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.
  • Another somewhat-good-news session

    The leitmotif in many Aspen Ideas Festival sessions has involved various systems and institutions under big, fundamental stress. The world financial system. The world climate/environmental system. The modern media economy/ecology. And lots more.

    Yesterday, as part of the Atlantic's role in the Ideas Festival, I got to moderate a discussion among some 30 people who were big shots from public and private realms. The presidents of two of the leading research universities in the world. A sitting governor. The CEO of a major (non-US based) technology firm. Scholars and public officials and financiers and economists and corporate executives and writers. Unlike most of the sessions here (see videos etc at this main page), these mealtime discussions are not on-the-record so I'm not supposed to give a blow-by-blow.

    But I can say that at the end of the discussion I asked for a show of hands on a simple good news / bad news question. The question was whether the current economic/political/environmental emergency around the world would be a "successful crisis" or a "failed crisis." That, is would today's sense of emergency lead the United States, in particular, to address some of its fundamental fiscal, political, social, environmental, educational, etc problems, so that it came out of the crisis stronger than it went in? Or would it be a missed opportunity, a "wasted crisis," in which the U.S. system would avoid dealing with any fundamental issues and therefore would come out of the immediate travails in worse shape than when it went in?

    The results were three- or four- to one positive. Nearly twenty people voted for the "successful crisis" interpretation; only five or six expected a "failed crisis." This is not proof, and it may be simple wish fulfillment. But I was surprised by the results -- and, how could I help but be? encouraged by them.

  • Now this makes me wish I were already back in the flying business

    A company called AirJourney, "The Flying Adventure Journey Specialist," is sponsoring a joint small-plane fly-in next month along the route of the Lewis & Clark expedition.
     
    LewisClark2.jpg


    Perhaps it is a stretch to claim, as AirJourney does in promos like what's shown below, that this is a deeply historical commemoration. But I flew much of this route in a small plane nine years ago (start in Minnesota, then down to Nebraska, then west) and to this day recall many vivid scenes, which I also described in my book Free Flight. The incredible breadth of the Missouri River, which in many stretches looked as it might have in the days of L&C. The carvings of Mt. Rushmore outside Rapid City, SD, which from above look surprisingly tiny and netsuke-like. The splaying delta and estuary of the Columbia River at the other end of the journey, at Astoria, Oregon, where it meets the Pacific. And a lot in between.

    LewisClark1.jpg

    It's not a "rational" way to spend your time or money, but I've never forgotten the experience or regretted spending time and money in a similar venture. If you're not a pilot yet -- there's just barely time!

  • Semi-encouraging climate-change session

    On Wednesday morning, before a chaos of other obligations, I heard yet another panel on impending climate-change disasters, but this one left me strangely less despondent than some of the others. The speakers were Thomas Lovejoy, a long-time biodiversity expert, and David Hayes, who has recently become the #2 official in the Department of Interior.

    Lovejoy's presentation began with a reminder of all the bad things that are happening to wildlife, to biodiversity, to life in the ocean, etc as CO2 levels in the atmosphere go up, taking temperatures with them. But then, in the pivot to the "you don't have to jump out the window just yet" part of the presentation, he emphasized how huge a role the Earth's own natural processes and vegetations -- its forests, grasslands, wetlands, even deserts -- can play in absorbing much larger quantities of carbon from the atmosphere than they do now and thereby reducing the greenhouse effect, if they are protected and managed in a different way. He called this process "Re-Greening the Emerald Planet," and he supplied several charts (which I don't have) to show how powerful the effect could be.

    He tied this analysis to perhaps the most frequently-used chart in modern climate-change thinking -- one produced by McKinsey & Co and the McKinsey Global Institute comparing the relative costs of different measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere. (For more on the study, here. For discussion, here.) On the chart, the below-the-line items, on the left side, are GHG-reduction measures that save more money than they cost. Most of these are sheer efficiency measures (insulating buildings, switching to more efficient lights). The above-the-line escalating figures on the right are the rising costs of other abatement measures. The most expensive of them are high-tech "carbon capture and sequestrian" systems, plus protecting forests in heavily-populated Asian countries. (Click for larger.)

    mckinsey-low-carbon-cost-curve-2009-big.gif
      

    Lovejoy's point was that a lot of "re-greening" steps are near the middle of the chart, either actually saving money or costing very little compared with a variety of clean-energy technologies. For more on the latter, see Josh Green's new piece.

    So far, so familiar for most people following the debate. But then Hayes stepped up with what was news to me. This was the announcement that the Department of Interior, which is by far the largest landowner in the United States, and which at various points in its history has been seen as a beacon of the "drill, baby, drill!" philosophy of land management (cf: James Watt, passim), was in fact now quite serious about applying a "Re-greening" approach to the 20 percent of the US landmass under its control.

    Hayes gave more details than I will recount here. They boiled down to a sequence of: trying to measure and understand the carbon-absorption properties of the various lands under its control; seeing how they can be improved, including with market-based offsets; telling the story to the public of why protecting and expanding forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc has an important climate-change component; making forest-preservation an important part of international climate negotiations (rather than talking only about clean-energy sources); and a lot more. (Including changes in U.S. agriculture, which are of course outside Interior's direct control, so that instead of being, incredibly, a net emitter of greenhouse gases, it has a positive effect. This is related to the Food, Inc. discussion of industrial agriculture mentioned here.)

    "If we can come up with some measures that are correct and that people can understand, and show instances where we can positively affect the carbon balance, that can be a huge sea change," Hayes said. "We can show people that there are affirmative things we can do to help our climate. I am very excited about it."

    That doesn't solve all the problems, answer all the questions, etc. But it was surprising enough to hear from a senior DOI official and seemed politically and psychologically shrewd, in letting people think that there was some reaction to dire greenhouse gas projections other than holding their hands over their ears and wishing the whole problem would go away.
     
  • Civilize Homeland Security

    The Department of Homeland Security should not exist. Its rushed, bipartisan creation in 2002 reflected the political imperative to do something…

  • Dr. Doom Has Some Good News

    Dr. Doom Has Some Good News

    Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who accurately forecast the bursting of the housing bubble and the resulting economic contraction, has become famous for his pessimism—he has been the gloomiest of the doomsayers. Which is what makes his current outlook surprising: Roubini believes that the Obama administration’s policy makers—and especially the much-maligned Tim Geithner—have gotten a lot right. Pitfalls may still abound, but he is now projecting an end to the recession, and he sees growth ahead.

  • Two factlets from Aspen Day 2 (updated)

    After 12+ hours of talking, listening, interviewing, note-taking, absorbing, and finally movie-watching, I have two containable bits of info from this day's activities at the Ideas Festival.

    On energy, a disturbing factlet. (And obviously not the only disturbing observation on the energy-and-climate front.) I heard three people separately observe that when it comes to future sources of "clean" energy, there is not a single field in which U.S. companies are the technical or market leaders. One person gave an informal ranking of the leaders this way:
       Solar-powered electricity (ie, photo-voltaic systems): Norway, Japan, China
       Solar-thermal systems (for heating water or buildings) Spain the leader in getting systems deployed
       Wind power: Holland, Denmark, China
       Geothermal power: nobody
       Nuclear power ("clean" in the carbon-footprint sense): France, Japan
       CCS, "Carbon capture and sequestration" (stripping out CO2 and burying it): Norway, Australia, Canada.

      This person said that his list was rough and ready, and that US firms were in a close second place in some fields. But the main point, he said, is that "American firms are acting as if there is not going to be a vital, profitable, globalized clean-tech industry a decade from now, and as if they don't care about competing in it." He had some other more hopeful things to say about how sustained investment could help close the gap. But the list itself was news to me.

    Update: as I should have pointed out last night, my colleague Josh Green has chapter and verse on the "why is America losing the cleantech race?" question here, in a great piece in the new Atlantic.

    On food, public health, and modern life in general, Robert Kenner's new movie Food, Inc, screened here this evening, really has the potential to move public opinion in the way Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed did two generations ago.

    Corby Kummer did the definitive review of the movie earlier this month at the Atlantic's Food Channel. This evening he led a discussion with Kenner after the screening. Considered strictly as narrative or logical exposition, the film is a somewhat shaggy collection of stories rather than a relentlessly coherent presentation of a case. But the stories are so powerful, and so convincing, and in most cases so affecting in their humanity, that together they have a big effect. Most impressive to me is that while the movie was alarming, it was not discouraging. I think it will leave viewers with a sense of what they can do, as individuals and as citizens, to address the problems it lays out.
      

  • Ideas Festival kickoff: opening "Big Ideas" session

    Along with several other members of the Atlantic staff, I am at Aspen this week for the fifth annual "Ideas Festival." If past practice is a model, the contents of most of these sessions will eventually appear in one form or another online. But as in past years, we'll try to provide slightly-longer-than-Twitter-scale real time summaries of what is going on.

    On Monday evening, the co-hosts -- our own (beloved!) David Bradley of the Atlantic and Walter Isaacson of Aspen -- introduced a session in which a series of speakers gave "brief" summaries of the one Big Idea they wanted people to bear in mind. The intros by Bradley and Isaacson are worth finding on video when they eventually go up, rather than my attempting to summarize. (Actually funny, in both cases.) The subsequent presentations were "brief" in the 差不多 sense as we used to say in China -- chabuduo, "more or less," "close enough for government work." Some poetically terse, others not so much. 

    An overall list of the speakers and their ideas is after the jump. I won't try to summarize all of them, but let me just mention three that caught my interest as reflecting angles or approaches I hadn't heard much about or thought much about before.

    From Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist at U Wisconsin, a proposition that "soon" (next 50 years? some relatively near time) human beings might be able to say, for certain, whether there was other life in the universe. Background was other fairly recent fundamental steps forward in understanding mankind's background and the workings of science. One hundred fifty years ago this year, Darwin's discoveries; 50 years ago, the first discoveries by Leakey of mankind's ancestors at the Olduvai Gorge;  40 years ago, the landing on the moon. Carroll said that he liked the chances of the answer to the "other intelligent life?" question being Yes, based on the "trillion billion" planets likely to be somewhere in the universe. ("If it's just us, what a waste of space!") And he suggested some of the implications that might come if other forms of life were more complex, older, more diverse.

    From Robert Socolow, an engineering professor from Princeton, a teaser about a new proposal intended to break the logjam between rich and poor countries in climate-change negotiations. The poor countries all say: It's unfair to make us do too much, since (a) we are poor and (b) you had so many centuries to mess things up yourselves. The rich countries say: it's unfair and ineffective to have Europe, the US, and Japan go to great lengths to reduce their emissions, if China and India are merrily steaming away. Socolow said that a paper to be released next week will propose a new ethical, diplomatic, and geostrategic way of dividing the labor of reducing emissions. It will be based on assessing duties-to-clean up on the basis of rich and poor individuals, rather than rich and poor countries. More to come next week!

    From David Fanning, producer of "Frontline," a proposal on the ever-more-agonizing question of how to keep actual reporters in business when newspapers around the world are in economic freefall.  His plan was based on a "good idea," and a "bad idea" -- both of which happened to be today's public broadcasting establishment -- which he said could evolve into a "new idea," of the public broadcasting system as the linchpin for a new sort of broadcast/print/online news establishment. What made this different from mere institutional self-serving (for a public broadcasting guy): his emphasis that the public broadcasting establishment already had two things that would be hard for some hypothesized new-media system to create from scratch. One is a very dense nationwide network of local stations and reporters; the other was an established funding model in which individuals, corporations, philanthropies, and public institutions were already used to contributing money. Details later, but an interesting start.

    Full list below. Then off to the morning's events.
    ________

    1) Sean Carroll, biologist: that we'll soon have definite proof about whether other life exists.

    2) Marina Pisklakova, human rights and anti-domestic-abuse activist from Russia: that big ideas grow from small ideas, in this case involving protecting women from violence.

    3) Robert Socolow, engineer: that there is a way around the climate-change logjam.

    4) Marian Wright Edelman, Children's Defense Fund: that the test of a society's success must be how it treats its children.

    5) Paul Ryan, Republican Congressman from Wisconsin: that it is time to end fiscal excess.

    6) Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First: that America's "new" policy on rules of war and treatment of prisoners should be its original policy, created by George Washington and expressed in the Geneva Conventions and saying that there are certain lines that can never be crossed.

    7) David Fanning, Frontline: that public broadcasting can be the basis for a new reporting establishment.

    8) Sandra Day O'Connor, "unemployed cowgirl": that it is time to reinvigorate public education, and that everyone should go home to his or her state (all 50 plus DC represented here) and push hard for the same.

    More »

  • Toe back into the online pool

    Travel* +  time zones +  away from internet +  jet lag  = no web activity. It's a mathematical axiom known since the time of Euclid. But before sleeping off the latest long-haul trip and rejoining the crack, round-the-clock Atlantic Monthly web team reporting on the Aspen Ideas Festival effective in a few hours, two notes from opposite ends of the world.

    From China: Three months ago I mentioned that an "unofficial site" in Beijing was providing hourly Twitter readings on the air pollution element that is most threatening to health but is either not measured or not reported by the Chinese government itself. I knew then but did not say that the "unofficial" site was actually on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. I did not say it because friends at the embassy said that calling attention to it could seem provocative or thumbing-the-nose at Chinese authorities and could jeopardize the whole undertaking. A tremendous amount of "unofficial" activity goes on in China, under the hallowed principle of "one eye open, one eye shut." As long as the authorities' noses weren't rubbed in the flouting of rules, many things were possible.

    For better or worse, and perhaps with different guidance from embassy officials, Time magazine's blog recently revealed that the site was on the embassy roof. And just now my favorite paper, the China Daily, has picked up the story. In the short run, I see that it has kicked Twitter followers for the service well up above previous levels. I hope the readings continue -- and, of course, that they eventually show healthier air.

    From America: There are lots of things my wife and I will miss about China, and lots of things that are a relief to escape. I will chronicle them systematically at some point. Here's one brief "I miss China" item for the moment: Jeez is it a pain to return to the culture of tipping. I hated the haggling in Chinese markets and preferred to shop where there were simple price tags -- and the item was worth it to me, or it was not. So too did I hate this episode on arrival in Aspen today:

    We got off an airplane and got into a van headed for the conference headquarters. We climb out at the HQ, and the driver stands in our path and announces, "Your transportation is covered by the conference, but you are perfectly free to tip." I guess he could tell we had been away.

    I know and respect the little signs saying "Gratuities appreciated" on, say, the shuttle buses taking you to airport car-rental lots. I understand the ritual supplement at restaurants, and am always "generous" in that regard. Same with hotel maids, and so on. I have worked in tip-receiving jobs. But this episode just made me think: there has to be a better way.

    I rummaged through my pockets that were still full of Chinese RMB and finally found a $5 bill. I gave it to him and thought: I do not believe that countries with a tipping culture end up having a fairer distribution of income than ones (like China) where tipping is unusual and can even seem insulting. They just end up delivering the money in a way that is more demeaning all around. The driver can't have enjoyed this exercise. I know I didn't. Please! Just add the money to the fare -- or the restaurant check or the hotel bill --  rather than having all of commercial life colored by the haggling / hostile-servile on one end / guilty-paternalistic on the other end institution of the tip. Ok, Ok, we can deal with the environmental crisis and health-care reform before that. But this is a place where the Chinese (and the Japanese and in many cases the Aussies and others) have it right.
    ___
    * Explanation of travel oddities: We left Beijing two weeks ago today; spent 72 hours in the US; were out of the country again; and are back, today, for the duration.

  • More on Chinese lack of interest in Iran

    A reader makes a point (following this post) about why the Iranian drama seems so much less compelling from inside China than it does in much of the West. There is more, well, John Bull-esque swagger to this note than I'd probably have if making the point myself. But I basically agree with this perspective. It's not all government info-control and censorship.

    "I think it's good to keep in mind that Chinese folks tend to have a certain antediluvian sense of detachment when it comes to foreign affairs, sort of almost pre-war British John Bull-esque isolationist vintage. They just don't care particularly about what happens in foreign countries. They really couldn't give a whistle if a foreign country is communist or democratic or whatever. They just want to be left alone to make their wages and buy their house and cars.

    "And I think that detachment is probably much more powerful than any silly, heavy-handed government innuendo and propaganda, at the end of the day. Everyone paid more attention to Europe and America, that's true, but Europe and America are important and rich and to be emulated in their wealth; toward the developing world, the feeling is sort of a disinterested bemusement from the average man-in-the-street.

    "So I think the best way to view the Iran coverage in China is, frankly, to ignore it. Government press might have (really stupid) agendas to pursue in relation to this, fighting the colour revolutions and so on, but the average man couldn't care less. And it's quite exactly the same thing when that clown Hugo Chavez is feted in the Chinese press; he's viewed more as a curiosity than as some glorious David, hero of the Developing World-cum-Israelites.

    "And I personally think that, for China at least, this is not an unhealthy attitude. Splendid (Sino-)Isolation ought be cause for relief for the rest of the world.

    "....Another thing I forgot, and this is I think how someone used to describe the pre-war British, is that the Chinese generally find foreigners funny. Not serious, not genuinely dangerous, not heroic and considerable (as an European might for MLK, or an American for Thatcher or both for Mandala), but nice and funny in a harmless sort of way."

    Again, while the writer is deliberately heading into campy-Orientalism by the end of the note, and while a billion-person country has exceptions to any generalization (I know Chinese people who quite clearly are inspired by Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, or Isaac Newton, or John Dewey, or....)  the basic point rings true to me. Including the "not unhealthy" part -- worth bearing in mind when you hear the next "China as master of the world" scare-lecture.

  • Iran in China

    I have been out of China for a week and away from internet contact most of that time, including the last day-plus. So I am behind the curve on the Iranian drama in general, and the way it's playing in China in particular. But in response to a number of requests for tips on how to judge the reaction of China's officialdom, media (controlled by officialdom), and populace, here are some guidelines.

    1) Never underestimate the ability of the Chinese media to steer attention toward -- or away from -- stories both domestic and foreign. Over the past six weeks, as H1N1/swine flu has been waning as a front-line concern in most countries, it has been end-of-days news inside China. And right now -- Monday evening, June 22, China time -- when Iran's fate is dominant news in much of the world, it's a second- or third-tier item in the official Chinese media. The current front page of People Daily (in Chinese, here) has Iran as a fairly minor news item. English version of People's Daily Online, here, currenty shows the same understated play.

    2) It is worth remembering that the elements of the Iranian story that give it such drama and importance in much of the world are less automatically resonant in China.
       One part of the narrative -- a massed populace standing up against state power -- is obviously anathema to Chinese authorities. And many of the other themes are also less immediate and compelling to ordinary people in China than they would be in North America, Europe, or parts of the Islamic world.
          To most Westerners, everything about this story matters. It involves a people's struggle to make their voices heard; it follows other "color revolutions" in former Soviet territories and indeed popular movements for democracy and rule of law in Asia and Latin America from the 1980s onwards; it potentially marks a crucial moment in the evolution of modern Islamic society; it can have war-and-peace implications for US foreign policy and Israeli actions; and so on. Ordinary members of the Western viewing audience feel a connection to these themes. I assert that they seem more distant to ordinary people in China -- even if the themes were featured on the news. People's own problems, and their business problems, and the country's problems, are enough to worry about.

    3) The Chinese publications that are explicitly aimed at foreign readers, the redoubtable China Daily and its new complement Global Times, have taken a predictable but still interesting line. Right now the China Daily is, like the People's Daily, underplaying the story altogether. The new Global Times, generally seen as taking an edgier and more adventurous approach to advancing telling China's "soft power" presentation of its official perspective worldwide, went with this as its lead item today:

    GlobalTimesIran.jpg

    The themes of "outside interference" and "victimization by Western powers" are comfortable, reflexive positions for the Chinese government's foreign policy establishment to take, so are the natural positions here.

    4) I don't think anyone in the foreign media has any clear idea of what the Chinese leadership really is thinking about Iran and its implications.

    5) I have lacked online time to follow up on the Chinese blog world but welcome submissions by readers, which I will share.

  • Political education

    Several days ago I posted an account of the distorting effect of the "political" component of Chinese higher ed -- essentially, the need to parrot back parts of Marxist analysis and the  dictums of past leaders. This is apart from all the other concerns about the incentives and emphases of the educational and testing system itself, as thrashed out in many postings here.

    [For application of political nostrums in an amusing way, see Simon Lewis's recent violent-noir novel Bad Traffic, about a regular non-English-speaking tough-guy Chinese cop who finds himself in England trying to track down his missing daughter. In the middle of gun fights or when wincing after blows to the head, he steadies himself by reciting boilerplate from his political classes. "His ears rang from the [gun] blast and that din added to a sense that he had stepped outside time. He hauled his mind back into the present. The contradiction between the working class and the peasant class in socialist society is resolved by the method of collectivization..."]

    Now, from a young Chinese person who has recently graduated from college in Beijing and is headed to grad school in the US, a startling account of another sort of political effect on higher education: the levee en masse of university students to participate in political ceremonies, notably those in October commemorating the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

    ALL freshmen of our school are mandated to join the 60 Anniversary National Day parade. They will be taken to a special training ground set up outside of Beijing where training will continue from early July (after final exams) till Oct. 1st. Those who are tall and fit will be selected to march; those who are not selected will have to be trained as volunteers. Students are threatened by their Party Advisers with not being able to graduate if refuse to join the National Day parade.
    Over 1,000 students are required from our school, XX University, and [one other], but since our school has a small student body, the entire freshman year will be drawn out. The combination of losing summer vacation and one month of sophomore year study is not only bad for morale, but will greatly affect their study. Normally, Chinese students only have a two-week military training upon enrollment or in the beginning of sophomore year in Septembers.

    The students are upset and angry, but they dare not defy the school - and for the school, they cannot defy the order came from above. School authorities are not happy with such activities interfering with their teaching. [One dean at the university] told me that last year, because the junior and senior year students all joined the Olympic volunteer work (which is a requirement for us), but missed out on the crucial chance of internships to gain the work experience of relevant field; plus the training of volunteers caused a majority of students to miss at least several weeks' courses, 2009 graduates are not very competitive on the job market. She said now of course we blame on the global economic crisis, but she knows that even without the crisis, this year's students have not done nearly as well as last year's both academically and work-wise - we were made weak on the job market because of the Olympic fever.

    I'm very concerned for the freshmen of our school because Beijing's desire to show off will deprive them of the summer vacation with their family, a month of scheduled study, and most importantly, their energy and concentration in study for the next semester. This may not be the smartest thing to do... yet I'm telling them to write an open letter to authorities and stage a peaceful protest. But I know this is their fight, not mine.

    Side note: through most of last year, the ramped-up, "it's a sensitive moment" security measures in Beijing were justified in the name of the upcoming Olympics. Through this year, they have been tacitly understood to come from the impending 50th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese troops in Tibet in 1959 and the 20th anniversary of their arrival in Tiananmen Square in 1989. More recently, the announced rationale for special security has been the struggle to protect China against the flu menace. And now, tightening is necessary in preparation for the mammoth National Day observances this fall on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Americans will recognize this as the permanent "Threat Level Orange" variety of security theater, in which the threat level is easy to raise but nearly impossible to lower.

    More »

  • More on Beijing air (updated)

    As chronicled in the months leading up to last summer's Olympics, the air in Beijing was alarmingly dense and opaque as the Games drew near. In the end, it remained bad right through the opening ceremonies and the first full day of competition. Then, a powerful cold front blew through from the northwest, with clear, dry air behind it. And for the rest of the competition, and indeed much of the ten months since that time, the air has seemed far better than before. For day by day photos of Beijing's sky before and after the Games, see this wonderful site by Michael Zhao of the Asia Society. For sample shots of recent "Paradise Beijing" circumstances, see here.

    Thus in this context of overall improvement, two recent reports are sobering. The first, by Tini Tran of the Associated Press, says that a joint US-Chinese governmental study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, has concluded that the air during the Beijing Olympics was far dirtier and unhealthier than in other recent Games. The Yahoo news version of the story is here; unfortunately, it contains no links to the scientific study itself, which I don't yet see on the Env Sci &Tech journal's site. [Update: study now on line here.] Among the study's findings, according to the AP:

    Researchers found that particulate air pollution did drop by about one-third during the two-week Olympic period. But coarser particulate matter, PM 10, exceeded levels the WHO considers safe about 81 percent of the time, while the smaller particulate pollution PM 2.5, which can cause more serious health consequences, exceeded WHO guidelines 100 percent of the time.

    The second development is the ongoing failure of the Chinese government to report any readings of, and perhaps even to measure, the PM 2.5 small-particulate level in its big cities' air. This matters because the smaller particles, which go deep into the alveoli, are more damaging to the lungs than the larger ones (background and links here) -- and because, by many accounts, their level in Beijing is once again rising. Earlier this week, the readings from a non-Chinese PM 2.5 monitoring station (background here) again reached the "hazardous" level, as had happened several times previously this spring. Glenn Mott sent me this photo taken at Tsinghua University during the "hazardous" day.

    IMG00161.jpg

    Minor conclusion: perhaps one more indication that China's manufacturing economy is recovering, with factories and power plants up and running again? Major theme: if you needed more convincing that environmental and climate issues in China are a first-order challenge for the world as a whole, perhaps this will help. (Background in the magazine here.)

  • Sigh, out of range again

    I am no longer based in China, but am not yet actually based anyplace else. So this might be the last dispatch for the next week, and it's on the fly from yet another airport wi-fi site. Sketchy for-the-record remarks:

    1) After 60+ hours in America (and on the way out again): Life is so abundant! Even in a downturn -- and, yes, in Washington, not Flint. Everything looks so comfortable and lush! The air is so clean! (Today's reading in Beijing: "Hazardous.") And the cell phone coverage is so crappy! I can barely recall a moment in China when I was out of signal range. Today alone in Washington, half a dozen dropped calls. Yes, yes, I know the reasons for this. But the difference is impressive.

    1A) Bad part of my character as revealed by travel (part 2,847): When approached by spare-change panhandlers I have to bite my tongue to avoid giving the "do you know what people put up with in China?" speech. Yes, yes, I know why this is wrong.

    2) Positive aviation development of the week: flight of a new all-electric plane, here.



    3) Negative journalistic development of the week: the Washington Post's insane decision to fire its media-political blogger Dan Froomkin. (I know Froomkin only through his work, not personally.) We all have heard the reasons that the press is under pressure by forces not of its making. This is an example of a self-inflicted wound. Are papers like the Post under suspicion for being too insidery and old-media-y? How does it make sense get rid of an independent minded, new media, presumably not-that-expensive, non-Washington-cliquey voice on politics and the media and leave... well, the full opinion and media lineup the Post is sticking with? Some people tell me that it's a mistake to say that the Post's editorial page (and the weight of its op-ed lineup) has "become" neo-con and establishment-minded under its current editor, Fred Hiatt; the argument is that this is the Post's long tradition, which its anti-Nixon crusade concealed. I don't know. But I would have liked to have heard the argument about why Froomkin was the necessary next person to cut. More later.

    4) "There will always be a China" anecdote of the day. This comes from a Chinese friend I know and trust but, for this person's own sake, will not identify. My friend asked a CCTV producer (whose name I also know) about the mystery I mentioned last week: what on earth the weird ... thing on top of the otherwise-clean CCTV tower was. Reminder:



    Here is the report from my friend, recounting a conversation with the producer:

    Me [my friend]: Do you know what that huge round thing protruding on the top of the main CCTV building is?
    Producer: What?
    Me: It looks like either a misshaped radar or a helicopter landing pad...
    Producer: Why are you asking?
    Me: Just curious.
    Producer: Well, don't be curious. You know it's a very sensitive period here at CCTV, because of Fang Jing's "spy-gate" incident. Don't ask such sensitive questions.
    Me: Why is it sensitive? That huge thing is right there on the very top of your landmark. Everyone could see it, even from far away. You've never thought about what it is? Nobody asks about it?
    Producer: No... No one. Seriously, stop asking about it!

    Words to live by. With that, I leave you to my Atlantic colleagues for a week.

  • More on Obama and "educational" rhetoric

    Several days ago I argued that what made Barack Obama's "big" speeches sound unusual was that they attempted something that among politicians is indeed rare: Not expressing our preexisting views with new clarity and edge but instead asking us to change our minds. I also said it was no accident that Obama had saved these ambitious speeches until he was in the White House, since a campaign was a time for troop-rallying rhetoric rather than asking people to think too hard.

    Herewith one message in agreement and one in dissent. First, from Eric Redman, author of The Dance of Legislation (and longtime close friend of mine) who had been a devotee of Richard Neustadt's famous presidential-power analyses in college and eventually delivered a eulogy for Neustadt and contributed to a memorial volume about him. The turn in Obama's rhetoric after the election, Redman says,

    made me think of Neustadt's enigmatic advice in 1968 when I was about to take time off from school to go write speeches for Senator Magnuson. Dick had written campaign speeches for President Truman. His writing was finely worked, highly polished. I asked for advice in the craft.  He frowned and thought carefully. Then he said, "Remember, a campaign is not a good time to educate the public." I puzzled over that for 35 years, and repeated it, partly for a laugh (which it produced), in my eulogy at his memorial service. 

    It was not until I was doing the research for "Neustadt in Brazil" [in the memorial volume] that I listened to him on tape explain (in response to a questioner criticizing Lula [da Silva, prez of Brazil] for not living up to his campaign promises) that the time to educate the people (impliedly with speeches) is when you are in office. Neustadt was not only recommending that Lula do it, he was explaining why it would work. Then it all made sense to me, and I was even able to explain to some who had heard the eulogy and, like me, been puzzled ever since hearing the original advice.

    Now, and after the jump, dissent from Carlyn Meyer, who thinks I am under-valuing the content of Obama's stump speeches through the campaign:

    While I appreciate your annotation of the five big speeches since his election (plus the race speech), I have to disagree that the basic stump speech differed in quality.  If anything, he used it to test out his broad concepts and way of speaking to people.  Here's why:
        Most of the media hyped Obama's campaign speeches as brilliant 'oratory' or 'rhetoric' - not in the Greek sense but as an ambiguous cross between other American orators (Lincoln, MLK) and showmanship.   That people came to hear the 'oratory' was the biggest hoax the media latched onto - at the expense of accurate reporting that plagued reporters and punditry throughout the campaign.
        
        They came to hear Obama, and the crowds kept growing, because of the content of his basic stump speech, not the 'delivery' (or 'rhetoric' as the media calls it).  The content is what separated him as a candidate from the beginning.
        
        I campaigned for eight days in a small Iowa town of 10,000 before the January 3rd, 2008, primary.  A friend and I drove into Iowa on a Sunday night to avoid a colossal snow storm, the worst of the season, that blew in after midnight.  We were to hear Obama speak the next morning at a high school gym at 8:45 (maybe it was 9:45).  The highways were single file; the snow drifts huge and unsettled; frozen ice was everywhere.  Even by Iowa standards, it was a treacherous morning.  We were stunned when we arrived at the gym.  Over 200 people were there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,  eager to hear Obama's address.  He came in and began on time.
        
        On first hearing his stump speech, these are the points I believe made it unique:
        
        1.  He put the all-white crowd at ease immediately with his now-famous riff on 'not looking like your ordinary candidate...with a funny name'.  He didn't patronize them.  He was black, they were white.  Acknowledging that in a light-hearted and not PC way visibly put everyone at ease.  No 800 lb. gorilla in that room. 
        
        2.   Never once did he use a racial term like Black, Asian, African-American, white, etc.  It was a post-racial speech; this in itself was a new way of approaching race through ignoring it.  
        
        3.    Moreover, it didn't distract from his central point: the key element holding progress back and keeping Congress from passing anything meaningful is the hyper-partisanship, divisive, blue/red state culture of Washington (spilled over into the body politic).  Obama underscored we have all the talent and knowledge to make government work, that crafting legislation is not rocket science: something else held us back.
        
        4.     It was his sticking to and elaborating from this central theme that made people want to come back and bring their friends.  Why?  Because it perfectly reflected how the voters were feeling, the disgust most Americans had with a political culture that had degenerated so far.  Other politicians will mention hyper-partisanship in a litany of woes, Obama set the need to overcome it as the central theme of his campaign.  Division along partisan lines, not race, religion, even ideology was the real division holding America back.  Taking action on it was simple.  He was the only candidate focusing on this: vote for him.   Implicitly he said: vote for me on this if for no other reason.   The election results show many people did just that, despite their reservations or even blatant racism.
        
        5.      Another feature of Obama's stump speech was his ability to set out a clear, strategic framework for how he thinks and works.  Instead of Hillary-esque 10-point single issue programs, he linked the economy, energy and the environment together.  He talked in concepts!  He showed his vision of things and the dynamic integration of events instead of the dull, overdone recitation of woes most politicians stick to. People ate it up, even as the media dismissed him as too professorial.  They kept coming. The most brilliant intellectual and the poorly educated alike took away a lot from a simple Obama speech.  The big five you pointed out: even more.
        
        I'm raising all this because I think Obama's ability to change the framework of political discussion - and how people see events - is fundamental to his success as a president.  He brings an alternate world view to the job.  And that's big. (When have we ever heard a US President speak to the frustration of Islamic nations under colonialism as well as being caught as proxies in Cold War power struggles - within the first three paragraphs of an 11 page speech?!) People instinctively  are drawn to it. It makes sense.
     
    Yet how Obama frames big issues like race, Islam and civil liberties is so fundamentally different from other politicians - the challenge (and danger) he faces is how he will change the facts on the ground enough to embed that vision within the American political culture. 
        
        For example, sometimes I think Obama is pursuing so many things at one time thinking that perhaps he can seed energy, health care, a new foreign policy, etc. enough that they can be finished off by his successors.  Get the nose of many camels under many tents - instead of satisfying each constituency.
     
     This could be the link between Obama's vision his pragmatism that so many pundits and reporters trip over.  Watch how the 'public plan' is written into his health care legislation. That'll be the tip-off. 

    More »

  • If you've been wondering about BiggieSu

    His Beijing quarantine saga, previously mentioned here and here, has now come to its end. May have been a nuisance for him, but highly entertaining for the reading public -- especially with this taxonomy of "The Seven People You'll Meet in Hotel Quarantine." Full chronicles here.

    After two dispatches, I received no further updates from the Chinese-American person being quarantined in Shanghai (and whose mother apparently developed H1N1.) I am assuming that all is well there and the person decided that more attention would be a minus rather than a plus.

    On leaving Beijing airport a day and a half ago, my wife and I found that all the government officials we encountered -- security screeners, passport stampers, general standing-around staff -- wore medical-type masks over their faces and in many cases surgical-style gloves, testament to constant vigilance against the dreaded flu. On arrival 13 hours later in the US, we saw a little sign in front of the US immigration desk, saying that if we felt feverish or fluish, it would be a good idea to avoid close contact with other people -- but that was that. I have a theory about what the resolute Chinese government response to this so-far-not-very-powerful disease says about "security theater" in the Chinese context. But that's for later.

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