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.
  • Paradise Beijing, late spring edition (updated)

    Looking north from Jianguomen intersection, today at noon. Air not that great, but trees in full leaf and a strong, warm wind on the face. Feels good to be outside.

    Uh-oh! On coming back home, I find signs of trouble in paradise. The real-time metering of the most dangerous form of small-particulate pollution, here, has a result I'd rather not see. Maybe the moral is the same as in an earlier tale of destruction of Paradise. There are some questions better not asked. The warm wind still feels good to me.  UPDATE!!! on re-reading the fine print, the maxed-out code for the air-quality reading indicates "electric fault" with the meter.  Never mind!  I'll start re-enjoying the day.
    [Alarming bogus chart now removed]

  • One more on China, India, and the Western media

    In two previous posts, here and here, overseas Chinese readers have presented very different views on whether Western press outlets were ganging up against China, and whether India was by comparison getting a free ride.

    As a worthy complement to these arguments, an email from reader Shreeharsh Kelkar, giving an overseas Indian perspective:

    I was pleasantly surprised to read the email you published from an overseas Chinese citizen who thinks the western media treats China unfairly and that he would like to see China being treated the way India gets treated.  As an Indian who lives in the US, I have many many Indian friends who complain that the media here only talks about the poverty in India, that they emphasize only what's wrong with the country and not what's going right with it, that they talk only of the poor and not of the middle class.  Etc, etc.  

    I think both these complaints -- the Chinese and the Indian -- are, in some sense, two sides of the same coin.

    More »

  • Embarrasingly literal-minded note on "First they came for..."

    A peril of today's interconnected world is that people from widely varying language backgrounds can read the same material and come to widely different conclusions, based largely on command of the language itself. This is especially true right now of English, which hundreds of millions of people use as their native tongue -- and hundreds of millions more can understand as the dominant language of international business and media, but naturally with different levels of comprehension and subtlety.

    In a way this is like the problem I've recently described for politicians, who simultaneously address an internal and an external audience. A U.S. or British leader needs to assure the local citizens that he or she is defending their interests -- without doing so in a way that will offend the rest of the world. It's hard.

    This is on my mind because of a post earlier today about quarantine for Canadian students in China, on the basis of nationality rather than exposure to disease, following similar handling of Mexican citizens. The post was called, "First they came for the Mexicans. Then, the Canadians...."

    The "internal" audience for this post would generally recognize the title as a joke. Or at least a joking allusion. That audience -- of native speakers of English, especially native speakers of American English, especially native speakers of American English who had paid attention to politics and political sloganeering -- would know how often the "First they came for..." trope is used as the conclusion of any speech about excessive government control. If you're not already 100% familiar with it, start here. If, on the other hand, you've listened to (especially) American political speeches, you have heard this a million times, often in hyperbolic ways -- including the way I was using it, ironically, here.

    But not every reader is a native speaker of English or familiar with Western political rhetoric. So I have heard from a number of people who took offense at the idea that I was describing super-seriously a systematic manhunt for various national groups. Sigh. I have dealt with enough languages over the years to be humble about the challenges of operating outside one's native language terrain (and to recognize the convenience of being able to write to an international audience in my native language). But I don't know the way out of it. This magazine, in print and on line, is deliberately aimed at high-end readers of English who will understand allusions and tricks of language. We can't water that down, or take on the lead-weight of stage direction footnotes  -- "I'm being ironic here!" -- on parts that some people might misread. But the multiplicity of audiences is worth bearing in mind. And I try to.

    So apologies to any who took offense. Except to those who wrote huffily about what my words "meant," when that was the very thing they didn't really understand.

  • More political artwork

    We're nearing the end here. Four more proposed Old Master precursors for the memorable Obama group portrait. Previous candidates here. Probably one more crop to come, then the exciting lessons of our brief look at art.

    First, Governors of the Wine Merchants Guild, by Ferdinand Bol. I won't pretend that this was the Old Master I was thinking of, since I'd not aware of having seen it before.  But still:


    Next, a detail from Raphael's School of Athens, featuring the raised-finger gesture we see from Obama.

    After the jump, two more with the raised-finger motif.

    More »

  • First they came for the Mexicans. Then, the Canadians...

    I awake* to find numerous dispatches from Canadian and Canandian-friendly sources pointing out that a group of students from Canada has been placed in quarantine in China strictly because of their nationality -- not because they've come from flu-infected areas or fit any other rational criterion for quarantine. This is happening in the northeastern** city of Changchun, a regional industrial hub with a population about the size of New York's. According to the CBC account,

    Chinese officials in Changchun pulled the group aside after their plane landed in the northeastern city on Saturday, according to Martin Deslauriers, a Quebecer who is part of the language exchange group.

    An official came on board and asked all the Canadian passengers to present themselves, Deslauriers said. Health officials then took them to a room at the airport to have their temperatures taken, he said. No one in his group had a fever, but they were still informed they would be placed in quarantine, he said.

    And there they'll be for seven days. The story suggested that some students were disgruntled but others were considering it as much an adventure as an ordeal.

    Policy point: At one level, this is as arbitrary as the more widespread quarantining of Mexican passport holders, discussed in many posts here -- and more obviously nutty. Canadians? Is it because they come from someplace close to Mexico? If so, isn't there some other big country right in between those two? What about all its citizens? Therefore, by this train of reasoning, the case shows the unprincipled power of the Chinese state etc.

    But I am more struck by the additional element of illustrating how uneven, inexplicable, and anything-but-thorough the application of that power can be. For one thing, this appears to be policy free-lancing on the part of the local authorities. The story quoted its student interviewee thus: "Deslauriers said the students have been told by officials that the quarantine is a provincial measure and not part of a national plan by the Chinese government."

    And, it's a "quarantine" that appears to be in the tradition of "quarantine theater," like the "security theater" so familiar at airports around the world. The students have to stay inside the hotel -- but apparently the staff that serves them comes and goes normally! Now, if any of those staff members held a Canadian passport... I hope everyone keeps feeling fine.

    * Although there is a coals-to-Newcastle superfluity in linking to anything on Andrew Sullivan's site, the video he posted today exactly depicts how every day of my life begins. This is a lot of the reason I have avoided holding "normal" jobs.
    ** China's northeastern region -- known in Chinese as 东北, or "EastNorth" -- is the part of the country that first came under Japanese control in the 1930s when it was known to the outside world as Manchuria. Within China today, Manchuria is not an in-favor term; 东北 is the way to go.

  • More on the Western media and "beating up" on China

    Provoked in part by China's reaction to the world flu threat, a rich flow of responses about the country's sensitivity to outside criticism, its responsibilities as a major world power, the current state of its public morals, and the rest. In response to this recent message asking for greater Western "understanding" of China and saying that outsiders go much easier on Indian than on China, an eloquent reply from Xiaoxiao Huang:

    I am also an overseas Chinese, but I don't share the sentiment the Chinese reader has shown in his two messages to you. I'd like to share with you my opinion of his take on the role of the media, and China's human rights issue.

    I am always suspicious of the whole concept of a united "Western Media" against China as if Fox News, Le Monde, and Süddeutsche Zeitung were controlled by a multi-national Central Propaganda Department. As a Communications major, my understanding of the news media is that they should truthfully report and inform to the best of their knowledge. It is not the job of the Western media (or media of any origin) to "encourage" and babysit a foreign country. Maybe it's time that the Chinese try getting used to the fact that every Western country is "unique" as well, some of them believe in things that we do not believe, and it's OK.

    More »

  • More on the F-22, the F-35, and big expensive airplanes

    The Atlantic has been your one-stop site for all aspects of the "F-22 question" -- the decision on whether to buy more copies of the Air Force's latest fighter plane. Mark Bowden's article in the magazine here; various perspective from me here, here, and here;  SecDef Robert Gates's rationale in calling off purchases discussed here and here.

    Apart from the F-22, the other fighter in gestation over the past decade has been the "Joint Strike Fighter," known as the F-35, shown here in vertical take-off mode for use by the Marine Corps. (Photo via Discovery channel). It is also designed to take off and land "normally," from a runway, for the Air Force version, and a from an aircraft carrier deck for the Navy's.


    The case for this airplane (discussed at length in this article back in 2002) was that it would avoid the cost and complexity problems that plagued the F-22. The case against it, as presented in a recent document by the legendary military analyst and designer Pierre Sprey and Winslow Wheeler of America's Defense Meltdown, is that it too has turned into an example of those very same disorders. Their article about the two airplanes, "What 'Sweeping Reforms' in DOD?", takes a skeptical view of Sec. Gates's current procurement reforms and is available here. Worth reading not just about these aircraft but for the overall approach to defense spending.

  • How it's playing here


    There's no mention in the English-language story (from state-controlled China Daily) of Mexicans being placed in quarantine just because they're Mexican, as in today's WSJ story and previously here.

    As best I make out the Chinese language People's Daily version, it has a lot more details about the quarantine but nothing (that I saw) on the Mexican-citizen front. The ChinaSMACK blog, which translates fascinating and sometimes hair-raising posts from Chinese language blogs, has a lot of Chinese people expressing support for a very tough line.

    The China Daily special coverage does include a quote from a Chinese citizen saying "no one is moaning about being quarantined, everyone knows it is necessary." It also says that the relief flight to take stranded Chinese citizens back home from Mexico, announced yesterday, has been cancelled because of trouble reaching "landing agreements" with Mexican airport authorities. I wonder why that could be.

  • WSJ on detention of Mexicans in Beijing

    Andrew Browne, the WSJ's Beijing bureau chief, has a powerful story just now with names and details of Mexicans being detained and quarantined in China because they are Mexican, not because they've necessarily been in Mexico recently or exposed to flu patients. He has names, details, and quotes about cases like those I mentioned on Saturday:

    Gustavo Carrillo, a 36-year-old manager of a Mexican technology company in China who lives in Beijing, was taken off his Continental Airlines plane Saturday and rushed into quarantine at a Beijing hotel. He had traveled to the U.S. from China on a business trip and hadn't visited Mexico.

    Mr. Carrillo said health officials took the temperatures of other passengers after the plane landed, but didn't check his after they saw his Mexican passport. Instead, they led him down the aisle past gawking passengers. "It was embarrassing and humiliating," he said.


    According to accounts from Mexicans in the hotel, Mexican travelers arriving on various flights from Mexico and the U.S. were singled out by health officials who boarded the aircraft wearing white protective suits, masks and rubber gloves. They led away Mexican passport holders. Several travelers said Chinese television camera crews surprised them at the doors of their aircraft as they emerged. They said the filming continued through the windows of an isolation ward at the Beijing Ditan infectious diseases hospital.

    "We felt like we were in a zoo," said Angel Yamil Silum, a 27-year-old business student, who arrived in Beijing with his girlfriend Saturday en route to Bangkok for a holiday, and ended up at Ditan and then the Guo Men Hotel.

    Again, China has every reason to be careful about this disease, given the memory of SARS. I've assumed this was a panicky overreaction by local officials, which would be corrected once calmer heads prevailed. The calmer-heads stage does not seem to have started yet.

  • More on public health, PR, and China's role in the world

    From a reader with a Chinese surname, in response to my suggestion that Chinese officials stick to scientific data, rather than claims about national dignity, when discussing public health issues like the current flu situation:

    "Western journalists are accustomed to the shrewd answers from their own politicians facing offensive/aggressive questions. It's well known that they, the western politicians, are afraid of negative reports for their own political skins. Therefore you may also assume that Chinese officials should behave the same way, if they ever want to be accepted by the western world.

    "Unfortunately, I have to say that three years stationing in China has not made you thinking like a Chinese. For most Chinese officials, their reaction toward negative western media reports is mostly about domestic consumption. They have to be resolute and principled when it comes to rebutting the 'western defamations' driven by 'ulterior motives'. It's not only about national pride, but has more to do with not being perceived by Chinese people as weak and not being able to stand up to hostile westerners. This may help you better understand why nationalism is so useful for communist government."

    This rings true, and reinforces a point I made several months ago about why the voices of official China -- the government and its spokesmen -- were often so inept in presenting their case to the outside world, even though many individual Chinese people could be quite sophisticated and skillful. As this reader suggests, the root cause is that the system here is mainly inward-looking.

    The complications of addressing both internal and external audiences is hardly unique to China. American politics provides examples of this every day. Same with Japan, where bone-headed politicians often play to domestic right-wingers by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, not knowing or caring that this drives people crazy here in China.

    But at the moment, the internal/external problem is particularly acute for China, because its scale and foreign interactions are so great and its officials' awareness of how things sound to foreign ears seems so limited. For instance, I don't even think they would recognize the irony of hearing that their current detention of Mexican passport holders, whether they have been to Mexico recently or not, might "hurt the feelings of the Mexican people."

    UPDATE: After the jump, a further note just received from the same reader

    More »

  • Three from Frans Hals

    I'm going to start moving through these more briskly now. A pattern is emerging in the elements that make the Obama group portrait seem Old Masterish.  Previously here. For now, three from Frans Hals. First, Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse -- as with The Anatomy Lesson, thematically strangely appropriate for the Chrysler-bankruptcy team.


    If all but six people were removed from the Obama portrait, leaving only (from left)  Geithner, Summers, Obama, Browner, Rattner, and Bernstein, they would match the positions and angles of the six Regents surprisingly well.* Though Carol Browner probably wouldn't be wild about the one matched with her.

    Next, Officers and Sergeants of the St. Hadrian Civic Guard

    And, the famous Meagre Company, apparently so named because the figures are all thin. On this basis, the Obama group portrait should be called Somber Company.

    More coming.
    * Geithner, Summers, and Obama you know. The woman is Carol Browner; Steve Rattner is behind her with round glasses; Jared Bernstein is just in front of him with gray hair. 

  • Latest touch in Chinese-Mexican relations

    Lots of local news here about the plight of Chinese nationals who were left stranded in Mexico when China Eastern airlines cancelled its direct Mexico-China flights. Fortunately for them, a special China Southern Airlines (CSA) flight will be in the air within hours, to rescue them and bring them home! English version of the Xinhua story here.

    One Boeing 777-200 plane of CSA will leave Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, at 9 p.m. Sunday for Los Angeles before flying to Mexico to repatriate 120 or so passengers there, said a CSA spokesman....It is expected these group of passengers will be in the Pudong Airport in Shanghai at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

    Somehow the stories don't mention whether these repatriated travelers, who after all have been in Mexico itself, will taken straight into quarantine when they return, alongside people being held for observation because they have Mexican passports. Or, whether an Aeromexico evacuation flight might be arranged for those stranded Mexicans.

  • Mexican government protests detentions in China

    Via Reuters, this official protest about the detentions in mainland China (as mentioned here last night) and the sealing off of hundreds of people in a hotel in Hong Kong.

    The apparent waning of worldwide panic about the virus's lethality and ease of transmission probably means that we'll see fewer stories about over-reaction as the days go on. As always, it is instructive to see the way governments and institutions react in time of stress.

  • News as art, continued

    Back to the "what does this scene remind me of?" category, previously here, while still looking into further flu news in China. Many nominations for this painting, usually with apologies for the larger Messianic implications:



    After the jump, for greater clarity of detail, an early non-Leonardo copy of the painting as it once may have looked. Plus another version not by Leonardo. More to come, with eventual wrap-up thanks to all contributors.

    More »

  • Flu news from China: Mexican citizens being detained

    This is developing news here in Beijing about treatment of those who hold Mexican passports. It is based on first-hand reports from people I trust:

    - A family of tourists -- two parents; a son age 8; and daughters ages 6 and 4 -- were staying in a five-star Beijing hotel. Like all foreigners in China, they had presented their passports for inspection on arrival. Their passports were from Mexico. At 4 am last night they heard a pounding on the door. Public-security officials asked them to come to the hospital for a few quick tests. In fact they were taken to a hospital and not allowed to leave. They received no drugs or treatment of any sort and were placed in a room where the beds and sheets still bore the marks of the previous ill and bleeding patients. They managed to contact Mexican officials by phone -- which was the first the Mexican government had heard of their situation. There is no indication that they are sick. They were assured that they would be treated as well as "any Chinese citizen." (!) This evening, another family of three has been taken from a hotel because they are Mexican.

    - As international flights arrive in Beijing, from any destination, passengers are being asked to show their passports before the plane comes to the terminal. Those with Mexican passports are not allowed to enter the city. They have been taken to a hotel for quarantine and are still there. Some 40 to 50 people are now being detained in this way. To be clear, this is not being applied to people who've recently been to Mexico, or who are showing signs of disease, or who have been exposed in some other way. It has been purely a matter of whether they are Mexican citizens.

    - A Mexican official in Guangzhou booked a round trip flight to Cambodia. On arriving back from Cambodia (ie, a million miles away from Mexico), he too has been detained, on the basis of his passport.

    You can understand why China is nervous, given its dense urban populations and its experience with SARS. You can understand quarantines based on recent presence in a diseased area or possible exposure to diseased people. You can comprehend why direct flights between Mexico and China have for now been called off.

    But there is no decent reason for quarantine and detention based solely on nationality. To the best of my information, this blanket quarantine of Mexican citizens is not being applied anyplace else on earth. Let's hope this is a panicky mistake by Chinese and Beijing-area officials and will soon be reversed. It is also worth recognizing the overall aplomb and openness that the Mexican government has been showing in handling the flu outbreak.


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