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.
  • 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.


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


    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:


    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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  • 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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  • 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.


    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.


  • Lost memory of Tiananmen

    As I write, at the equivalent of 11pm Saturday night in New York -- 11am Sunday morning in Beijing -- links to three of the four NYT essays about the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square are broken. (The page with links to the four essays is here: as of this moment, items #2, #3, and #4 are instead linked to essays about the recession from three months ago.)

    I am sure that will be fixed soon. A quick note about the one essay that is readable at the moment, this one from Yu Hua, the author of Brothers. He says he is writing about the event for the first time ever in order to emphasize two points:

    The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people's political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

    The first point is continually thrashed out in all articles about the current state of China's economic and political evolution. For the moment I want to underscore the accuracy of the second.

    I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country's past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family's experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can't assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it's just another day.

  • What do you notice in this view of Kunming?

    This morning, looking north out the window of the Green Lake View ( Cui Yi Hu*) hotel in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in southern China:

    Click above for larger, detailed view. Or, see this closeup of the building nearest the hotel: http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7264.jpg

    Clue, in case you didn't spot it yourself: Every roof as far as you can see has solar-thermal panels for hot water heating. More to come shortly on China's general environmental/climate situation, but I think this vista is different from that in many US cities -- among other details you might notice, in the prevalence of the panels.
    * Originally thought we'd stayed in the Green Lake, Cui Hu. On correction from higher authority, ie my wife, I realize it was the Green Lake View, Cui Yi.

  • You learn something every day

    In this case, about the history of the LA freeways. Recently I mentioned the I-10 / I-405 interchange in west Los Angeles, familiar to many headed to LAX --especially before the completion of the Century Freeway, I-105, in the 1990s.

    From reader BF, now living in Pennsylvania, this recollection of that very interchange:

    I wanted to pass on two things. First, that during the decade I was navigating the freeways in LA, the soaring transition from the Santa Monica Freeway west to the San Diego Freeway south was always the high point. The designer of that interchange launched your car into the sky, banked it over 8 (10?) lanes and landed it full speed in the southbound lane.

    Second, is that the designer, Marilyn Jorgenson Reece, was the first female civil engineer licensed in California. This link describes the dedication ceremony when CalTrans named the interchange for her. [Link is here.]

    Here, from the linked CalTrans website, is Marilyn Reese as she looked during construction; below, a clearer sense of the design she had in mind.

    The designer:

    Her work:

  • Not death of newspapers but death of advertising

    As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of response on the "who's killing the press?" theme. Because the theme has been so very heavily worked over in recent months, I'm not reposting much of this. But here is a note that reflects a theme in a number of messages: that the newspapers are only the first casualties in what will be a more sweeping elimination of ad revenue in general. It is a response from a reader named Hal:

    Among my friends, we've had this discussion before.  Here's what I said then, edited to fit addressing you directly:
    The real problem is, advertising is dying. It's just pulling down newspapers along the way. Next up: TV, radio, and Google.

    This is why I was warning anyone who would listen that traditional media's schadenfreude when the internet bubble popped in 2001 was probably misplaced. Because the reason it popped was one finally had the metrics to show Advertising Doesn't Work. Google has forestalled the inevitable by doing the Net equivalent of the "tiny little ads" schtick of a decade or two back, but I think they see the writing on the wall, which is why they keep trying so desperately to find something, anything, other than search that'll make money....

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  • Beijing construction triptych #3: Opposite House

    The Atlantic's latest issue has a brief article by me about a very unusual new hotel in Beijing called the Opposite House. For details -- get the magazine!

    Here are a few amateur shots of what makes the place a noticeable exception among the other fancy Western hotels that have sprung up all over Beijing. Giant version of a traditional Chinese medicine chest, with (mainly) workable drawers, in the atrium:

    Scando-Japanese minimalism in the rooms -- I mean, "studios":

    Enormous woven-metal drape or sail hanging from the upper stories down through the atrium:

    There are genuine, professional photos in the magazine, and this brings me to my real point. Seriously, you should read articles like this in the magazine itself, not on line.

     Some written material is merely "text" and can be absorbed equally well regardless of medium. I've claimed that I like reading novels just as much on a Kindle as in printed form. All that matters is a novel is the words. But some material is designed for something other than a computer screen, and is best absorbed from printed pages, with illustrations and thought-through layout. Most of what's in a good magazine is in this category. Long, narrative articles are simply better to read on a sequence of pages, with illustrations and margins and call-out text, than as clicked-through screens.

    I'm saying: subscribe to our magazine because you'll enjoy it more that way. And: subscribe because you should! Anyone who worries about the "crisis of the press" has a chance to do something about it for two bucks a month. 


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