low level.

    The extraordinary NTSB animation of the flight's last 2 minutes and 39 seconds dramatizes how it happened. At time 1:40, the plane begins slowing from its cruise speed of about 185 knots. By 2:04 -- with the autopilot holding a constant altitude and the power setting still low -- it had slowed all the way down to 140 knots. That is where the power should have come back in, because the plane had reached its proper approach speed and shouldn't safely go much slower. But the crew left the power at idle, and within four seconds the plane was slowing below 130 knots - at which point the "stick shaker" gave its warning and, tragically, the pilot reacted in exactly the wrong way. The animation shows how quickly this all could happen, and what it looks like when a plane goes into aerodynamic "stall."

    The effect of the pilot's wrong reaction to the stall warning has been frequently discussed in the wake of these hearings. The inattention to approach speed is in a way more puzzling, since it was not an instantaneous, instinctive thing.

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