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.
  • For more information about Air France 447

    I have been preoccupied, or out of range, in the week since this disaster occurred and so hadn't read up on it. But here, for anyone who doesn't know about it, is a source that establishes beyond question one crucial point about the accident, and points to informed discussions of the many other aspects that are for now unknowable.

    The source is this long and extraordinarily detailed dispatch by Tim Vasquez, of Weather Graphics in Oklahoma. Vasquez is a meteorologist, and his post is full of "SKEW-T" charts and other arcana that make me nostalgic for the rituals of "weather planning" from my flying days. But even for those baffled by the details, his sequence of charts -- based on very ambitious matching of flight-track data with a variety of innovative weather re-creations -- make this fact clear: AF 447 was passing directly through a large and powerful tropical thunderstorm when it stopped transmitting data (and presumably crashed).

    This is Vasquez's Figure 12, showing the plane's likely path through Vasquez's recreated radar model of the storm. He requests on his site that some other charts, including the very clarifying Figure 13, not be copied elsewhere, because they "represent too much original work." Fair enough. Check for yourself.

    WeatherAirFrance.jpg

    An emphasis on the weather as the proximate factor in the crash is important in deflecting attention from some early speculation about meteors, inherent wiring problems in the Airbus, and so on. But it leads to two other major areas of uncertainty, which might be resolved if the "black box" is recovered or might never be known for sure.

    One is why the plane ended up inside the thunderstorm. Even big, powerful airliners do everything they can to avoid flying through thunderclouds. Radar problems? (Onboard radar gives a useful but imperfect view of oncoming weather.) Some other reason? No one knows now.

    The other is how, exactly, the storm may have brought the plane down -- since most airliners survive such encounters, hard as they try to avoid them. Structural breakup, caused by extreme turbulence? (Imagine ocean liners or freighters having their hulls cracked by hitting huge waves in just the wrong way.) Devastating hail destroying the multiple "pitot tubes" -- the devices airplanes use to measure their airspeed, without which neither the autopilot nor the real pilots can function normally, in turn leading to catastrophic failure of guidance systems? Lightning doing damage in some unusual way, since airplanes are usually designed to withstand it? Some other factor? All this is now unknown. But the Vasquez site will point you toward as much extra discussion as you want. (For even more, the AF447 discussion thread here, on the generally entertaining Professional Pilots' Rumor Network, or PPRuNe.)

    Thanks to Parker Donham for the Vasquez lead.

  • June 4 report #1: Beijing (long)

    I left the city this morning for a long-planned reporting trip 600 miles to the southwest, in Shaanxi province. As I implied yesterday, I was glad to have the option to leave Beijing. But updates I have received from various sources fall into these categories:

    1) Several people have written to say that the going was surprisingly easy. For instance, this account from a Chinese-American man in his 20s whom I know in Beijing:

    We were tourists and took many many photos, even asking the plainclothed police who were keeping their eye on us to take one or two. We didn't get hassled; in fact, aside from the ridiculous numbers of cops, obvious and otherwise, there seemed to be no difference from when I was there two weeks ago, showing friends around. Time: 8am. Persons: myself, another Chinese-American, and two white guys. Just wanted to add that data point to your blog, especially in light of the note of caution you posted.

    2) For fully authorized foreign TV news crews, the problem of the day was not so much frontal confrontations with security officials as -- well, you have to see the pictures to believe it. The Shanghaiist site has a roundup of photos and videos of the ever-so-suave "umbrella trick" as practiced on news crews from CNN, BBC, and AFP. This is the kind of thing that makes you hold your head and say: Rising major power in the world?

    3) Speaking of the CNN/BBC blackout difference I mentioned previously, it's possible that our apartment house is getting its BBC feed through some outside-normal-systems satellite connection. I hear from other people in China that the normal, authorized (ie, subject-to-censoring) foreign satellite feed cut off CNN, BBC, as well as French TV 5 at all the predictable points.

    4) My wife, lacking the excuse of travel to Shaanxi, and equipped with the multiple tools a woman can use to alter her appearance from one day to the next, went back to Tiananmen Square today looking like a different person from the one whose presence the authorities had noted the previous night. Her report on the day's activities is here and after the jump.

    I went to the square at noontime, expecting to see pretty much what we saw last night: the square off limits, people walking along the roadside or staring at the flag and Mao's giant portrait.

    More »

  • On the Islam speech

    More about this in a few hours: literally have five minutes left at an internet place in Shaanxi province (long-scheduled trip away from Beijing this afternoon) (More about Beijing on this June 4 later too).

    The main point is: this was yet another in the series of speeches that individually and as a group really are out of phase with anything we have known in contemporary political rhetoric. I mean a sequence that began most noticeably with the "race and America" speech in Philadelphia 15 months ago and has continued with five or six clear high points since then (most recently at Notre Dame, as discussed here) and no obvious flop. I did not see or hear coverage of this speech but based only on the text, which I've just read, I have a hypothesis about the trait that makes this discourse unusual and welcome.

    The five minutes are up, so To Be Continued a few hours from now.

  • Today in Beijing

    I am guessing that you will see no real-time TV reports from the Tiananmen Square area today, and little or no photography. This is based on personal experience there last night, China time, which also leads to personal advice for anyone in Beijing thinking of going there today.

    During my time in Beijing over the past year and a half, I've often seen the square itself totally closed off to visitors, as it is at the moment. There are always plenty of security forces around -- soldiers in green uniforms, various kinds of police in blue uniforms, and "plainclothes" forces who are pretty easy to pick out, like strapping young men in buzz cuts all wearing similar-looking "leisure" clothes. But I have not seen before anything like the situation at the moment.

    There are more representatives in all categories -- soldiers, police, obvious plainclothesmen -- than I recall seeing even during the Tibet violence in early 2008 or through the Olympic games. Also many people whom you would normally classify as fruit vendors, tourists from the Chinese provinces, youngish white collar workers male and female, and skateboarder-looking characters wearing cargo shorts and with fauxhawk haircuts, were last night walking up and down the sidewalks with their eyes constantly on visitors and drifting up next to people who were holding conversations.

    The way to avoid their attention is keep moving briskly along the sidewalk rather than stopping as if you think there is something particular to look at in the square today. The way to draw it is to stop and look around, to pay attention to the security forces themselves, or to have a camera in your hand. If the camera comes out, it may be pointed at one of the scenic highlights in the center of the square. A nighttime glamour shot of the Great Hall of the People, taken from across the Square with a glowing Monument to the People's Heroes in the middle ground (and no actual people in the square) is within bounds. This is how it looked last night:
     


    A view down toward Mao's Mausoleum, again across an emptied square, is also OK.

     

    But to point a camera in any direction not shown in these shots is to ask for immediate trouble. In particular if security forces in any of the categories above are in the field of view. I say this with first-hand certainty, based on experiences I will describe later when I am living someplace else.

    Two other, related notes: As reported yesterday, CNN is still blacked out whenever words like "In China today...." or "Twenty years ago in Bei...." come across the airwaves. Whereas BBC TV is airing uncensored footage of tanks in the square twenty years ago and repeatedly using the phrase "Tiananmen massacre." And just as I type, the admirable Quentin Somerville of the BBC is talking, live from Beijing, about the "ruthlessness at the heart of the Communist government." (And just this second, in a Borges-worthy moment, Somerville said that international coverage was being blacked out across China -- so I got to see him saying that I was not able to see him. Still, the general point is true.)

    Second note: Hillary Clinton's official "Message on the Twentieth Anniversary of Tiananmen Square," here, was necessary, appropriate, properly phrased, and -- even though it will have no effect inside China -- exactly the right thing to have done. More on this theme shortly.

    Back to practicalities: if you in Beijing and are near the square, be careful. Seriously.

  • June 4 news coverage update

    As many people have reported, Twitter has been blacked out in China for the past few days (also, I hear, Flickr and Hotmail), apparently for June 4-related reasons.

    BBC TV, weirdly and perhaps temporarily, is being let through loud and clear with quite startling and gruesome footage of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square 20 years ago this evening, plus an interview with one family whose child was shot dead that day, plus with the photographer who took the immortal "tank man" picture.

    CNN, on the other hand, goes black-screen for several-minute periods, starting a few seconds after the words "In Beijing twenty years ago..." or "At Tianan...."  The censors are just fast enough, or slow enough, to reveal what they are doing -- very much like last year, during the violence in Tibet, when you'd see an opening shot of Lhasa followed by black screen.

    As nearly always in Chinese government management of the media, the apparent logic of these steps is hard to figure out. (a) Why hard-line on CNN and tolerance for BBC, which is one click away via the TV remote? (b) Why bother with English-language foreign media at all, since 99% of anyone who might be watching them already knows what happened 20 years ago? Memory-control has worked remarkably well inside China with Chinese language media. I have no explanation for the censors' decisions, just reporting the situation as of early June 3 in Beijing.
     

  • Edward R. Murrow can have his job back

    Thanks to the many readers who have written to alert me to the latest bit of boiled-frog idiocy, this from the otherwise totally admirable Bob Woodruff*, which will be featured Tuesday night in an ABC special and which was endorsed last night by Jon Stewart. Thus after a three month incumbency, Stewart gives up his role as the new Edward R. Murrow.

    FrogBoil.jpg

    I have a new approach in mind to this topic. Stay tuned.
    ___
    * Factlet tying together the themes of several recent posts: twenty years ago this week, Woodruff was in Beijing working with CBS on its coverage in Tiananmen Square.

  • If you want to compare speculation with analysis...

    ...a good place to start would be with these two recent entries from writers within the Washington Post family, both trying to explain what China is, is not, and might someday be doing about North Korea.

    For analysis, you would turn to John Pomfret, who actually knows quite a bit about China (as shown most clearly in his book Chinese Lessons). In an entry last week on his Pomfret's China site, he explained how the nutty regime in North Korea looks from the Chinese perspective, and how much power the Chinese actually have -- and lack.

    For speculation -- really, paranoid hysteria -- you would turn to his colleague Anne Applebaum, who has just asserted in Slate that China is encouraging the North Koreans to keep testing nuclear weapons and thereby create an international crisis. She says, after entertaining several explanatory hypotheses:

    Personally, I favor another scenario, equally speculative: Perhaps the North Koreans have stepped up their war rhetoric and war preparations because China wants them to do so. I can't prove that this was the case--no one else can prove any of his theories about North Korea, in fact--but I can look at the evidence...

    The "evidence" she lists will seem crude to the point of caricature to anyone with any familiarity with China. Even such familiarity as would come reading her colleague Pomfret's work. She ends with the flat-out statement:

    North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven't done so yet, there must be a reason.

    Many of the reasons -- other than deliberate Chinese war-mongering -- are precisely what Pomfret explains.

    I'm not generally looking for fights with people, so why bother to mention this? The minor reason is that since the topic is the same and both writers are necessarily working with imperfect information about North Korea, it's a particularly stark illustration of the difference between informed analysis, explaining its steps of logic, and simply spinning out a snappy "hey, this could be interesting!" idea with minimal effort to reality-check.

    The major reason is that this is dangerous. This is the kind of cocksure, half-informed assumption of the most threatening and moralistic interpretation of world events that has led to grief in our recent history. Applebaum herself has laudably cautioned against this view when it comes to Iran. A third member of the Post family, the columnist David Ignatius (disclosure: long-time friend of mine) has published a great new novel, The Increment, which among other themes concerns the danger of talking yourself into this view of the world. It's another worthy candidate for Ms. Applebaum's reading list.

  • Two more about June 4

    In response to previous "lost memory" dispatches --  here, here, and here -- two more notes I thought worth sharing, the first from a Chinese person I know and the second from an American teaching in China.

    The Chinese person was of grade-school age in 1989. He wrote in response to this plea from another Chinese person recently put under house arrest:

    First and foremost, to hear a student-aged person saying "don't give up freedom" and read Yuhua's op-ed on NYT are like reading romanticizing of that history. What i read in these, call me detached or cynical, are their own sentiments and emotions unrelated to what actually happened 20 years ago, rather than true and fair understanding of it, which is what i want to read and remember. I don't deny those people have their own faith and dreams, sometimes glorious. But celebrating their faith and dreams through memorization of that history is absurd. Feels like ripping the history of its true meaning and rewriting it for one's own sake. And this is a lot worse than forgetting or misreading history.

    Second, I don't understand why the (managed or controlled) oblivion of that part of history should be such a big event. There are tons of other events in modern China history that we don't know or remember. So why single out this particular part of history? Was it because of the fact that death occurred to thousands of unarmed students? Well, if that's case, we should lament a thousand times for those died during the great famine, political movements and culture revolution, not to mention the millions killed during the civil war. I can clearly remember that we were taught during high school that in each of the great campaigns in the civil war, tens of thousands of enemies were killed. Great military successes. But we were never taught in the same book that those were also human beings, killed in that large number and then forgotten (I guess they were probably not part of "the people" Yuhua was talking about). I don't mean to be sarcastic or cold-blooded about this. What i want to say is that our history is never short of such carnage episodes and since we have forgotten or ignored so much of it, why pick this out in particular and romanticize it. Only to make it sound very very very absurd!

    After the jump, the dispatch from the foreign teacher:

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  • They're back

    Two months ago, during wrangling over the Chrysler bailout plan. Original item here.

    Portrait.jpg 

    Today, after the GM bankruptcy declaration. Both photos by Doug Mills of the NYT.

    SecondTableau.jpg

    This gives me the overdue opportunity to announce the results of the "which Old Master tableau does the Obama team portrait remind us of?" competition, as previously conducted here. Also to see if even two months in public service has had any of the famous hyper-speed aging effects so famous from past administrations. (I started working in the Jimmy Carter administration at age 27; I was in my late 40s when I left two years later.) Also, to reflect on the change in visual dramatic tension caused by Larry Summers's absence from a group portrait.

    But none of this just now, as I am breaking the #1 survival rule for the correspondent 12 time zones away from the head office: never turn on the cell phone or look at the computer if you wake up at 2:30am. More later.

  • Beijing’s Almost-Perfect Hotel
    St. John Moore

    Beijing’s Almost-Perfect Hotel

    The Opposite House is an idealistic island in a country that rarely worries about details

  • Followup on solar panels and climate issues

    It appears that Alex Wang, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, must have stayed last month in the same part of the Green Lake View Hotel in Kunming that my wife and I recently occupied. Because the "look at all the solar panels!" pictures he took from the hotel window and posted recently on the NRDC Greenlaw site are amazingly similar to those I showed two days ago. If you're traveling to Kunming and want to get in on the fun, I suggest asking for room 2008 at the hotel -- also known as the "view that will impress foreigners worried about the environment" suite.

    It turns out that the solar-paneled rooftops of Kunming are about as well known a feature of the city as are gabled rooftops for Paris. As one reader with a Chinese name wrote:

    Your latest post of  the roof with solar-thermal heating device in Kunming is a typical picture of Chinese city, especially of those second or third-tier cities. People in these cities mostly live in the apartments built in the last two decades. Solar heating device became extremely popular around 2000, for its cheapness, and governments then don't care about its impact on the outlook of the city,ie,barely any regulation.

    He also pointed to this Greenpeace report on the city of Dezhou, in Shandong province, where many solar panels are manufactured -- and used. Also, this recent Danwei.org post that includes a Greenpeace video about the city. Les toits de Dezhou:

    SolarPanel.jpg

    After the jump, a note from a non-Chinese person about the larger life bargain that solar-thermal water systems imply.
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    More »

  • Lost memory of June 4, update #2

    Not all young Chinese people are unaware of or indifferent to the events of twenty years ago in Beijing. Late last night I heard from one such person, roughly in the student age bracket, who had just been put under house arrest for the next week, until the "sensitive" anniversary period is over. The message I received today via mobile phone/SMS, before communication ended, was this:

    Could you please blog, "Chinese people, don't give up on freedom, ever."

    It is heartbreaking and, in a way, shaming for outsiders to realize how little they can do directly to affect the government's handling of cases like these. I would only hurt this person's prospects by saying more about specifics. But this is where my thoughts will be in the next week.

  • Lost memory of June 4, update #1

    I mentioned yesterday that a system-wide silence about what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this week has left many young Chinese completely ignorant of that stage in their country's history. I meant this not as an original observation -- the phenomenon is widely discussed here by outsiders and by Chinese people who are aware of the events, plus in the NYT op-ed by Yu Hua I cited -- but as reinforcement of a point that might not be so familiar in the rest of the world.

    Of many reactions that have come in on the lost-memory theme, I will quote a representative two.  The first is from a Chinese person now based at a university in the United States. After the jump, a roundup of references and links on the topic.

    From the academic in America:

    Chinese government is embarassed by the incident 20 years ago. It is never a glorious thing to shoot at your own citizens. So it keeps silent on the issue.

    But I don't think this is the main reason to students' indifference. There are plenty of resources about this on the internet. This is a staple topic in Chinese internet discussion forums, usually with great vehemence on both pro and anti government sides. The main reason I think is there was not really any support among general population for overthrowing of communist government even back in 1989. There was not any strike. (If there had been a general strike, the communist government would probably have fallen).

    The general population watched the events unfolding in Beijing before June 4th warily but also with amusement. Unlike the participants in the demonstration, for the "silent majority", the events happening in those few months are far from the defining event in their lives. It is no great surprise people in China don't attach much importance to them.

    And for most of young people, they don't have a lot of grievances against the government. People have lots of personal freedom as long as they don't touch politics. As for those political-minded, the communist party is always eager to recruit them. There are ample economic opportunities to absorb their mind and energy. They don't identify with the students 20 years ago the same way young people in US don't identify themselves with protesters during the Vietnam War.
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    More »

  • Well, here's one way to respond to the flu threat

    From an organization holding a conference I plan to attend in Beijing starting tomorrow,  whose sessions have been scheduled for a government-run meeting site:

    Change of Venue
    Due to the concerns of the H1N1 virus, the Chinese government has banned gatherings of groups larger than 50 people at all government facilities. Due to this new circumstance, we are no longer able to host the forum at the [xxxxx]. We have now changed the venue to the [xxxx] Hotel. The schedule of the forum will remain the same, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

    I have no independent information about whether, when, by whom, and with what geographic extent such an order might have been issued. And of course it's hardly the first time I've heard of a last-minute change of site (or cancellation) for a long-scheduled gathering in China, for reasons having nothing to do with flu.

    Whatever the back story here, to me the announcement is an interesting historical document concerning the management of public opinion in China during the current flu episode -- and the success of the government in making any measure, no matter how hazily connected to systematic public health reasoning, seem part of a resolute effort to protect the Chinese people against lax standards elsewhere, notably including the United States. No other countries are imposing quarantine rules as strict as China's? So much more to the credit of the government protecting us here!! Yes, Americans too are familiar with such "security theater" -- just not when it comes to flu. And I can't help remembering that in recent hours I passed through airports in Kunming and Beijing, "government facilities" in both cases, where tens of thousands of people were gathered. So far we all survived.

  • Win in China screening - Tuesday in NYC

    Reminder (earlier notice here): If you're in New York this Tuesday evening, June 2, consider checking out the screening at the Asia Society of a new documentary on the Chinese reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs, Win in China. Screening details here; my 2007 article about the show here.

    WinInChina1.jpg


    At the main web site for the film, here, you can see a short trailer. I was going to embed a playable link to the trailer, but the opening image on the embed is a headshot of me being interviewed about the show, and that seemed too weird. So here's a different static shot from the trailer, below. It depicts one of the PK phases of the show, for "Player Kill." See my article, and presumably the film, for explanation of PK and much else.

    WinInChinaTrailer.jpg

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