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.
  • Reverse angle equity, and 再见北京

    Several thousand times over the past 18 months I've posted shots out the back window of our apartment in Beijing, as ways of illustrating the air quality, or lack thereof, in the big city. For instance, this one back in March:

    For the record, here's how the same scene looks from the opposite direction. This is a shot back toward our apartment window, which is almost exactly in the middle of the frame, taken from a pedestrian walkway over a big road just murkily visible in the shot above. The low, reddish-colored, Mao-era building in the foreground of the second view is the same one in the bottom center of the first.

    And as we leave the apartment for the last time (I'm scheduling this post for the minute we get in the taxi for the airport), a clearer-sky view out the back from this past weekend. In this view it's possible to see the overpass, and a lot more -- including the arched bridge over the canal shown two days ago. Unfortunately, today the air is back to blear.http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7524.jpg


  • Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general

    Ten days ago I was writing a dispatch about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, when the internet service where I was (in Shaanxi) cut out. The elections in Iran and general question of political change in the Middle East are a topical reminder to get back to this point:

    As I started to say earlier, here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are.

    Here are the ones I'm counting as big speeches, starting with the most recent and working backward:

    June 4, Cairo: US relations with Islam

    May 21, National Archives in DC: anti-terrorism strategy, including torture, habeus corpus, etc

    May 17, Notre Dame U: clash of religious values in politics, including over abortion

    April 14, Georgetown U: short- and long-term economic strategy

    April 5, Prague: reducing nuclear weapons around the world

    March 18, 2008, Philadelphia: race and American values

    I'm not even counting convention speeches, the inaugural address, his State of the Union, or a bunch of other performances. They were all fine but more like other, normal "good" political speeches.

    These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:

    Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.

    The point is probably clearest by analogy to talk radio. People don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or, to be "fair" about it, Keith Olbermann in his freshest phase -- to change their political ideas. They want new fuel, new riffs, new outrages. Most political speeches are doing a more polite version of this: reinforcing what people think and, through clearer expression, giving them new conviction in thinking it.

    Figuring out how to clarify, express, and even poeticize people's existing views is no trivial achievement. Ronald Reagan gave conservatives new images and languages for expressing their views. Teddy Kennedy has often done so for liberals. George Wallace, in his heyday, for segregationists. You can tell that a speech is in this category when the crowd response is on the lines of "That's right!" Or "You, tell 'em!" or a rapid leap to the feet to cheer. Campaign speeches naturally have a very high quotient of this kind of rhetoric. Most of the time in a campaign, the main goal is to rally and motivate your side, as opposed to changing minds on the other side. So even in Obama's case, most of his campaign rhetoric was reinforcing and revving up: "Yes we can!" "That's change we can believe in." "Not Red states and Blue states but the United States..." Etc.

    That's why the speeches above, with one exception, are all from his period as a sitting president rather than as a candidate. The exception was his Philadelphia speech about race, which was less a normal campaign speech than a command-performance, save-the-campaign attempt to change the concept of "race" through which (mostly white) people saw the candidacy of the first non-white politician with a serious chance at the presidency.

    What Obama did in that speech is what he has done, or attempted to do, in those subsequent five big speeches as president. Rather than simply reaffirming or reinforcing what much of the public already thinks; and rather than attempting the relatively common political feat of explaining small changes or compromises in policy; he has tried to change the basic way in which we think about large issues. You can look back on his 2004 Democratic convention speech, given before he'd even been elected to the Senate, as a preview of this approach. By 2008, "not Red states or Blue states..." had become a mere catch phrase. In 2004, during the embittered Bush-Kerry campaign, it was something like a new idea. That's what got him such a response in the convention hall (I was there; it was electrifying), and extensions of that approach are what make his big speeches these days seem different from what we generally hear.

    If political speeches typically sound "hazy," the reason is that most of the the time excess clarity brings risks. As a journalistic or literary writer, your goal is to make your meaning absolutely as clear as it can possibly be. In political rhetoric, most of the time you want to clarify views only to the extent that most people will still agree. (Yes, we all agree on "protecting the environment" and "keeping the nation safe." So you talk about that, not the more controversial specifics.) Obama's big speeches sound unusual because he's often being quite clear (eg, talking about his white grandmother's view of black people) en route to introducing new "frames" or approaches to basic questions.

    I'm not saying that all his plans are going to work. I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. As argued earlier, often they're not even that "well written," in a fancy-phrasemaking sense. I am saying: there's a reason they seem similar as a group and different from normal political rhetoric. The difference is, they're asking us to change our minds.

    More »

  • Aviation update miscellany: good, bad, constructive

    Good. Pilot of a Cirrus SR-22 gets into trouble while flying over North Carolina but has an option. As the Mount Airy News reports, the pilot

    "...was at 6,000 feet when he declared an emergency, pulled the parachute his plane was equipped with, let go of the control panel and floated to the ground about one and a half miles into the woods off Still Water Lane.
    "[He] was able to walk away from the site and place a call to 911 to inform them he was searching for emergency personnel and thought he had spotted some of them looking for him."

    There are other recent developments involving Cirrus. (Positive: increasing production rate and recalling workers as worldwide sales pick up. Negative: found partly liable by a Minnesota jury for millions in damages after a crash in which a non-instrument rated pilot took off before dawn in bad weather and was killed, along with his passenger. The NTSB traced the probable cause of the accident to the "pilot's improper decision" to attempt the flight at all. More on these another time.) . Beautiful and elegant Beaver float plane crashes while attempting takeoff near Anchorage last week. (Via Eric Redman.) Not-so-bad aspects: No one apparently hurt, and remarkable minute-long YouTube video shot by unbelievably gutsy young cameraman.

    Constructive: In response to an airline pilot's observation, here, that he typically has less up-to-date weather info available in the cockpit than pilots of modern small planes like the CIrrus do, former FAA and DOT official Andrew Steinberg writes to say:

    "What strikes me on reading this discussion is that the slow pace of implementation of the NextGen air traffic system -- here and in Europe -- means that we don't prevent these preventable accidents (if it turns out that weather caused the demise of this [Air France 447] flight).   As you may remember, providing integrated weather displays to pilots, as well as controllers, is a key part of the Next Gen effort.  It's absurd that commercial pilots don't have these tools.   An article describing how the weather product fits into Next Gen is attached."

    The article in question is here. As for the difference this might or might not have made to the Air France flight itself, which got in trouble over the open sea, another correspondent says:

    "You know what we (meteorologists) call the oceanic regions?
    "The big blue data void.
    "It is hard to explain that to people who only look at CONUS." [Continental US, which has radar stations and other monitoring tools wherever you look.]

    And another airline pilot writes in to say:

    Your point on higher-tech and more real-time weather information being available for GA ["general aviation," small private plane] pilots versus airline pilots is well taken, but disregards an important advantage us 121 [airline] pilots have over aircraft with these XM weather uplinks....

    I fly for a Northwest, now Delta, regional and we have access to the same ACARS delivered weather updates as the big boys. [ACARS is an automated data-collection service that shares info among planes in the air.]   Granted they are delivered in text and require manual plotting, but once done they are very accurate and enormously effective.  Base and/or composite reflectivity radar maps can be very deceiving to a pilot flying at FL370, since a lot of the weather depicted on those maps is very low.  ACARS coordinates and altitude of cell tops is often much better information, especially when considering whether to pick your way through a line at night or take a long detour. In addition the dispatchers themselves [airline employees who monitor the flights from the ground], being another human in the loop with even more information, can be invaluable in saving your bacon.  Between myself, my FO [first officer], and my dispatcher, I've got three eyes on the problem- which I'd take over any Nexrad/XM maps any day of the week.
    Now I admit I'm spoiled flying as I do mostly over the continental US.  Transoceanic would be somewhat trickier given, as you say, the dearth of other traffic over the same route serving as guinea pigs.  That said, given what I know about the resources available to the Air France pilots, I am at a loss for why they found themselves on the midst of such a violent storm.

    Also constructive: Carl Malamud, the inveterate crusader for making "public" information truly available to the public, has put online a variety of Federal videos related to aviation, here. This is part of his larger FedFlix effort to digitize films and videos produced by the government, and his even larger PublicResource.org campaign for opening up public data.

    Not so good

  • About the internet, the Atlantic, and Iran

    In coverage of Iran over the past week and especially in these last few days, Andrew Sullivan has on his site illustrated the way the internet and related technologies have permanently changed journalism for the better. So have a number of other people at other sites, which have made themselves clearinghouses for information coming out of Iran in emails, blog posts, camera-phone and ad hoc video transmissions, and other forms including, yes, Twitter feeds. Collectively they've let the outside world know more about what is happening in a would-be sealed-off country, and given people inside that country a place to share and compare news as they could not possibly have done even a few years ago.

    This fact is worth noting its own right, as a moment when we see that something truly new and positive has occurred. It's also worth observing in light of the many seemingly-permanent changes for the worse in journalism that have coincided with the internet era, whether or not they've been caused by it.

    If I'm not mentioning anything about Iran at the moment, it's not because I think the news unimportant but rather because I have no contacts in the country and nothing to add to the discussion. As we follow developments there it's worth recognizing the different era in communications that has begun.

  • Coincidence? Paranoia? Virus?

    Perhaps this is a statistically improbable, but sometimes-it-happens, no-reason-for-it anomaly.  But for the record:

    Within a two-hour period this evening, as we pack to head to the airport tomorrow, (1) my wife's HP laptop, running WinXP, suddenly froze while she was using it, and since then has been entirely unresponsive on repeated attempts to boot up; and then (2) exactly the same thing happened to my ThinkPad T60, running (sigh) Win Vista, which I have used for the past year strictly as a storage and backup machine, for photos and similar high-volume stuff. Identical symptoms: failure to boot, black screen on startup, not even any hard disk sound. (Exasperation with Vista, and with the craplets Lenovo has added to my long-beloved ThinkPad line, made me switch my working platform to Mac + VMWare Fusion running WinXP early last year.)

    Could be that both of them are flat worn out after three years here. And collapsing with the end hours away. Just like, ahem, us. Could be. But if it turns out that some new Windows- based virus is making its way around the world, H1N1-like, you can consider this Patient Zero. Would be strange if it affected two different releases of Windows on two different kinds of machines. But pure coincidence would be strange too. Both had AVG Avast! anti-virus up and running, and both using VPNs at time they were struck down.

    FWIW, MacMini and MacBook Air still chugging along. (This is not a product point, simply describing the situation.) And THANK HEAVEN for SugarSync, which has full backups of all four of our computers nestled safely in the Cloud. Time to finish that last bottle of Yanjing beer, Beijing's answer to REEB, and get ready for tomorrow's flight.

  • Updates: education, quarantine

    As mentioned two days ago, Mike Su was taken off to quarantine in Beijing after someone on his flight from America turned out to be sick. Today Su has posted a richly (and fancifully) illustrated account of "Life in the Big House" at his quarantine hotel. .

    And from another foreigner who has been teaching English in a rural area:

    Apropos of the thread about the Chinese testing system, several of our very best students earned very high marks in the English section of the recent 'further study' battery that determines whether or not a student may continue their higher education. In spite of their excellent performance in their major subject, they are crippled in their attempt to attend any Chinese college or university for post graduate work because they were a few points deficient in the politics portion of the examination.

    No matter how well one does in other parts of the test, failure to pass the politics (read 'indoctrination certification') portion disqualifies a student from any further education except under very diminished circumstances. Imagine the flowing tears and heartbreak surrounding graduation 2009. Even our Chinese colleagues are incensed.
    That grinding sound you hear is enamel coming off my teeth.

    I have examples of the content of these "political" courses, which are among the most visible holdovers of Marxism in today's China, but not available right now. More later.

  • Our wacky government, chapter 21,472 (updated!)

    A friend preparing to enter the foreign service was looking through the official list of "hardship" posts and the extra pay that goes with them. Some are obvious -- Kabul! I have no idea what embassy life is like there, but 35% seems only reasonable.


    Same presumably true of Iraq, no matter how much "calmer" things may be getting there.


    But... China?


    Yeah, yeah, I've griped about pollution and traffic in Beijing, and maybe 10% is fair, all things considered. (Hey, Atlantic head office, just a hint!) But half again as much "hardship" to be in Shanghai??? Paris of the Orient, and all of that? And while Shenyang has its bleak side and Wuhan and Nanjing are two of the famous "Three Furnaces of China," it's intriguing that they should be seen as constituting nearly as much hardship as Kabul. Maybe just a reminder of the oddities that come when you try to quantify things that really aren't similar. (Hardship in Kabul: actual risk to life and limb. Hardship in Shanghai: making do with REEB beer.) On the other hand, we have a friend soon heading off for several years' diplomatic service in Wuhan. As far as we're concerned, she deserves every cent.

    UPDATE: Many FSOs and other public employees have written in to say that "hardship pay" is only part of the story. There is also "danger pay," which obviously is higher in a place like Kabul than one like Wuhan, and other supplements. One representative note:
    I'd like to point out that the hardship differential is not designed to compensate Foreign Service Officers for dangerous duty. The hardship differential is paid for a variety of reasons: if the duty location is heavily polluted, or if it is very isolated, or if it is in a very poor area and amenities are hard to come by, and so forth.  It's basically an incentive for FSOs to bid on tours in places where life will be very uncomfortable.  I don't know about the air in Beijing, though I've heard it's very bad; I do know about the air in Cairo, which is so bad that it does the damage of smoking several packs of cigarettes a day.  Hardship pay basically compensates FSOs in places like Cairo for sacrificing their health to serve their country.

    Hardship pay is separate from danger pay, which is paid for tours where life and limb are risked.  There are also COLAs for tours in countries where cost of living would be very high; this could be a tour in a very wealthy country, where everything costs an arm or a leg, or in a country where a terrible exchange rate wipes out a good chunk of every pay check, or in a country where everything has to be imported and therefore costs a fortune.  There is also separation pay, which an FSO can receive for an unaccompanied tour that entails
    separation from one's family.  An FSO could, in theory, earn multiple compensations for going on a poor, isolated, polluted, dangerous tour.
    Sorry to tell only part of the story the first time through. By the way, this is an interesting little illustration of the weaknesses and also strengths of online reportage. For the print version of the magazine, I would never have published something without calling around to several people to say: OK, let's hear more about this foreign-pay schedule. What's the rationale? What else is involved? And whether or not I'd done that that, Sue Parilla or Yvonne Rolzhausen or some other member of our crack fact-checking team would have done it too. So, this kind of chart without the extra info would not have made it into the magazine.

    On the other hand, in print I would never have had the chance to hear from people around the world within minutes of pushing the "save" button -- and make a correction as soon as I saw their comments when I next got email. Different media, different roles, different vulnerabilities and strengths.
  • OK, one mystery solved (updated)

    I mentioned last night my puzzlement about why and how the dramatic new CCTV tower, whose entire point was the stark simplicity of its design (by Rem Koolhaas), had been junked up by an inexplicable and unignorable wart on its roof line. This is in keeping with the theme of last month's Atlantic article, about the tendency of many projects here to turn out almost right.

    I am grateful to readers who wrote in suggesting that it was a window-washing platform, which would move along rails around the perimeter (no, it's always in the same place); or perhaps a giant satellite dish (no, as is obvious from other views).

    The dispositive comment came from Jim Gourley, who reminded me that he had pointed out last year on his Rudenoon blog that it was indeed a helipad; that something similar had been in the works for a long time; but that the original idea was for something much more contained and concealed that would do less to destroy the overall look of the structure, as has now occurred. From his Flickr picture of the earlier plans:


    And Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei, had pointed out just before the Olympics began that "The iconic new CCTV building designed by Rem Koolhaas has had its clean lines ruined by the addition of a helicopter landing pad on the roof." Now I know. If only there were ever any helicopters in sight above Chinese cities.... (Separate topic.)

    To round out the CCTV theme, a very nice FT story by Kathrin Hille quotes Tong Bing, a Chinese journalism professor, on what's wrong with the (state-controlled) network's mainstream news show:
    "Currently, the programme has three parts: political leaders' activities for the first ten minutes, other news for second ten minutes, and international news for last ten minutes," said Mr Tong. "During the first part, people tend to watch commercials. They use the second part to go to the toilet. Only for the third part will they come back to listen."  >
     >(Thanks to D. Lippman >)

    Update: via Micah Sittig, info that Tong Bing's observation is a cleaned up version of a standard joke. For rendering of the joke in Chinese, see comments #24 and #29 at this site. English version, per Sittig, "Evening News classic summary. First 10 minutes: the (national) leaders are busy; middle 10 minutes: the Chinese people are prospering; last 10 minutes: the rest of the world is living in chaos and hardship." Commenter #29 points out that he often amuses himself on foreign travels observing said chaos and hardship.

  • Journal of the plague year, #2

    A second-day installment from the Chinese-American person now quarantined in Shanghai. First installment here. In this episode, a family member who has just been to the United States is diagnosed with... the H1N1 flu! Some additional thoughts from inside the quarantine site at the end of the dispatch.

     My mom was on all the major news outlets yesterday... "Woman has been diagnosed as a  confirmed case ..."  She had a slight cold which she caught at [a college graduation ceremony she just attended in the US] but was all better by the time she got on the plane. She had no fever, no cough, no physical symptoms of the flu. However, during one of the numerous times they measured her temperature while she was in quarantine, she was found to have a "fever" of 0.2C above normal.
    They took her to an infectious disease hospital where they gave her a blood test. The PCR results came back positive. Other than that one measurement, her temperature has been normal since. The doctor that is treating her told her privately that he was sorry for her because as a medical professional, he recognizes that H1N1 is the normal flu but that he has to follow government protocol, "you are asymptomic with a low viral load so you were very unlucky to have gotten caught." ...

    My mom has the virus and I have her cell phone so for the past day, I've been getting all kinds of phone calls and texts from her friends. The texts usually say something to the effect of, "We are so sorry. Please be comforted to know that you are under the care of the best doctors. Do not worry because you will recover from this horrible disease."  The phone calls are a bit more awkward because when I tell them that my mom has no physical side-effects, the reactions tends to be "Oh, of course not but don't worry yourself sick. You must take care of yourself.  Take care of your body and stay strong psychologically." Oh, Chinese media, you have done a wonderful job of brainwashing your audience.

    I shouldn't be making fun of family friends who mean only well when they send me their condolences, however misguided.  Yet, there are others who have behaved in a manner that is to say the least, extremely disappointing.  Before we knew we were going to be quarantined, my mom went to her office to check her email. She was there for less than an hour.  She rode the elevator to the 10th floor and ran into some of her students on the way. At the time, she had no idea that she was carrying the latent virus. In the past 24 hours, the floor below and above where her office is has been cordoned off. Everyone working on those floors must submit to regular temperature checks. The place is swarmed with health officials and notices are up everywhere asking people who know my mother to be under high alert. Some have voluntarily requested to be quarantined for fear of having being infected. Three people, working in the floor above my mother's, complained of feeling feverish and were rushed off to the hospital.  

    I am sorry if somehow, my mom did in fact infect those people with H1N1 although that likelihood is small and symptoms rarely develop that quickly. My mother is now racked with guilt for having inconvenienced so many people but she is also feeling somewhat betrayed.  A seemingly innocuous visit to her office has now been labeled as an "incident" by the government (murder would also be placed in the "incident" category).  Everyone who works for the institute has to attend a meeting to learn about H1N1 prevention and the heads of the institute have been summoned to report to officials in Beijing. We didn't know any of this was happening in the outside world but one of mom's co-workers called to tell her. In that same conversation, he not so subtly suggested that my dad, who is still in the US for a conference, should voluntarily quarantine himself for a week upon his return to China.

    A picture of my mother in her hospital bed was taken and released to the media without her permission. Although they have not gone as far as to reveal her name, they have released enough personal information (including where she lives and works) to have made it very easy to identify her. She can't claim "innocence" but this incident has intensified her distain for Chinese politics. My parents work for [an elite organization, which] is filled with Chinese who were educated abroad but chose to return to the place of their birth. They love China as a country but as I have told some of you in the past, one of their biggest worries (which I once considered irrational) is that a movement like the CR could easily happen again. It is why my father insisted that my mom become a US citizen even though it severely limits her career working for a government funded organization.  Looking at the mass hysteria that the government was able to create and manipulate using H1N1, did China not learn anything?   

    There are many little things that you become aware of when living in China... Every time I come home, I have to report to the police station to register my "foreign status".  This past Christmas, I failed to do so right away and two police officers showed up at my door. How did they know I was there? That is anybody's guess.  These incidents are strange in isolation but taken together, are far more disturbing. I was willing to overlook them in the past because I was so blindly fond of China but that is not the case anymore.  

    In an additional note, the quarantinee is careful to emphasize that "the quarantine workers at the hotel are treating us courteously andthe general attitude seems to be that they believe they are doing this for our own protection." But:

     My indignation is directed at what I see as an overreaction and needless fear-mongering by officials and the state media (though I suppose the media hype is not just limited to China)....  The implications of creating mass paranoia are disturbing especially in this country. Most of the Chinese people who have called to offer me their condolences have also told me that I should not be upset because I am getting taken care of at no expense to myself. It must a cultural difference because I'm not exactly feeling grateful for this surreal experience.

    More »

  • Paradise Beijing, final edition

    Previously in the Paradise Beijing series: here, here, and here.

    Most accurate air-quality reading today: not "dangerous for sensitive groups" or "hazardous," but "good"! Temperatures balmy, winds light, skies clear. Time for a final run along the canal.

    Looking east, toward the Fourth Ring Road and beyond:

    Looking west, in toward the Second Ring Road (same bridge, from different sides, in both shots):

    Fishermen, bicyclers, drunks and idlers, young romantics, and school kids were out enjoying the paradise too. Carpe diem, as we say in Beijing.

  • Departing questions

    When I first arrived in China, I wrote an Atlantic article about various mysteries I hoped to explore. I've learned about some, still puzzled about others. Keep reading for further hypotheses!

    But more mysteries arise as I near departure. One involves the famous CCTV tower, which has been going up a a few blocks from our apartment during the three years we've been in China and the past 18 months we've been in Beijing. Here's how it is supposed to look, in a MOMA pre-construction, heroically glamorous rendering as seen more or less from where we live.

    Precious little seems to have happened to the building over the past 18 months (setting aside the fire that destroyed the adjoining Mandarin Oriental hotel in February). A year ago at this time, we thought there was a race to get it ready before the Olympics. Nope. Through all this time, my wife and I have constantly wondered what was going on with the very top of the building. Here's how the roof line actually looks as of today, starting with a long shot from the south:


    Closer southerly view:

    And, long shot from the Sanlitun area in the north:

    For a long time, we thought hoped this was some kind of construction staging pad. But the rooftop cranes came and went, and this thing stayed. Helipad? Who knows. But I wonder whether this was quite what Rem Koolhaas had in mind when he drew the tower's stark, dramatic lines. It has, umm, a somewhat noticeable effect on the building's profile. Another reason to come back soon and see how it, like so many other parts of China, looks when it's "done."

  • Journal of the plague year (Shanghai edition)

    An extraordinary statement from someone now being quarantined in Shanghai is below and after the jump. First, a bit of context:

    The World Health Organization has of course now declared H1N1 a "pandemic," while emphasizing that its effects so far are mild. You can look long and hard at the WHO's main site about the disease (nerds will note that the site's URL retains its original basename "swineflu" rather than the less porcophobic current term) without seeing any recommendations for widespread quarantine programs or closing of national borders etc.

    To put the disease's toll in perspective: of the 30,000 cases reported so far all around the world, about 150 people appear to have died from this variant of flu. And in many "though not all" of these cases, according to the WHO, the victims had "underlying chronic conditions." For comparison: since the time I woke up this morning, about 150 people have died of tuberculosis in China alone.* Estimates vary, but "normal" seasonal flu typically kills around 1,000 people per day worldwide.

    [*TB math: According to the UN, China's average annual death rate from tuberculosis is about 15 per 100,000 population. For a Chinese population of 1.3 billion, that would mean about 195,000 TB deaths per year, or about 535 per day.] 

    Of course any new disease strain raises new concerns about potential mutations. And of course a big, poor country like China has different public health considerations than, say, Switzerland might. But bear in mind the dimensions of this current disease threat relative to other real concerns while reading this account from earlier this week, by a person currently quarantined in Shanghai. The writer is originally Chinese but now with U.S. citizenship. It is quite long, but you will not regret reading to the very end. It begins:

    When I landed in Shanghai on Saturday afternoon, a team of medical officials wearing white bio-hazard suites boarded the plane with heat wands and measured everyone's temperature. All passengers were required to remain in their seats while they went around to each individual to check them for physical symptoms of H1N1. These measures had become standard protocol in China due to fears of a H1N1 outbreak. We all passed the inspection and were let off of the plane. I thought I was free to enjoy my two weeks in China.
    On Sunday, I took the subway into downtown Shanghai and spent most of the day visiting The Bund, Nanjing Lu and Yu Yuan (3 of the most crowded tourist attractions in Shanghai).  At four pm, I received a call on my cell phone from the health department informing me that someone sitting three rows behind me on the plane had developed symptoms of H1N1 and that I was to be quarantined. I was told to go home immediately and a medical team arrived at the house to ask me questions.

    After asking me to wear a surgical mask and gloves and disinfecting our house with some kind of spray, these men, dressed in masks and white suites like Martians, took me downstairs where another handful of men were waiting with an ambulance. Sirens blaring, I was driven through traffic to an isolated hotel on the outskirts of the City.

    I am now sitting by myself in a room, in a building full of other "suspected" H1N1 patient. I can use the internet, the phone and watch TV but there is a lock on the front door and I'm not allowed to leave my room or talk to the other "guests". Three women dressed in full gear deliver food to me three times a day (7:30, noon and 5:30 pm) and I get my temperature taken too. They confiscated my passport but there are plenty of posters and pamphlets everywhere describing precautions and horror that is H1N1.

    The funniest part about all of this? I don't have H1N1. Although the people here refuse to answer most of my questions, I was given an English document from the government describing proper procedure for the quarantine. I quote, from the section "When will you be free to leave"

    "The time to lift the medical observation depends on the diagnosis of the passenger with fever symptoms. If the diagnosis rules out the possibility of A H1N1 infection, you will be free to leave immediately...However, if the test report shows anything suspicious or needs another diagnosis, your time of staying here will have to be extended according to official notice..."

    That is what the official government notice says. "I will be free to leave immediately," yet when I asked the workers here about that statement, they claimed that I was misinterpreting the text. Clearly, my English skills have regressed rapidly. When I asked for a blood test, the official way to confirm whether or not I carry the virus, I was denied, "We only test people who look sick. You don't look sick. If you develop a fever, we will test you." 

    So I am still here in my hotel room, healthy but treated as if I have the plague. Counting down the days. One down, six more to go.

    The standard procedure, quarantine for all passengers sitting three rows in front or three rows behind someone with H1N1, seemed amusing when I first heard about it a few weeks ago. I defended it as an understandable reaction for a nation which had screwed up badly during the SARS epidemic. Now, frustrated, bored, and utterly disappointed at the demise of a trip that I had look forward to since December, the reality is no longer amusing.

    Those who know me know that I rarely lose my temper, but I lost it yesterday and many times since. I am angry because I see all of this as unfair. This hotel room feels like a prison and I'm being incarcerated for a "crime" that I did not commit with no way to prove my "innocence". 

    "Crime" is in quotation marks because, as those of us who lived through [a recent university commencement ceremony] can attest to, H1N1 is for all practical if not publicity purposes, no different from any other strain of flu. Yes people get sick from it and there is always the risk of mutation but is a 7 day isolation period the appropriate way to treat individuals who may or may not have the virus based on some artificial boundary of three rows? And if H1N1 was in fact deadly, how could have they even have allowed the suspected carrier to get off of the plane and travel through all kinds of crowded places before placing them in quarantine in the first place?

    I thought I was free to enjoy my time in Shanghai until I was tracked down at a coffee shop on Nanjing Street. Not only did they track me down, which was pretty competent in an Orwellian sort of way, they also informed many of my parents' colleagues and neighbors of our "illness". 

    A picture of my mom and her basic information was featured on the news without her knowledge of consent.  In this country, you are guilty until proven innocent and don't expect any privacy in the mean time. Ever since SARS, flu outbreaks have carried a heavy social stigma. I don't know what the implications will be for my parents whose entire circle of acquaintances and semi-acquaintances have somehow gotten news of this.  But from the withering glances (plus a lot of pointing and mothers shielding their children) that my neighbors gave me when I was being taken away in an ambulance yesterday, I can probably guess.

    Out of frustration, I complained that I was being treated unfairly. I spoke my mind and said that I felt as if my rights were being violated by the Communist government. When I said this, I sent my jailers into a frenzy, "Don't criticize China! Do not criticize China!"  Those of you who know me know that in the past, I've always tended to defend the Chinese government. Yes some of their measures were draconian but they were also efficient and effective, I said. And at the time, I truly believed that it was a fair tradeoff. Fewer rights for faster outcomes.

    I take all of that back. I rarely get angry but I am so angry now. I've never felt so keenly the disadvantages of living under a government that does not recognize the concept of personal rights. Some of that anger is personal, no one wants to spend most of their vacation alone and enclosed. But the deeper anger is directed at my sense of helplessness. I cannot do anything to extract myself from a nightmare that is out of my control and blown way out of proportion. I have no way of defending myself and have not come up with any logical justifications to soothe my anger. I am being treated courteously by the staff here but it still feels like being in prison.

    Since I have infinite time on my hands, I've been watching a lot of Chinese television. The official state media is filled with reports of the dangers of H1N1. Yesterday, an entire talk show was devoted to interviewing a healthy Chinese woman studying abroad who is refusing to visit her family in China this summer because she did not want to risk infecting them with the disease. Reporters and officials in her hometown praised her sense of "civic responsibility" and "patriotism". The piece concluded with words to the effect of, China welcomes and embraces all of her children from around the world. 

    While this type of blatant propaganda would have amused me even a week back, watching it yesterday made me sick. I've been asked multiple times to provide the names of anyone I came in contact with during my 24 hours of freedom (friends, taxi drivers, cashiers, and waitresses...). I've refused so good luck finding them and the thousands of other people "exposed" to my presence in the city.  Call me a horrible person but I refuse to help the "glorious cause". 

    Although the context is different, the political puppet show that is the H1N1 witch hunt has given me glimpses of the emotions and irrationalities which allowed the CR to happen only 40 years ago. If I had any illusions about what the government of this country will or will not do, I've been disabused of those notions. I feel sorry for the Chinese people who from watching the Chinese news, live in fear of being swamped by a deadly outbreak of H1N1 or other new forms of flu sure to arise in the future. I can no longer defend the actions of this government or look forward to living in a country where the precautionary response to H1N1 is the benign tip of the iceberg. There are many other things I want to say but I should probably censor myself from writing them in this email...

    Although the official flight details are not being released to the press, [Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans] was on the same flight as me (though I had no idea that the mayor of NO would fly economy as the three row zone of quarantine would seem to suggest). 

    I have six day left here and I'll be spending them in "quiet" reflection. I will probably make peace with this at some point though it will take a while. Maybe I will look back one day and feel instead of anger and frustration, the humor in being caught in a situation so illogical that it must not be real.  Maybe everything was too good in my life and karma was bound to catch up with me at some point. On the bright side, this is the closest I will hopefully ever get to prison though I did commit to spending the next two years in this country. If there is a silver lining, it is that I realize now that I am much more American than Chinese in my temperament and beliefs. I didn't feel any sort of emotion when I became an US citizen three years ago. In fact, I saw it as a practical decision. But now, I appreciate that privilege so much more.

    More »

  • Winding up

    I'm aware of a ton of loose threads to be gathered up (about Air France updates, Obama's speaking style, urban design in China, design in software, boiled frogs, you name it). Soon.

    But three years in China have now come down to three days; the movers arrive in nine hours; and I've happily spent my last reporting day -- at least of this stint in China -- in an uplifting fashion, at a tiny airport outside Beijing on a spectacular blue-sky day. Its managers and organizers have the dream of bringing convenient flight to remote communities across China.

    I like the many dreamers and visionaries I have met in China, so I liked these people. And I liked that, in addition to their legacy aircraft (first pic),  they were building their fleet with the same Cirrus airplanes I had known in the United States.

    Legacy fleet:

    Cirrus SR-22 (with Cirrus's man in China, Scott Jiang):

    Back to packing. Loose ends soon.

  • This does not bode well

    Front page of yesterday's China Daily, my favorite newspaper, echoing stories throughout the Chinese press (for instance, here, in the English version of the leading economics magazine Caijing). I am referring to the "Exporters get sops" story.


    For the background on why this spells trouble, check out this Atlantic article from two months ago, on the risks of China's trying to defend its trade surplus when demand is collapsing around the world. After the jump, a relevant excerpt from the article. More tomorrow, in between last-minute packing and other imperatives.

    From "China's Way Forward," the Atlantic, April 2009. It starts with a reference to Michael Pettis of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, who noted the resemblance between China's role in the world economy now and America's on the eve of the Great Depression:

    Pettis wrote recently that China's worldwide trade surplus, "the cleanest measure of overcapacity"--factories that are running and workers who are employed only because of foreign customers--is by one measure at least as large as America's was in 1929. China today, like America then, has a trade surplus equal to about 0.5 percent of global economic output. But as a proportion of its own economic output, China's trade surplus is much bigger than America's was. In proportional terms, today's China is five times as reliant on foreign customers to create domestic jobs as America was in 1929. So unless China can find a way to keep selling when its customers have stopped buying, it will face a proportionately greater employment shock.

    That China might indeed try to keep selling is the concluding part of Pettis's cautionary analogy to the Depression era. As stock markets crashed and economies collapsed, the U.S. trade surplus nearly disappeared. American businesses, desperate to preserve markets and jobs, lobbied for passage of the infamous Smoot- Hawley Tariff,  which increased duties on a list of some 20,000 imported goods. Soon afterward, other countries retaliated with similar tariffs; world trade dried up, and the Great Depression was on. When people use the words "Smoot-Hawley" today, they usually mean them as a warning that any interference with trade, especially by the United States, could again prove disastrous.

    Pettis's point is different, and in a way more worrisome. The real damage of Smoot-Hawley, he says, was less economic than political. Other countries understood that the United States was trying to protect its trade surplus and therefore its workforce. They didn't like it as a political matter, and they struck back.

    If that were to happen again, would it be because of "Buy American" provisions or other forms of American "protectionism" editorial pages so often warn against? That's the wrong thing to worry about, according to this logic. The real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley would be Chinese protectionism--or rather, any effort by China to defend its huge trade surpluses, as the U.S. once did. China's government is unlikely to rely on outright Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs. Instead it could increase subsidies to exporters; it could try to push the RMB's value back down, after three years of letting the currency rise; it could encourage manufacturers to restrain wages; it could impose indirect barriers to imports, as with its recent pressure on China's airlines to cancel outstanding orders for Boeing and Airbus airplanes. By early this year, China's government was in fact doing every one of these things. As a result its global trade surplus, instead of shrinking as expected when the world economy deteriorated, grew dramatically. Exports fell, but imports fell much more: in January, exports declined by 17 percent and imports by more than twice as much--by 43 percent. This is an economic problem for other countries. But it could be an even more serious political provocation, if China is seen as forcing its share of unemployment problems onto everyone else. And thus, to bring this scenario to a close, the best China can expect from today's shocks might be unemployment rates higher than America's in the '30s. The worst would be for China to start a trade war that makes things even harder for itself.

    Emphasis added. More later. In the meantime, Pettis's updated thoughts on his blog, here.

    More »


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



From This Author