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.
  • 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.

  • The next time you're in Shaanxi....

    LaoQiang.jpgDo whatever you can to hear the Lao Qiang -- 老腔, "Old Tunes" -- musical performance held in the small city at the foot of China's most famous mountain-climbing tourist site, Hua Shan (roughly, "Mt. China" sorry, right character- 华 - wrong etymology).

    Most forms of traditional Chinese singing, Beijing opera and the like, are easier for Westerners to "admire" than to "enjoy." When I learned that I'd be spending a couple of hours hearing songs from a 2000-year-old tradition, I was preparing myself for a bout of "admiration." In fact, it was tremendously enjoyable, and I was sorry only that the program (flyer to the left) had to come to an end.

    The lore of Lao Qiang is that these are songs from old-time rivermen, which have been passed down through the eons by a select few families. Heirs of those families are the current stars of the performing troupe -- notably the Wang family, whose head is the older performer in the first photo below, and the Zhang family, whose Zhang Ximin is the riveting, hard-to-take-your-eyes-off lead singer and string player -- the dark haired man in the second photo. According to the program, these performers spend their days as regular farmers, and practice and perform at night. Who knows about that; but as performers they're great.


    Wang Zhenzhong (王振中) above; Zhang Ximin (张喜民) below.

    The troupe:

    If the music has a Western equivalent, I would say it is something like "Muleskinner blues." Lusty, rhythmic, loud, fun. More on the topic here, here, and here in English, here, here, and here in Chinese. Of course the brief clips don't really do it justice. See it yourself.

  • 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.


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



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