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.
  • One more viewing tip on the 'Chimerica' tape (updated)

    As a reminder: sooner or later the full video of the "Chimerica" discussion between Niall Ferguson and me, this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, will be posted at the Aspen site. (Previous mentions here and here.) If you see or read the full version, you will note that an absolutely fundamental premise in the argument (Ferguson's) for the inevitable collision of US and Chinese interests is that the Chinese leadership has recently lost all faith in the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar and is determined to move away from the dollar as an international currency.

    You will note too that statements by Chinese officials, taken strictly at face value, are the main pieces of evidence for this contention. In that regard, this latest statement by a senior Chinese official deserves notice: 
    My argument, as you'll see, is that China and the United States will continue to disagree over countless issues but are too thoroughly connected to be pushed by the current world economic crisis toward what Ferguson declares a "divorce." If a real separation occurs, it would probably be over Taiwan or some other non-routine-economic issue.

    Bear this statement from He Yafei (genuine influential official) in mind when you hear "academic discussions" about moves away from the dollar. And, as I've mentioned many times, if you're looking for an "academic" perspective on the Chinese economy and US-Chinese tensions that is based on its actual realities rather than sweeping generalizations, start here.
    :  Thanks to Andy Rothman of CLSA in Shanghai for the reminder that one week ago, Zhou Xiaochuan, the People's Bank of China governor who touched off original speculation about China's move away from dollar holdings, declared that China would be making no sudden moves to change its currency holdings. Why this matters: the "impending breakup" thesis depends crucially on the idea that China is quickly and unstoppably undoing its links to the U.S. economy and U.S. holdings. 


  • More Chimerica, Ferguson, Fallows, Kaiser Wilhelm, etc

    Apparently it will still be a while until full videos of various Aspen Ideas Festival sessions go on line, as opposed to the selected clips now available (see the right side of this page). So because it may not be apparent from the short video of my discussion with Niall Ferguson, or from David Brooks' very fair-minded column about the discussion, or from my previous item on it, here is a little more about what was discussed and where I think the differences lay.

    1. The main part of my "side" of the argument that was necessarily left out of a 750-word summary of a 90-minute discussion, but that I've tried to express in all the articles I've written from China over the past three years, is that anything is possible when it comes to developments inside China and also relations between China and the outside world.
    For instance, when one questioner asked for "scenarios" about China's political evolution, Ferguson replied that "all my Chinese graduate students at Harvard" gave him the same scenario: that there was no huge appetite for a democratic shift in China now, economics came first, etc. I said that I could imagine countless possible scenarios: internal disaster because of environmental or other emergencies; another Tiananmen-like internal crackdown that alienated the outside world but reflected the government's belief that domestic control mattered more than outside approval; a nationalistic backlash triggered by something like last year's foreign protests against the Olympic torch relay; a Taiwan-related emergency; even rising middle-class pressure for democratic openings. Whatever. These are all conceivable. What seems to me most likely, however, is what we've seen since the early Clinton years: continued US-Chinese engagement in a deeply connected but often contentious way.

    This is in contrast to Ferguson's argument that the "Chimerica" bloc had been the indispensable basis of the world economy until recently, but now was headed for inevitable breakup because of economic troubles inside the US and political developments inside China.

    2. The specific part of Ferguson's view I most strongly resist is his assertion of close, cautionary parallels between Germany's rise in the years leading up to World War I and China's rise now.


    Historical patterns and analogies are obviously essential and instructive. But just as obviously, it's crucial to recognize the differences as well as the similarities in different stages of history. This was the central argument of the wonderful "Lessons" of the Past: Uses and Misuses of History in American Foreign Policy, by Ernest May, a favorite professor of mine in college and afterwards who sadly died this year. Another valuable work by another Harvard professor is Richard Neustadt's Thinking in Time: The Use of History by Decision-Makers. As May pointed out in his book, when LBJ and his confidants thought only of Munich, Chamberlain, and Hitler when hearing about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, they mis-assessed their adversaries and badly hurt themselves. We've seen the same mistake more recently in the pre-Iraq war assertions that because it was a mistake to delay a military confrontation with Hitler's Germany, the same principle applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

    A systematic examination of the similarities and differences between the Kaiser's Germany and Hu Jintao's China would be an interesting exercise. As I run through them informally, it strikes me that for every similarity (relatively rising economy, naval-force expansion) you can think of at least ten differences (scale, overall stage of economic development, geographical points of tension with existing powers, religion and ideology, recent military history, environmental and other possible constraints on growth, etc).

    The real point is: The fact that Germany's rise was followed by a disastrous-for-all-parties world war is worth remembering. But to assert that this means that China and America are necessarily or even probably headed for a showdown is just assertion.

    3. More than assertion, it is dangerous assertion. Even historians -- or especially historians -- recognize that world events are shaped in part by deep economic, demographic, and technical trends, but only in part. Real human beings make real decisions that have real effects. (Cf: LBJ in 1964, Bush-Cheney in 2001, JFK-Khrushchev in 1962, etc.) If we recognize that a collision with China is possible, but only one of several possibilities, then we act so as to reduce that possibility and increase the probability of better outcomes. If we think breakup is inevitable, as Ferguson is arguing, then the odds of a collision in fact occurring become higher than they would otherwise be. (Because each side interprets the other's moves in the darkest way and responds in kind.)

    4. As will be seen when the tape goes up, Ferguson's opening remarks included repeated references to what "the Chinese think" and "the Chinese want" and "the Chinese will demand." My opening comment was how treacherous it was to say that "the Chinese" do or think or want anything, since in practice the place often behaves like 20 separate countries and countless regional factions and many self-interested businesses and a billion-strong individuals. This is related to the previous point, in that any analysis that starts with the idea of one big, coherent Chinese entity is both more alarming than other understandings -- and, in my view, less realistic.

    5. Although I didn't address this part of Ferguson's analysis directly, he pointed out -- correctly -- that China's export machine has been profoundly affected by the collapse in surplus US demand. But Ferguson's conclusion, that this means the end of "Chimerica," seems to me far less convincing or nuanced than, say, the running analysis by Michael Pettis of Peking University. His web site is here; he was among the analysts I quoted in this article about what the economic downturn will mean for "Chimerica."

    There's more, but this will do till the tape appears!

  • Fifty-nine and a half minutes of brilliance, thirty seconds of hauteur

    This evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry talked about his life and works under the questioning of Thomas Pritzker.

    Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming. Over the years I've highly valued chances to hear people at the absolute top of their fields, to compare the experiences of hearing them speak about what they do. Some of them are as good to listen to as they had been to admire from afar. Others (often actors, athletes, visual artists) have no way of conveying in conversation what makes them so impressive in their own metier. Gehry is in the "good talker" category.


    (Photo of Frank Gehry by Trent Nelson of the Salt Lake Tribune)

    Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too.

    Gehry didn't like the question and said that the indictment didn't apply to his own buildings. He said that the facts would back him up --  and as the questioner repeated the challenge, Gehry said that he found the question "insulting."

    Fair enough. The guy did keep pushing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever appeared in public has encountered questions a hundred times as personally challenging as this.

    But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said -- and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior -- again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.

    I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.

  • Be sure to see this when it's posted: 'Feeding the World's Billions' panel

    Whenever the Aspen Ideas Festival posts full videos or transcripts of its panel events, be sure not to miss the session on global food supply that took place this morning. As measured by the ever-popular "how much more did I know at the end of the session, compared with what I knew at the start" metric, for me this was the most informative 75 minutes I've spent here so far.

    The panelists were: Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto -- whose company was, of course, a central villain of the Food Inc movie screened here earlier this week; Henrietta Fore, former administrator of USAID; Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, with experience in market-based and supply-chain efforts at conservation; and David Tilman, a biology/ecology expert from the University of Minnesota.

    The benefit of the panel was the combination of alarming facts and specific solution-possibilities. Sample alarming fact: if the world population eventually tops out at 9.5 billion, 50% more than now, total food production will probably have to grow by 200%, as people eat higher up the food chain and demand more and more meat. The challenge, as several panelists put it, was to produce three times as much food on no more than the current amount of agricultural land. (About why it won't just work to cut down all remaining forests to grow food, see here.)

    Sample specific solution-possibilities, or at least interesting facts: Average yields in U.S. farms are roughly three times as high as the overall average for Mexico, India, and Brazil. If those countries got to even two-thirds of the US level, it would make a huge difference in closing the "grain gap." Also: a huge share of the world's food output is wasted -- in the developing world because it rots and spoils before it can get to market, and in the US to a significant degree because of restaurant waste. Thus easy opportunities for gain. Surprising facts about animal efficiency: if it takes 2.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of chicken, and 5 pounds to produce a pound of pork, and up to 10 pounds to produce a pound of grain-fed beef, it can take less than a pound of grain feed to produce a pound of tilapia fish. "It's all about buoyancy," one of the panelists said.  I may be hazy on a few of the details here, but the general points are right.

    There was a whole lot more -- I was taking notes the whole time, while I was supposed to be moderating. Also, Hugh Grant on Monsanto manfully answered questions about the Food. Inc. movie at the start of the session. Really, an exceptional discussion: check it out when available.

  • Fallows v Ferguson at Aspen (updated)

    David Brooks' column in the NYT this morning describes a discussion I had with Niall Ferguson, of "Chimerica," two days ago at Aspen. In its brief space the column gives a fair sampling of the terms of argument and tone of the discussion. A video of the thing itself is here, as part of the Ideas Festival's video archive. Right at the moment, the video doesn't load for me, but I assume that's a temporary glitch.

    For now, I'll say that the discussion speaks for itself -- and perhaps that it may also illustrate two different ways of approaching and assessing evidence, and two different styles of presentation and argument. My experience in graduate school in England makes me think that among other things we might be seeing here a comparison of two national styles of discourse, Oxford-style debate versus Yank-style. But probably it's just the difference between two individuals.

    UPDATE: At the moment I am not at a computer that will load the video of the session. But I hear from my trusty correspondents that, rather than being the whole hour-plus discussion, it's actually a 3:41 clip. The contentious part, as described in David Brooks' column, begins at about 2:30. FWIW.

  • Another somewhat-good-news session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • Semi-encouraging climate-change session

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Dr. Doom Has Some Good News

    Dr. Doom Has Some Good News

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

  • Two factlets from Aspen Day 2 (updated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ideas Festival kickoff: opening "Big Ideas" session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    More »

  • Toe back into the online pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • More on Chinese lack of interest in Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Iran in China

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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