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.
  • 9 Moments That Mattered

    From the perspective of most outsiders, Obama is of course a success, simply because he is not the reviled George W. Bush. (I say this even though my current home, China, is one of three or four places where most people would have been happy to bring Bush back for a third term. Others: Albania, plus probably Poland and Israel.) And he is of course a failure, simply because he is not the Messiah-like FDR/Lincoln hybrid that many Europeans and others had begun to envision by Election Day. And of course, no one knows how Americans or anyone else will feel about him two years from now -- or four, or eight. We love the "100 Days" marker, but things that prove to matter about a presidency usually don't show up this soon.

    Continue reading: 9 Moments That Mattered.

  • Highly recommended: 'Lords of Finance'

    If you were engrossed by today's NYT saga about Timothy Geithner as head of the NY Fed -- and even if you skipped past the story or didn't hear of it at all -- please make haste to read the saga of a previous incumbent of the job. Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed, tells the story of Benjamin Strong, head of the NY Fed through the 1920s, and of his central-banker counterparts in England, France, and Germany who, together and unwittingly, helped bring on the Great Depression.

    Lords of Finance as it appeared to me on the trusty Kindle1 here in Beijing; physical copy not easy to get locally.


    Economic theory has its place (and for me its place was grad-school classes). Well-done economic history is often far more illuminating. This is extremely well done history, and is worth mentioning now because of the obvious resonance between this tale of cleaning up after a bubble and today's predicament. Sample passage, about the 1920s but somehow sounds familiar:

    Watching other people become rich is not much fun, especially if they do it overnight and without any effort. It was therefore inevitable that all this frenetic activity -- the thriving stock market, the new issues, the ballyhoo about a new era, the buying and selling of Florida real estate -- provoked a chorus of voices demanding that the Fed do something to stop the "orgy of speculation," a phrase that would become so commonplace over the next few years as to lose all meaning.

    As it happens, Liaquat Ahamed and his wife Meena are friends of mine and my wife's, but I would recommend this book even if we'd never met.

  • On language schools and weirdo ads

    Recently I mentioned "weirdo language school ads" with an apparent bondage theme, and quoted a reader who had taught English in Japan and offered some psycho-sexual interpretation of the ads. Two updates:

    First, the latest entry in this category, from a billboard in Beijing yesterday. Speaking personally, nothing could give me greater confidence in the quality of English language instruction than the slogan, "Talenty English, Talenty Education."


    (Yes, "Talenty" appears to be the name of the school, but I'm not sure that helps.)

    Second, a letter I received from an official of the Gaba Eikaiwa (English conversation) school in Japan. He objects to the way the school's reputation was characterized by the reader I quoted. In the spirit of fair reply, his letter follows:

    Dear Mr. Fallows,

    I happened to recently read your blog of April 14th 2009, entitled "More on weirdo language school ads (updated)". As the person in charge of recruiting new instructors at Gaba language school, I was somewhat disturbed by the several inaccuracies referenced as "testimony from a 'former English teacher in Japan". I would like to bring these to your attention.

    Firstly let me mention that the ad pictured is not reflective of current Gaba advertising. It was a poster that last ran over 6 years ago. Current Gaba advertising is significantly different in theme. Please see the J-peg attachment of our current advertising as a sample. While the ad certainly was "unique" and I won't quibble with the fact that some might even find it 'weird', I would hope that the fact that this ad is from 2002/2003 could be mentioned somewhere in the copy.

    Here is Gaba's current ad, featuring its "Man to Man" (マン ツー マン) teaching approach. Underneath that, as a reminder, the previous ad; then, after the jump, the rest of the letter:

    New adGabaAd.jpg

    Old ad

    More »

  • Tech and cultural followups on that Air China flight

    Two days ago I mentioned the strange results when an Air China flight headed for Beijing was instead diverted to Tianjin. To anyone who receives these posts by email, the results must have seemed even stranger than they were. Because of a glitch in our web set-up, only the first third of the post went out, omitting everything in the "after the jump" section. Sorry! The full version is available here. (Hint: if you saw the picture of a crash involving a "bread box" taxi, you saw the whole thing.)

    Several people who were blessed in receiving the full report challenged its main hypothesis -- which, in a nutshell, was that the Chinese traveling public had learned not to waste energy getting furious about things that were entirely out of their control. Two reactions below.

    From reader David:

    I enjoyed your post about Chinese having "the serenity to accept the things [they] can't change," though your hypothesis may need some honing.

    A few years ago I was on a plane that landed in Zhengzhou due to a cracked windshield. We were stuck in Zhengzhou for over 12 hours - including a time in the middle when we were bussed to a hotel - and the entire time the passengers berated the Air China reps for not being able to provide information as to when we would be leaving except that we would not have to wait overnight. At times the Air China reps were essentially surrounded by a scrum of passengers all yelling until finally at about 4am we were able to get back on the plane.

    I've seen airport rage in the States but never with that kind of herd mentality, though I do appreciate the fact that Chinese seem to be able to yell and create a disturbance without actually being all that mad down inside. There were moments of levity among the passengers in between the rage. Perhaps the facts in my experience were different enough to give the passengers the sense that they could control the outcome of the situation whether true or not. Also, the youtube of the Hong Kong woman going apeshit when she missed her plane comes to mind. [More about the Hong Kong episode here.]

    Next, PT Black, of Shanghai, sends a long and interesting report with a political edge. It  begins this way:

    Your comments about the delayed flight from SZ to BJ strike a nerve, though, because just last week I had a very different experience flying from Chengdu to Shanghai, also on Air China.

    It continues after the jump. If you don't see anything more, it means that our RSS system is still messed up. Hope not!

    More »

  • Back to Beijing #3 (even better news)

    If you like maps -- well, you'll be in the same predicament in China as if you like really flavorful beer. The country has countless virtues, but a passionate modern map-making culture is not yet among them. Maps are often out of date; or out of scale; or deliberately hazy on state-security grounds. For instance, try to find a map of Beijing that includes the big military airport on the west side of town. Below is Google's satellite view of the area just west of the Fourth Ring Road; below that, the very same part of the city in Google's "map" view, which resembles what is shown on most available local maps. See if you notice any slight difference.


    Same area, "map" view:

    There is often also a quixotic relationship between the "real" location of a site and its depiction on paper. It's all part of the grand adventure. And I still am waiting for the first time I see a Beijing taxi driver pull out a book of maps. (I've seen them used in Shanghai.)

    But if you do like maps, you will very much enjoy the highly-detailed map cards in the "Beijing By Foot" package produced by Immersion Guides. They're clear, they're accurate, they are well explained and thought-out to lead you through a series of walking tours of the city. As cities go, this is not a great one for pedestrians, but this guide makes the best of it.

    It was thanks to the guides that my wife and I had our "Paradise Beijing" outing a few weeks ago. Enjoy-- and this is the "even better news" promised above. (Previously in the "Back to Beijing" series here and here.)

  • Somehow I find this droll

    Two bottles of water on the dresser in my favorite hotel, the Sheraton Four Points Shenzhen (elegized here and here) earlier this week.  I see that the awkward-labeling problems I often complain about in China can occur when only a single language is involved.  Click for larger if you don't see the joke.


    Although I suppose a language issue might be involved here, in that very few of the local Chinese staff stocking the rooms would be likely to notice the labels and say, "What the hell?" Actually I hope they never notice; this is kind of charming.

  • In case you haven't heard quite enough about the King Air landing....

    ... you have come to the right place. For completeness' sake, three more very informative links, the first two of them from immediately after the flight last week:

    1) From the federal government's FocusFAA site, interviews with and pictures of the Ft. Myers controllers whose voices you hear on the tapes of the final minutes of the flight.

    2) Also from Focus FAA, an interview with the passenger-pilot himself, Doug White.

    3) From the unauthorized FAA Follies site, this very informative post by controller Paul Cox. Worth reading for several reasons -- among them the controller mood revealed in the comments; Cox's arguments about how the FAA needs to change under Obama; and his explanation of the mentality with which controllers should face this kind of life-or-death emergency. Cox uses an analogy to sports, saying that as a kid he was only a so-so baseball player:

    One thing I didn't really understand was how the coach used to say that you had to be out there WANTING the ball to be hit towards you, because in the infield, I didn't....

    One dirty little secret about controllers is that for the vast majority of us, when we hear someone say "emergency", we WANT to be the one plugged in and working that sector or position. We WANT to have someone call with a wing on fire or an engine out or lost or stuck on top of clouds, so we get something interesting and captivating to do while we're plugged in.

    Yeah, we consider a "save" to be just part of the job, just another day's work, and it is... but every truly good controller I know WANTS to be in that chair when that call comes in. (And as a side note, to the weak sticks and trainees out there... if you don't want those emergency calls, well, that's a good sign that ATC is probably not the job for you. For the sake of the flying public, go do something else, okay?)

    Until I became a controller, and had that almost-jealous feeling watching someone work an emergency, I didn't really get what the coach meant when he said you gotta WANT the tough situation placed in your hands. Now I know just what that feels like.

    As far as I am concerned, there is such a thing as Enough about this case, and it's now been reached. (But thanks to John Dowd for these links.)

  • Back to Beijing #2 (better news, Air China dept)

    Twenty-plus years ago, traveling around China by air was anything but a peace-of-mind experience. The planes were mainly leftover Soviet junkers; the amenities were sparse; the general atmosphere called to mind Indiana Jones.

    I've done a lot of crisscrossing of China by airlines these past few years, on carriers as big and established as Air China and as exotic as Spring Airlines and Deer. (Note for the uninitiated: never, ever get Air China and China Airlines mixed up. The first is the flag carrier of the People's Republic of China. The second is from the Republic of China, aka Taiwan.) Flights going out of either Beijing or Shanghai are usually late, but that's hardly unique to China. Overall, it's less stressful than the standard airport/airline experience in the US.

    Last night, my wife and I were taking an evening flight from Shenzhen to Beijing. Departure 6pm, scheduled arrival 9:15. As we got close to Beijing, the ride became very bumpy, and then a bright light illuminated the whole cabin, simultaneous with a big BOOM. A bolt of lightning had hit the wing! Attention-getting but not necessarily dangerous: planes are designed to handle this, I explained to my wife and surrounding folk, in my most patronizing "let the pilot tell you" mode.

    Then my wife noticed on the "your plane in flight" GPS map that we seemed to be heading away from Beijing and toward Tianjin, near the coast. I was warming up for another patronizing "let's settle down" reply, when the attendant came on and said that because "weather in Beijing is bad"  (literally "天气在北京不好") we were indeed headed for Tianjin.

    From an aviation point of view, what happened after that was more or less normal. The plane landed in Tianjin, maybe 75 miles from Beijing, the standard diversion site in situations like these. I had dreaded the idea of everyone being offloaded there and bused back to Beijing, along a notoriously jam-packed and dangerous road. Instead, periodically the attendants and then the captain came on the radio to say that we were going to wait things out and eventually fly back.

    The interesting part was the passenger reaction.

    More »

  • Back to Beijing #1 (not so good news)

    Back to the capital very late last night, after a week in Yunnan and Guangdong, under strange circumstances to be discussed in a minute. This morning my wife says, "You know, my lungs feel a little funny here again." We look out the window. Nothing that unusual:


    Then, unwisely, I look at the real-time Twitter feed of the most dangerous sort of particulate pollution in Beijing, as mentioned here earlier.


    Hmmm. A reading just now of 451, "hazardous," and the US range doesn't even extend above 300.... (Update: an hour later, noon local time, it's up to 453. And now, two hours later, it's down to 276, "very unhealthy." All right! And three hours later it's 76, "moderate"! Weird. But I can go to the gym.) Oh well, time to get to the better-news posting that will follow.

    For context: sample sky from Yunnan. A week of this has apparently gotten us out of condition for life in the big city.


  • Local press: interview in The Beijinger

    For the record, transcript here of long interview conducted by recent Harvard graduate Jennifer Ying Lan, for The Beijinger. Questions terse and clearly phrased! Answers, as transcribed verbatim... not so much. Includes only extant snapshot of my bus ride through Xinjiang with 50 retirees from Nanjing Steel plus my wife. Those were the days.

  • King Air pilot-passenger landing: yet more tape, yet more heroism all around

    Via the Naples News in Florida, this update on the first 14 minutes of transmissions between Douglas White, the low-time single-engine pilot who found himself in control of a twin-engine King Air whose pilot had just died, and the controllers who talked him safely to the ground.

    The segment released last week covered the final minutes of the flight, when White brought the plane in for a safe landing. These preceding minutes are if anything more dramatic. They open with White's desperate "emergency" call and also include the coordinating actions between Miami and Ft. Myers controllers to try to get White the information he needed. (Last week's audio is here, in a full 21-minute version that includes dead-air time with no transmissions; the new portion is here.) As the Naples News story says about the team effort recorded in this new tape:

    Miami air traffic controller, Lisa Grimm, a commercial-rated pilot with multi-engine ratings, scrambled to coordinate the emergency with the Fort Myers TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) and with the other controllers at the Miami air traffic control center...

    Fort Myers air traffic controllers Brian Norton and Dan Favio took over for Grimm, when White's plain reentered Fort Myers TRACON airspace...

    Favio then contacted friend and King Air pilot Kari Sorenson in Connecticut, to help relay the necessary procedure information to White, so he could land the plane.

    That was the hardest part of the ordeal, according to FAA officials, because the information transfer needed to occur by relaying the information among four people

    The full sequence of recordings make clear the calm, inventive, above-and-beyond, and yes heroic efforts of everyone involved in the process, notably including the controllers. It is too bad the tapes were released separately because they are part of one narrative and emotional whole. Some of the events and tone in the final-approach tape seem quite different in light of what came before.

    For instance, the amazing sangfroid of White as he brought the plane to a landing is a credit both to him and to the reassurances and detailed instructions he had received in the newly-released tape. The surreally calm and casual tone of the final-approach controller also seems to follow naturally from the initial segment and be exactly right in the circumstances. Air traffic controllers are not, as a rule, themselves pilots, and talking an inexperienced pilot down to the ground is something they are not trained to or expected to do. That they accomplished it in this case is a credit to everyone involved -- White and all the controllers. Any pilot who got in trouble would thank heaven for this kind of help.

  • JG Ballard in Shanghai

    J.G. Ballard's death this past weekend is sad news for many reasons, among them that the most lasting image he will have left of himself was as a child. I was never that interested in his bleak, "Ballardian" speculative fiction, but Empire of the Sun, based on his life as a boy captive of the Japanese in Shanghai, was a beautiful and heartbreaking book, converted by Steven Spielberg into an appropriately beautiful movie.

    I read the book just before my first visit to Shanghai in 1986, and saw the movie the following year after another trip to the city. In those days the foreign "concession" mansions of Shanghai, in which expat families like the Ballards had lived before the Japanese arrived in 1937, were mainly derelict. Some stood vacant; some were occupied by numerous families, one per room; some had been converted to Party or government offices. Now, two decades later, some have been razed to make way for apartments or office blocks, some have been spiffed up and gentrified into high-rent lodging, some have been converted into shops or restaurants.

    In the 1980s my wife and I were not able to figure out which house had been Ballard's -- nor the one where Nien Cheng lived during the Cultural Revolution horrors described in Life and Death in Shanghai. But we know now, thanks to a tour guided by Shanghai history expert Patrick Cranley, that Ballard's childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue has reappeared, on Pan Yu Road, as the fancy "SH 508 Restaurant." This is how it looked, inside and out, last month (note high-rise in the background, on site of former mansion):


    The attic where he played as a boy, now a private dining room:

    A main dining room. Note big-screen TV on the wall, de rigeur for high-end Chinese dining parties. In rear of room, clothed in unplanned conformance with room's color scheme, is my wife.

    For an extensive and fascinating account of one Ballard fan's search for the author's boyhood home, complete with maps, satellite views, and much better pictures of the way it looks today, check here. RIP.

  • Torture from Afar

    Since the time the torture memoranda were released last week, I've been in parts of rural China where most people would have a hard time naming the current US president, let alone expressing a view about how he should handle those who endorsed a policy of torture or who carried it out. Now that I'm returning to big-city China, I see that the memoranda are inside-page news in the region's papers. This is so even in Hong Kong, where the editors can judge it on normal "news" grounds and not with whatever complications go into mainland Chinese reporting of the issue.
    Nonetheless I contend that a full process of American self-examination and accountability will make a tremendous long-term difference in international views of the United States. Even among those who at the moment don't know that there is any controversy going on within the United States.
    For as annoyed as foreigners may get with America and Americans, there have been two saving graces in the world's opinions of our country. One has been its permeability. Anywhere you go, someone has an uncle or cousin in America. The other, less openly stated, has been a  belief that at some point there are rules in America. Long periods may pass when the rules are ignored. Big boys may bend the rules in their favor. Some offenses are never made right. And so on. But in the end, the American system is supposed to recognize injustice and respond -- including with public accountability for even the mightiest figures. It has this in common with the British and some other systems -- which is what Gandhi relied on in knowing he could "shame" the Brits. For all the increases in liberty within China over the last generation, this is a striking difference with the world's currently-rising power. No one expects China's current leadership to conduct a "truth commission" about the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen. But people finally expect America to apply its own rules, even against its own people. Fulfilling that expectation is not sufficient for restoring America's image international standing. But it is necessary.
    So even though most of the world's population has no idea of what is in the torture memos or of what will happen because of them, in the long run the Administration's decisions will have a significant worldwide effect. Being true to the world's idea of America does not (in my opinion) crucially turn on prosecuting individual CIA or military interrogators. Instead it depends on full clarifying disclosure of the reasoning that led to these practices -- thus, maximum disclosure of the memos -- and full examination of the decisions that public officials made.
    At this point I don't think it's sensible to talk about legal sanctions for Administration officials from George W. Bush on down. But the historical record of what he approved, and what Dick Cheney recommended, what David Addington egged on, and what John Yoo and (sitting Federal Judge) Jay Bybee and others rationalized, should be established in unambiguous detail. For this, some American version of a "Truth Commission" is probably the best solution. Many other countries would not bother. America -- to be true to itself -- must. This will matter in the world's eyes. More important, it  will matter to us.

  • Controllers speak on the King Air landing

    I know this is not the major news story of the day. But it is what I find now jamming my email inbox, on reconnecting from the frontier of China, so I will note it for the record.

    I have always liked, admired, relied on, gotten along with, and been a supporter of air traffic controllers. In the recent passenger-pilot landing mentioned here and here, I first noted that "the calm of all involved is incredible" and then, in a second installment, that the controller involved "was faultlessly calm, supportive, and reassuring, and for that he deserves great praise." I also quoted emails from two pilots about what they noticed in the exchange, including info that they as pilots would have expected to get.

    I have received a very large number of responses from controllers who were anything but faultlessly calm. The majority of them take the quoted remarks as an outright slam on the controller, which was not at all the intent. One recurrent theme was: Well, asshole, I'd like to see how you'd have done under pressure! As I've made clear each time, I could hardly imagine handling things as well as the man who landed the plane, Douglas White. As for the controller: I respect people who do this job, and his calm played a very important part in this happy outcome. During probably the worst experience I've had aloft, which involved a thunderstorm over upstate New York a decade ago, the controllers from the Fort Drum site were an enormous practical and psychological help. As I called their supervisor to say, with gratitude, after I landed.

    Fortunately one extensive email did arrive from a senior controller who is in print the way I assume him to be in the control room: calm, systematic, etc.  His name is Paul Cox, of the FAA Follies site. He is based in Seattle and stresses that while he is speaking as a controller he most definitely not speaking for the FAA. This is the approach I've always respected from controllers. (You other guys, read and learn!) His comments below. Let me say, again, everyone involved performed very well -- in the controller's case, through the combo of projecting an air of perfect cool and finding a King Air pilot to ask questions of. In addition, the pilot performed almost miraculously. Over now to Paul Cox, who says:

    Read your recent blog entries about the incident in Florida, and a few of the comments you published deserve some info. [Very long dispatch after the jump, but full of interesting details.]

    More »

  • Harmonic convergence, Yunnan tea style

    On this day, April 16, in Atlantic web-land:
     - Ezekiel Emanuel announces that Yunnan tea is his new favorite drink;
     - Corby Kummer agrees;
     - Andrew Sullivan takes note; and
     - I wake up before dawn for a flight to Yunnan itself (time zones being what they are, it's already April 17 here).  We're a tight-knit team; we all do our part. I'll look for some tea.


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