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.
  • About corruption, meritocracy, and "fairness" in Chinese life

    A recent "Red-diaper perspective" on Chinese schooling and the nationwide "gaokao" admissions tests said that distortions in Chinese education were related to the nervousness of a Chinese elite that was not sure it could pass its advantages on to its children. Here, from another Chinese reader, is a dissent. Climax of the argument below; full text after the jump.

    The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the educational opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.


    Full letter:

    Your latest post on gaokao is quite unsettling.  I had seen such view before: the corruption of Chinese governing class is rooted in the system that the elite class cannot safely and stably transfer its wealth and advantage to its next generation, so that the elites must take advantage of their current status and become corrupt to maximize their wealth.  However, I would argue that the reader who sent that comment had made big mistakes there.

    No system can rule out corruption.  The whole corruption topic merits another long debate.  But blaming Chinese gaokao system for corruption is absurd at its best. Meritocracy examination system such as Gaokao has no even the remote relevance with problem of corruption.  When there were no meritocracy examination system in Chinese history (Wei,Jin), the corruption problems were as huge as any other time in history.  Why did meritocracy examination system become dominant in China?  It is because the governing class chosen based on their family ties and social status were so incompetent that they could not even defend their countries against foreign intruders.  After that, almost every Chinese dynasty adopted Keju or examination system to select the officials lasted more than about 100 years, until they encountered the modern science in 19th century.

    Let's put history aside.  In today's world, the reasons that anyone would go aboard to pursue a foreign degree is probably because foreign education has some advantage in quality than the domestic education.  This is especially true in Asia: Japan also has the similar gaokao exam system, but relatively fewer Japanese students than Chinese studied for a foreign degree because the educational quality gap between Japan and US is certainly much narrower than the gap between US and China.   It is obvious in Taiwan: In 1960s and 1970s, there were higher growth rate of Taiwan students going to study in US than today.  One major reason is that the education gap now is narrower than 40 years ago.  The college entry system did not change that much in Japan and Taiwan during all these years.

    I am not against that the rich reserve their wealth and transfer to their next generation.  If I had children now, I would send them to oversea for an advanced degree as well.  Mostly it is because Chinese high education still lags behind the western education in quality.  The modern high education in China has its huge problem, not on the meritocracy examination system, but on another front: demand and supply.  Demand is always high.  They already did something to increase quantity of supply with many more college students now.  Next logical step should be improving the quality of supply: reform the contents taught in college and university, update the class materials to the latest development in the academic field, and use modern technology to make the most out of the existing superior teaching/researching resources only enjoyed by the elite schools.  

    The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the education opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.  Also that anonymous reader implied that the privileged had moral superiority over the underprivileged, and he claimed that "I am devoted to rule of law, parliamentary democracy, and so forth. Such is the reality of Chinese life.", you wonder why they are unsuccessful? 

    More »

  • Chinese newspaper discussion of the "creativity" problem

    Is the discussion about whether Chinese schools foster "creativity" and "critical thinking" confined to foreigners, or to Chinese writing in English?

    Apparently not. Today's People's Daily has a big story on the results of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, just completed in Reno. (The Chinese team, from People's Daily.)

    The article notes that mainland China had a large number of entries and won many minor prizes. But it had no real successes -- and the question was why.
    Intel2.jpgThe three overall grand-prize winners were all young women from American high schools, shown here. For individual best-in-category prizes -- 18 total according to People's Daily, 19 total according to Intel -- all but one went to American students. That one exception was from Taiwan.

    What's the problem?  The article discussed some obvious barriers -- language, resources -- but quoted a number of Chinese authorities saying that the real problem lay in the way Chinese schools taught people to think for themselves -- or, didn't. Too much emphasis on rote, detail, and following procedures; too little encouragement to reflect about the process of discovery. An analysis very similar to what we originally heard from a foreigner. I do not pretend to be able to follow arguments in the Chinese press with any nuance. I offer this (tipped from a contact at Intel, then labored-through by me) as evidence of a parallel, and obviously authorized, Chinese-language discussion, and as a resource for any Chinese reader who might have missed it.

  • Very interesting flu-quarantine diary

    Will Weissert, an AP correspondent based in Havana, traveled with his wife to China for a wedding -- and ended up spending a week in quarantine. His account of the quarantine, here and with pictures beginning here, is very interesting on the nuts and bolts of how the system works. It's not a complaint, though there are some complaining details. Mainly a chronicle, with details I hadn't seen elsewhere.

    Here is his wife in the quarantine-hotel room, as Chinese officials take notes on her condition.

    And here is the intro to his account of how they ended up in this situation:

    My wife and I are in perfect health, but after flying to China for my college friend's wedding we're being quarantined in a remote hotel for seven days. The reason: Our flight from our home in Havana included a layover in Cancun, and China is taking no chances with swine flu.

    Never mind that we were in Cancun for only two hours, that we didn't leave the airport and that Mexican doctors with electronic thermometers checked us for fever on arrival and departure. Never mind that when our Continental Airlines flight from Newark touched down in Shanghai, we and everyone else on board were not allowed to leave our seats until health workers clamored aboard and pointed a blue beam at our foreheads to take our temperatures.

    The Mexican stamps in our passports -- my wife is Chilean, I'm American -- are enough for authorities to pull us out of line at immigration and send us to a medical room where attendants in white lab coats take our temperature yet again and give us surgical masks...

    After 3 1/2 hours, a man in uniform -- speaking by phone with a communist official everyone calls "the leader" -- announces we will be confined to a hotel room for seven days.

    We say we'll simply fly back home. He tells us that isn't possible.

    Worth reading the rest. (Thanks to Daniel Lippman.)

  • Cross cultural exchange

    Above-the-fold picture on China Daily special weekly business supplement. Caption says:

    "The official dance troupe of the Dallas Cowboys (a US National Football League team) perform with local elderly at a downtown park in Shanghai."

    How it looked on the page:

    In the circumstances, the "local elderly" don't look that bad! Must be the morning tai chi.

  • More Chinese education! Or, is it really "Chinese"?

    Previously in our series, the complaint has been that the Chinese school system pushes students too hard and in too rote-memorization a way, leaving the victors undeniably tough but maybe drained of their spark and inventiveness. Along the way, many contrary views and debates about the role of the Chinese nationwide university-admission exam, the gaokao.

    Now, two bits of testimony more or less on China's behalf. First, from a Westerner now teaching in Japan, who says that these problems are hardly confined to China. Then from an American (of Chinese ancestry) about an American counterpart to gaokao-style training.

    First, the Westerner teaching at a university in Japan.

    China, Eastern Europe, Japan, it's all the same story. No, it's not a legacy of Communism. The saying here in Japan is similar to the one mentioned by the teacher in Eastern Europe: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down."

    I cannot get my students to voice an opinion for love nor money. They do not want to call attention to themselves; stand out from the crowd, or be different in any way. This is the Japanese way. If, by chance, they do have an opinion, they keep it to themselves.

    As a result, they are totally incapable of creative/critical thinking or problem solving abilities.
    At my university, English is required for all freshmen. Most of these students greatly resent having to take English. They are not interested in learning or speaking English. They do not plan to travel or live overseas, and see no practical reason for being forced to study it.

    Now, these students have been sitting in English class for the past six years (soon, 2011 Japan will start English instruction from the fifth grade); however, their English speaking ability is still quite limited. Maybe it is because they were taught in middle-school and high-school by Japanese natives in Japanese, not English. I have no idea how English can be taught by non-English speakers, but there you have it. The Ministry of Education will require English to be taught in English from 2010. This has caused great concern/protest and near-revolt amongst Japanese English teachers.

    In reading articles from various educators in different countries, educators all reference the decline of problem solving/critical thinking skills. This is not exclusively an experience of the ex-pat English teacher abroad. It seems to be indicative of, and causally related to, our information culture; whereby, we can instantly access what we need to know at the touch of a button, or click of a mouse. The notion of knowledge for the sake of knowledge (the liberal arts ideal) is anachronistic at worst and quaintly outdated at best.

    This presents me and all of my educational colleagues world-wide with a new challenge. How can we meet the changing needs/interests of our students? What must I do to reach, engage and energize my apathetic students? It is obvious to me, that traditional or "Old School" pedagogy is not the answer. Educators are teaching in the midst of a revolutionary paradigm shift. Whether this is good or bad for education is ultimately unimportant; it exists and we must accept/adapt and change our philosophy and approach or risk loosing our students, and missing out on a unique opportunity.

    I do not have the answers; so, in a sense, I bring nothing new to the discussion. I share the same concerns, frustrations and pain as the teachers who have written to you. I simply want them to know that it is not something that is limited to their country or region.

    Now, from Richard Ho, in the United States.

    I was struck by the recent letters defending the fairness of the gaokao, and the earlier descriptions of its difficulty yet sometimes dubious relevance to real life work. It  brought to mind the American experience of pre-med and medical education.
    College students in the US typically need to take English, math, biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, and physics in order achieve a good score on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) which is part of admission requirements for most US medical schools. Some of those courses are necessary prerequisites for courses in medical school like anatomy, histology, biochemistry, or pharmacology, however I would say that those particular medical school courses and college pre-med courses are for the most part, not very relevant to clinical practice for the vast majority of doctors. I've seen many comments in various forums that the extensive memorization needed in many of these courses is mainly a barrier put up to test the drive and persistence of potential doctors...
    In medical school, the first two years of basic science courses (mostly memorization) at some schools run 8am-5pm M-F with nights and weekends spent studying. In the 3rd and 4th years of traditional medical schools, students are exposed to clinical work in smaller groups, and this is where training gets more practical. Faculty recommendations are part of the evaluation in applying to residencies after medical school, but almost all prospective residents enter "The Match" where a computer program compares student preferences with residency program preferences and assigns each student to a residency program in their chosen specialty. Where one matches can determine the path of the rest of your life - whom you meet and marry, where you settle down and practice, etc. This sounds much like the gaokao experience.
    One of my college colleagues Pauline Chen has written about some aspects of these experiences at the NY Times: 
    Medical Student Burnout and the Challenge to Patient Care

     A Medical Student's Rite of Passage
    So I would say Asia is not unique in instituting mind-numbing and endurance-testing educational processes; they've simply increased the scale!

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  • I'm joining the GOP

    First Al Gore, buffeted Democratic champion ca. 2000, propagates boiled-frog ignorance in his (otherwise laudable) An Inconvenient Truth

    Now Barack Obama, victorious Democratic champion ca. 2008, relies on bogus boiled-frog imagery in a Newsweek interview (as my comrade Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out).

    Did you consult any former presidents or celebrities about the fishbowl effect in raising the girls?
    Well, you know, the truth of the matter is that the campaign was the equivalent of me being the frog in the saucepan of water and the temperature slowly being turned up. By the time the inauguration had taken place, we had pretty much gotten accustomed to it.

    Say what you will about the linguistic habits of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin; but at this moment I don't remember any of them talking about boiled frogs. The image of young Dickie Cheney in 8th grade science lab with a frog, though, is one to force from the mind. And if these people did in fact talk about boiled frogs, I'll have to join the Greens.

    What should they be talking about instead? The kitty-litter box analogy, as so brilliantly laid out by Don Rose in the Chicago Daily Observer a few months ago. You have cats in your house; you think everything is great; then visitors walk in through the door, reel back in horror, and say, "What is that godawful smell?"  And I say this as a lover of cats. Or as Rose put it, in a column about the colorful ex-governor Rod Blagojevich:

    Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    I tell them about my cat litter box.

    Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest.

    So it is with the denizens of our city and state.

    And so it should be with us all. As recently as a few hours ago, I was impressed by Obama's use of language. And now....

  • On eloquence vs. prettiness

    Based on its transcript -- here at the Washington Post site, oddly not yet in any obvious place at WhiteHouse.gov [Update: it's now on the White House page, here]-- Barack Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech was another extraordinary performance. "Extraordinary" meaning that it was like his speech last year in Philadelphia about race relations, his speech last month in Prague about nuclear weapons, and, only slightly less impressive, his speech last month at Georgetown University laying out his long term economic plan. Or, on a small scale, his answer in Strasbourg about "American exceptionalism."

    What made these presentations extraordinary was not any single phrase or sentence, nor any paragraph-long flight of fine language. Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given. (Phrases or sentences are to be distinguished from campaign slogans, like "Yes we can" or "not 'red states' or 'blue states' but the United States of America.") Instead the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:

    In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on. A passage from this latest speech after the jump.

    This kind of eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.

    At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."

    The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.

    Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.

    The passages that struck me from this speech were the same ones Andrew Sullivan just highlighted:

    I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.

    This is not "pretty" as language. "Fudge it"???  But it is surprisingly honest as thought.

    In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse.

    But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

    This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.

    I challenge you to find a sentence there that will be remembered, "I have a dream"-style. But the thought, complete with non-politician-like emphasis on "irony" and "doubt," is an important one, and not likely staff-borne.

    More »

  • US no-show at Shanghai Expo: the hows and whys (updated)

    Last month Adam Minter of ShanghaiScrap, did our initial Atlantic report on the looming self-inflicted embarrassment of America's no-show status at the 2010 Shanghai Expo / World's Fair.

    The strands of the story are tangled, to put it mildly, and have been hard to follow in scattered press reports. So Minter's latest detailed backgrounder is very useful in explaining how things reached this point, why it matters, and what if anything could be done. Among the points he clarifies, in a list of problems that have affected the proposed US pavilion:

    A.  Cost. Shanghai Expo 2010's [one of the US contenders] $61 million pavilion budget - down from an earlier $84 million budget - is inordinately expensive, and surely the most expensive national pavilion after the elaborate Chinese design.  "For that kind of money [$61 million]," an experienced American businessman in Shanghai told me. "You could build a thirty-story residential tower on that site and still have money left over. But these people want that money for a two story pavilion." In comparison, Germany's elaborate pavilion design is projected to cost US$40.8 million; Norway's elegant structure, a comparatively minor US$22 million. And even those might be overpriced. At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, major commercial pavilions were built for around $1000 per square meter - that is, less than US$5 million. So far, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., has failed to provide a detailed public accounting of how it plans to spend its proposed US$61 million, leading to wild and unsubstantiated speculation among experienced China hands in Shanghai.

    [UPDATE: I hear from informed sources that there is some controversy about the importance of whole cost issue, with some other pavilions costing more than this US figure -- and the real question being whether the US can spend this much money in a sensible way with so little time to go. More details as they come in.]

    One image of the proposed US structure Minter is referring to, from this site:

    Full set of images of other countries' structures here. One example I like from that site: the Israeli pavilion, with components of the Whispering Garden, the Hall of Light, and the Hall of Innovations. Israel is a tiny country and this is a relatively small structure, but FWIW Israeli's entire budget for the expo, including construction, is $6 million.


    And here is Italy's (no budget listed). The story is worth following.

  • Europe, America, China respond to the flu

    From Kevin Miller, of the University of Michigan, an observation on why the differing European, American, and Chinese approaches to the current spread of flu might be explained by the respective health threats the areas face:

    I have a colleague, a native German, who went to Germany last week and reported that the general attitude was that Americans were being crazily hysterical about this. It makes sense to me that a) the Chinese are really being hysterical, b) Germans are calm, and c) we're somewhere in between.

    If you look at the medical safety net in each country, this makes perfect sense (plus the big worry that this could combine with bird flu, which they have in China. H1N1 seems to be easy to catch but rarely serious; bird flu is hard to catch but often fatal; flu viruses seem good at swapping DNA within host nuclei. If the same person had both bird flu and H1N1, this could lead to something really bad).

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  • Finale on Colgan / Buffalo crash

    I recognize that it is both heartbreaking and potentially cruel to keep going into details of what exactly led to the commuter-plane crash in February that killed all 49 people aboard the airplane and one person on the ground.  (Previously here.)

    But this story in The Buffalo News, based on the previous week's Federal investigative hearings, clears up one question and raises others about the flight crew's performance.

    The newly answered question is why the plane's airspeed had decreased so much that an automatic "stick-shaker" warning was triggered, indicating that an aerodynamic stall was imminent. Because the earliest reports mentioned that the accident took place in cold and cloudy conditions, I had assumed that ice on the wings and airframe was slowing the plane down.

    But according to NTSB evidence, the effect of icing was minimal. Instead, the flight crew had deliberately or inadvertently slowed the plane themselves, by pulling the throttle back to nearly the "flight idle" position -- and leaving it there. Reduced power is normal when descending or deliberately slowing for an approach, but apparently the power was left too low for too long as the plane's speed decayed to a dangerously low level.

    The extraordinary NTSB animation of the flight's last 2 minutes and 39 seconds dramatizes how it happened. At time 1:40, the plane begins slowing from its cruise speed of about 185 knots. By 2:04 -- with the autopilot holding a constant altitude and the power setting still low -- it had slowed all the way down to 140 knots. That is where the power should have come back in, because the plane had reached its proper approach speed and shouldn't safely go much slower. But the crew left the power at idle, and within four seconds the plane was slowing below 130 knots - at which point the "stick shaker" gave its warning and, tragically, the pilot reacted in exactly the wrong way. The animation shows how quickly this all could happen, and what it looks like when a plane goes into aerodynamic "stall."

    The effect of the pilot's wrong reaction to the stall warning has been frequently discussed in the wake of these hearings. The inattention to approach speed is in a way more puzzling, since it was not an instantaneous, instinctive thing.

     Managing the power on a descent so that you slow down -- but don't get too slow -- is one of the fundamental tasks on an instrument approach. (The others are monitoring the navigation indicators, to make sure you're on course; and monitoring the altitude, to make sure you don't get closer to the ground than you're supposed to at each stage of the descent. Instrument training largely consists of an instructor constantly reminding you of whichever part of the "scan" of flight instruments you are neglecting.) That a two-person team would not notice this first-order aspect of flight safety is very hard to explain.

    Talks about aviation safety often refer to an "accident chain" -- that is, a sequence of events leading to disaster, which could have been broken (avoiding a crash) at any point. Here there seems to be a two-link chain: If the crew had noticed and corrected the decaying air speed, they would never have had to worry about the "stick shaker" alert. Or, if they had responded properly to the stick-shaker, they (probably) could have recovered from the effects of letting the air speed decline.

    None of this makes anything about the situation better. It may clarify some of the training changes that need to occur. (Thanks to reader Judy S for lead to Buffalo News story, and several others for mentioning the NTSB video.)

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  • More Gaokao: a Chinese "red-diaper" perspective

    Lots of fascinating testimony has piled up, on the topic previously covered here. (Gaokao = nationwide university-admission exam in China.) Will parcel it out soon. Here is one from a reader who wishes not to be named. I have omitted only a few comments about people who have written before, using their real names. He starts with his bona fides:

    I have been following the discussion on your blog, on the subject of Chinese gaokao, with interest. Now, before I go on, I feel compelled to state the facts: I had taken the SAT, and received 2400 on it (Yes, one of the less than few hundred a year ones with this result. It is utterly insane in my opinion.) So, I do want to make it clear that this isn't a loser's rant against meritocracy.
    A good deal of talk has been heard on gaokao's relation to fairness.  

    Now let's be clear: it is fair, as fair as can be in human circumstances. But what most people don't realise, and this is the point your reader Ella Zhou has missed, is that the great fairness is its very undoing. It it weren't so fair, creating a market of hundreds of millions of people jostling for the same, limited top spots in society, it wouldn't be such a brutal test. Its inhuman brutality is in direct, linear correlation with its fairness, just as has been the case with the SAT. And frankly, what this pure meritocracy has created in Chinese history, in practical terms, is a very insecure elite, without any ways of passing on significant advantages to children, extremely liable to corruption, as uncorrupt, independent methods do not sufficiently guarantee economic or social security for offspring.

    Keju, the predecessor of Gaokao, is a perfect example. When Han Wu Di created this system two millennia ago, he did not imagine it would now conclude in the logical absurdity which has been the case for approximately the last 500 years. He meant it as a supplementary system to the existing aristocracy, so as to weaken aristocratic power. Through successive dynasties, the Keju has been so perverted that officials, who must take this exam, have become mere leeches of governmental largesse, unequipped with resources of their own, and most crucially, no important advantages to progeny for achieving the same social position as parents.

    For an American comparison, revisit the big-city machine politicians of the post-Civil War era. What were they known for? Corruption and non-existence of professional ethics. And what is their parallel?
    Their wealth, resources, their power, lie purely within a political system, are purely extracted from politics, with little formal powers of dynastic succession. This is the perfect breeding-ground of corruption. And thus has been the nature of Chinese governance for the last half-millennium.

    What makes it worse is the traditional Chinese devotion to the concept of the family. The family unit, the belief holds, is above all, and parents would be expected to do their utmost in advancing the prospects of their progeny by all means necessary, with the quid pro quo being support in old age. Now of course, this, materially, does not apply in the above-discussed case, but the strong cultural imperative, I think you can see, is there.

    To be honest, had I remained in the Chinese school system, I would never even have taken the Gaokao. My parents would have expended maximal resources in giving me preparation in a foreign language (and if they were well-connected they would know that German rather than English is an easier ticket for school admission), and ideally secured me a place in one of the nationally sanctioned foreign language schools.. and avoided the exam altogether, thus isolating me from hundreds of millions of potential competitors for opportunity. One should note that German instruction is provided at far less rigorous and exhausting level than English instruction in China, and the level of preparedness would have varied much more greatly depending on personal resources (i.e., ability to find, and afford tutors). As I said, in China, fair equals brutal.

    In fact, I would have likely gone to the No. 2 Foreign Language Institute in Beijing, and found a way, through bribery or some other mechanism (life-opportunities are harsh in China), to the Foreign Ministry, where I would have gotten a foreign assignment. And I would make no apologies for this either, as prospects for average university graduates in China, even elite ones, are extraordinarily bleak. I was born into a red-diaper family, and given the abundance of chances of failure in the Chinese system, and its inhuman brutality, no precaution, or ethical lapse, would frankly lack warrant for any loving parent. I would find it difficult to object to even the bribery, as much as I am devoted to rule of law, parliamentary democracy, and so forth. Such is the reality of Chinese life.

    I think you can see broken the system is. A Chinese person is expected to have, on a psychological level (not materially or economically, but psychologically), much more social mobility. Meritocracy is supposed to reign supreme. But of course, China-watchers don't realise that meritocracy, in the manner as has been applied in China, equals ethical lapses. Singapore is not a very good example, as almost all Singaporean elites send their kids to boarding schools overseas (UK, Australia, Canada), thus skipping the Singaporean meritocracy altogether. They proceed to elite Sinophone universities like Univ. of Hong Kong, from these places, without the hassle of Chinese-style meritocracy, being evaluated, as Western applicants, on much looser bases. If this were not possible, corruption would be much greater. In Hong Kong, the popular fashion is either British boarding schools, or various international boarding schools. In Taiwan, corruption, as in China, reigns supreme....

    I hope this letter serves you well, and helps you understand the nature of the Chinese system a bit better. The discussion, as I have observed on your blog, is quite ephemeral, and does not at all reach the level of candour that exists in China only privately.

    More »

  • Visas in the time of flu

    If you're thinking about coming to China from the US, you should know that visa rules have recently tightened up dramatically, as they did before the Olympics last year. Here's why.

    Inside China, the detected flu cases have doubled, from one person to two, and the quarantine-and-tracking efforts are stepping up. Newspaper charts have shown the infected people's progress through the country and reported the efforts to find and quarantine everyone who was, say, riding in the same railroad car. A report I saw this morning said that most of the people who had been on the same Beijing-Jinan train with Victim #2 were still "at large."


    [Reader R. Skinner points out the inventive West-to-East rendering of the Toronto->Vancouver-> Beijing flight.]
    Meanwhile, in mail from Chinese readers and in Chinese and English news sources I've seen more and more frequent mentions of the need to crack down on the "real" source of the problem: the United States. Both of the infected people had, after all, come on flights originating in the US (flights from Mexico having been cancelled for quite a while.)  Eg this lead editorial in yesterday's Global Times, the new state run voice to the outside world. 


    I don't see an online source for this item, parts of which you can read if you click on the image to see a larger version. The gist is that the US is again being lax, fat, and happy in not imposing as many internal restrictions to limit the spread of flu as China is doing. Eg:

    "The situation is now clear: the US must respond to the epidemic with more active, effective measures.... At the moment, life in the US is continuing much as before, with Americans traveling as widely as usual... But the impact of swine flu can be disastrous for countries without proper preventive systems....

    "China has taken exhaustive measures to track down all of the people who traveled with the two swine flu victims. A few are still missing, posing a risk to the rest of the population."

    In practice, here is what it means for Americans. In the olden days, ie until last week, if you got in line at a Chinese consulate early enough in the morning to reach the visa window before the noon lunch break, one of your choices would be "expedited" same-day service. For an extra fee of something like $150, you could get the visa after lunch. If you missed the morning rush and applied in the afternoon, you could still normally get your visa the next day. If you had all the right forms and there were no complications, you could more or less count on getting a visa in one or two days.

    Now, "because of flu," expedited handling is called off and visas for Americans are, according to various reports, subject to a mandatory six-working-day processing period. I have heard of one big-deal conference scheduled for next week that has just been scrubbed because attendees couldn't get visas, and various other ripple effects. One more thing to be aware of if you're thinking of a visit.

    More »

  • Twitter-scale reaction on new ambassador to China

    I am at a computer for about 90 seconds until late tonight, but:  the reported selection of Utah's Republican governor Jon Huntsman Jr as the Obama Administration's new ambassador to China is an interesting and surprising choice -- and at face value, a shrewd one. Huntsman is reportedly fluent in Mandarin, based on his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan; has an adopted Chinese daughter (plus another from India, in addition to biological children); is experienced in Asia, as a boy-ambassador to Singapore (at age 32) during the first Bush administration; and -- so I gather -- is on the modern-science as opposed to the flat-earth side of the debate about the environmental + climate issues that constitute the most important impending business between the US and China. More later, but on first impression a clever choice from American-interest point of view (completely apart from what it means for internal party politics in the US). Will also give the Chinese leadership something to think about: why the new Democratic president has appointed a rising Republican politician. Sign of bipartisan US views toward China? Etc?

    Subject to revision if there is something important I don't know about Huntsman and his record!

  • Not sure exactly which Chinese people Paul Krugman met...

    ... before writing his column today in the NYT, but:

    While his conclusion -- that China has to be part of global efforts to control carbon emissions -- is obviously correct and important, his premise -- that no one in China admits this -- does not square with my observation over these past three years.* As it happens, I spent this very day at a conference in Beijing where the first five presentations I heard were about emissions-reductions and sustainability in one specific domestic industry. (Also, I wrote in the magazine, a year ago, about Chinese people and organizations making similar efforts in a variety of other fields.)

    If blunt-instrument outside pressure like this column makes it more likely that Chinese authorities will keep making progress, then as a pure matter of power-politics I say: fine. But my guess and observation is that it is just as likely to get their back up -- and encourage the ever-present victimization mentality that makes it less rather than more likely that Chinese authorities will behave "responsibly" on the international stage.

    As I've written a million times (most recently here and here and generally here), arguably the most important thing that will happen on Barack Obama's watch is reaching an agreement with China -- or not -- on environmental and climate issues. We'll see what's the best means toward that end.
    * Krugman says:

    "Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world's largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today's wealthy nations. And they're right...But that unfairness doesn't change the fact that letting China match the West's past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it."

    I've heard that Chinese response too many times to count. But it's mainly a throat-clearing prelude to talking-turkey discussions about what the country will and can do, and under what circumstances.

  • The CIA vs. Sen. Bob Graham: how to keep score at home

    It's easy! If the CIA says one thing and former Sen. Graham says another, then the CIA is lying. Or, "in error," if you prefer.

    (Background here and here, in which Graham says that some of the briefings in which he was allegedly filled in about waterboarding and related techniques never occurred. This matters, because the CIA's claims are part of the same argument that Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress had known about and acquiesced to waterboarding all the way along.)

    Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty. In my eyes he has a specific reputation for very good judgment: he was one of a handful of Senators actually to read the full classified intelligence report about the "threats" posed by Saddam Hussein. On the basis of reading it, despite a career as a conservative/centrist Democrat, he voted against the war and fervently urged his colleagues to do the same. "Blood is going to be on your hands," he warned those who voted yes.

    More relevant in this case, Graham also has a specific reputation for keeping detailed daily records of people he met and things they said. He's sometimes been mocked for this compulsive practice, but he's never been doubted about the completeness or accuracy of what he compiles. (In the fine print of those records would be an indication that I had interviewed him about Iraq war policy while he was in the Senate and recently spent time with him when he was on this side of the world.)

    So if he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.


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