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.
  • While I'm at it, a Chinese and an American view on Chinese education

    Recently we've had Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives on Chinese schools (background here). For balance, a Chinese and a non-Chinese view in the same post!

    Reasons I'm offering such long first-hand testimony: (1) no one has to read it!  (2) many things about life in China -- and yes, life in other places -- are conveyed not in theoretical summaries but in accumulations of day by day experiences, like those recounted here. Several more still in the queue. Also, bear in mind that the foreigners writing in are ones who generally came to Chinese schools to "do something good." They're not here for the big bucks or the easy life but because they thought it would be valuable as well as interesting to be part of China's development at this stage.

    First, from a foreigner now teaching in China:

    The articles that you have featured are focused largely on University students in China. I teach English in the public middle schools (what we call grades 6, 7, and 8). The problems in Chinese education show in the University students, but to fix them you need to look at what's happening with students who are much younger.

    More »

  • Two non-Chinese views on Chinese education, management, etc

    Following this Chinese view a little while ago, and this kickoff to the discussion.

    First, from reader Terry Foecke. After the jump, from a non-Chinese person currently teaching in a Chinese school who doesn't want his (or her) name to be used. I'm not planning to run every letter that comes in -- lots have -- but these are very representative of views from non-Chinese people working inside Chinese schools or companies and valuable in that way. They also resonate with Randy Pollock's LA Times op-ed about his business students.

    Foecke writes:

    My connection with these effects is through working with second- and third-tier Chinese suppliers to US-based companies.  My job was to improve the production process (mostly electroplating, with some heat treating and stamping/machining) enough to assure consistent results.

    After a personal run-in period, I finally got it through my head that even my own (Chinese) engineers were extremely reluctant to deliver bad news.  Furthermore, their definition of "bad news" was far broader than I could have imagined.  This leads to a lively chase when Step 1 is "Identify Problem(s).

    We did our best work when we had a late night and stopped for their kind of Chinese meal. 

    More »

  • A Chinese view on Chinese education

    From Jiang Qian, an overseas Chinese physicist trained at Harvard, about the "is Chinese education any good?" theme introduced here and here. The LA Times article, by Randy Pollock, that started this discussion talked consistently about "critical and creative" thinking as being the weak spots of the Chinese system; Jiang Qian's criticism is mostly about the "critical" part. Still an interesting complement. More on the way.

    I do not doubt  that some reform in the educational system de-emphasizing rote learning would be helpful, nor do I deny that there are anxieties among Chinese educators in promoting "creativity" or "critical thinking."

    But just to point to the other side of the story, I would like  to suggest that it is not clear whether "liberal art", or anything  being taught in school, can improve "critical thinking". In fact, as  [an attached article] points  out, "critical thinking" is not a skill like reading or carpentry that  can be taught, but rather something attached to a specific set of  knowledge.  And the American schools' efforts to actively promote "critical thinking" have at best a mixed track record.

    More »

  • I hope they're not just taunting me

    Given the torments that await those who try to bring cheese into China (see here, here, here, and here), it is with mixed emotions that I see the banner ad now running on many parts of the Atlantic's site, including mine.


    Elements of the emotional mix: Honor, in being associated with such fine cheese! Tantalized despair, in knowing it's out of my own reach. Gratitude, in seeing such a precise advertiser/ medium matchup. And exhortation, that all of you who are able to do so go out and buy Comte Cheese. I'd be doing it if I could...

  • Nonfiction writing class: how it should be done

    Suppose you were writing about the financial-policy mistakes that helped bring on the Great Depression. And you wanted to dramatize the damage done by adherence to the gold standard, which meant that the central banks of Britain, France, Germany, etc could issue only as much money as they happened to have gold in their vaults.

    As the world financial crisis spread after the 1929 stock market crash, the flow of gold became highly unbalanced. The United States, with its undamaged industrial-export base (and its determination to collect on wartime loans to the Allies) was piling up gold. So were the French, for various reasons of their own. This meant big trouble most of all for England, which was losing gold and therefore had to imposes a domestic credit squeeze. You could put it that way -- or you could write this:

    "Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy -- a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton -- that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to 'earmarking' the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simply re-registering its ownership. Thus the decline in Britain's gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank. That the world was being subjected to a progressively tightening squeeze on credit just because there happened to be too much gold on one side of the vault and not enough on the other provoked Lord d'Abernon, Britain's ambassador to Germany after the war [WW I] and now [1930s] an elder statesman-economist, to exclaim, 'This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history.' "

    This paragraph is from Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, recommended here previously. There are many touches I love in this passage, from the "small rubber tires" detail and mot juste "trundling" term, to the vivid real-world description of how grand policies worked in practice, to the perfectly used quote at the end. No larger point here; just worth noticing admirable examples of explaining the world.

  • Policy announcement: reader mail

    For me, 49% of the point in having an online site is the scrapbook/diarist function: having a place to note developments, oddities, events I have come across that I won't put to "real" journalistic use. This is part of the way we all try to make sense of our progress through time.

    51% of the payoff is hearing from other people about related thoughts, incidents, and  phenomena they have come across. It's like having a conversation with people you hadn't known before but who turn out to have common interests and experiences.

    So I appreciate hearing from readers (see the "email JF" button at the right). I try to answer but ... no offense if I don't.

    Here is the policy announcement: to save myself the back and forth of asking permission to quote this or that, I will assume that material anyone sends me IS quotable, unless you say otherwise. And, I will assume that I should NOT use your real name with the quote, unless you say "feel free to use my name." That is a safer default assumption, if I make a mistake, than the opposite one would be.

    So, again: please do write; I'll try to answer; and I'll consider this all "on the record" unless you say otherwise, but not attributable by name unless you explicitly say it is.

  • Clash of the titans: Harvard v. China

    Several replies queued up to the post yesterday about problems with Chinese education. Leading off: Jerome Doolittle of the Bad Attitudes site -- a novelist, a former writing instructor at Harvard, and long ago my colleague on the Jimmy Carter speechwriting staff. Here is his response to Randy Pollock's observation that when he asked his class in China to brainstorm about a problem, they all answered the same way:

    Some years ago I assigned my class of Harvard freshman a paper describing the college they would create if they had unlimited money. I did my best to convince them to take a zero-based budgeting approach: to reinvent the whole notion of "college" from the ground up. Of the 30 papers I got back, 29 described something that looked very much like Harvard, except a little farther out of town. The single exception came from an Alabama girl whose paper began, "My idea of the perfect college would be to spend four years in bed with Aldous Huxley."
    So I had at least one live one, which is more than Randy Pollock had. But not by much. The Harvard admissions office seems to be just about as effective as its Chinese counterparts at screening out the undesirably creative.

    I think Doolittle is missing a chance as a successful lecturer on the university circuit here in China. He could draw big crowds on the theme of "Catching up with Harvard: Almost there!" To wax earnest for a moment, it's worth being clear that the complaint by Pollock and others concerns the educational system, as opposed to the students themselves. As is well known around the world, many of them flourish when they get a chance someplace else. More to come.

  • Sugar Sync

    I've mentioned several times before (like here and here) that SugarSync has become one of the programs I would hate to do without. Others, for reasons explained in those previous posts: VMWare Fusion and Google's Calendar Sync tools for Outlook and Blackberry.

    SugarSync has just come out with a free edition (with limited storage), and an easier-to-use graphic interface, with example below:


    The "what it's for" description of the program is: it lets you work on files on a variety of computers and never have to worry about copying them from one to another when you travel or work someplace else. Like your own personal "cloud" computing. Easily crosses the Mac/PC membrane. In the process, keeps an online up-to-date backup of your files.  Only thing it really is stumped by: Outlook .PST files.

    Similarly on the tech theme: I've been using the latest Firefox beta, 3.5b4, in both Mac and PC versions over the last week, without a single hang or crash. If you're having instability problems (as I did) with the latest release version, 3.0.10, consider the beta. It is here.

  • Self-inflicted embarrassment dept: Shanghai Expo update (updated!)

    Last month Adam Minter, of the wonderful Shanghai Scrap site, reported for the Atlantic.com about the ongoing follies surrounding the U.S. exhibit at the Shanghai Expo 2010 (aka World's Fair) that starts less than a year from now. Short version of the story: this is sizing up as a big embarrassment for the United States.

    He is back today with an update on the strange process that is leading to the loss of face. Worth checking out -- and figuring out how to correct, soon.

    haibao.jpg Thumbnail image for CowboyHaibao.jpg

    Left, Haibao Classic, symbol of Expo 2010. Right, American Haibao, who due to U.S. fumbling may tragically not have a chance to appear at the Expo. FAQ: Does Haibao look like Gumby? Though with a different color, and a cowlick on the opposite side? A: Yes, so maybe there's a kind of residual US presence or influence even if the US Pavilion doesn't get built.

    UPDATE: Check out the comments thread on Adam Minter's post, especially #s 9 and 10. In brief, Minter outed someone boosting one of the participants -- from an IP address registered to the US State Department.  

  • Three related articles about education and values in China

    My internet circumstances at the moment (on the road, Shandong province) don't permit more than a list of three links, but: Anyone who is interested in the implications of China's educational system for China's future and for the rest of the world should read these three articles, ideally in one sitting.

    First, "China's Boxed Itself In," an op-ed by Randy Pollock two days ago in the Los Angeles Times.

    Then, "Cry for Freedom," a nearly full-page illustrated feature by Gong Yidong in China Daily this morning.

    Finally, "Rank Corruption," a China Daily editorial today.

    American press reports about Chinese education tend to have a 70/30 split. The 70% is: Oh my, China is producing a billion engineers a year! They are sure to take over the world! Woe is us. Why can't we learn from them? The 30% is: Chinese education is terrible and it means that Chinese organizations will never truly "innovate." Woe is them.

    Obviously both are oversimplifications, but read these articles and consider which is a grosser distortion of the truth. More to say later. Also bear in mind (as a reminder for the zillionth time) that China Daily is the state controlled voice to the outside world, and two long, related articles with the same somewhat edgy theme don't appear on the same day by accident.

  • New meta-theme: design!

    The chart below, from David Wolf's Silicon Hutong site, is not meant to be taken in 100% straight-faced earnest -- I think. It's a flow chart for deciding whether to buy a book as a new hard cover, a used hard cover, or a Kindle-style ebook, including the complication that Wolf is based Beijing and can find only so much in the local shops. (I say: choose whatever form you want, but just buy the damned book!!!)


    It's connected to a more earnest but quite interesting discussion by Wolf of the role of physical books in a personal library, even when ebooks are available. And I'll use it as an intro to the next running meta-theme here: various aspects of design.

    I realize that many of the leads and items I am interested in discussing and thinking about -- once the art course is over and the flu has passed and I'm caught up with, ahem, my "real" work -- really concern design in several aspects.

    •  Design of cities, including the ones springing up all over China, as hinted at in this introductory Beijing-vs-Shanghai post several weeks back.
    • Design of "tools for thinking," which generally includes software and which I find particularly provocative and rich in the emerging (for me) intersection of straight text and graphics. I don't mean photo illustrations; I mean "mapping" and "visualization" programs of several sorts that I, as a pure-text guy from way back, find increasingly useful.
    • Design of hardware for thinking and learning, not excluding the familiar Kindle and the even more familiar PC and Mac.
    • Design of the working environment, the reduce the threat posed by the Number One Killer of Modern-day Thought, non-stop distraction

    More on all of that later. This is fair warning. Now, real work again for a while.

  • Paradise Beijing, late spring edition (updated)

    Looking north from Jianguomen intersection, today at noon. Air not that great, but trees in full leaf and a strong, warm wind on the face. Feels good to be outside.

    Uh-oh! On coming back home, I find signs of trouble in paradise. The real-time metering of the most dangerous form of small-particulate pollution, here, has a result I'd rather not see. Maybe the moral is the same as in an earlier tale of destruction of Paradise. There are some questions better not asked. The warm wind still feels good to me.  UPDATE!!! on re-reading the fine print, the maxed-out code for the air-quality reading indicates "electric fault" with the meter.  Never mind!  I'll start re-enjoying the day.
    [Alarming bogus chart now removed]

  • One more on China, India, and the Western media

    In two previous posts, here and here, overseas Chinese readers have presented very different views on whether Western press outlets were ganging up against China, and whether India was by comparison getting a free ride.

    As a worthy complement to these arguments, an email from reader Shreeharsh Kelkar, giving an overseas Indian perspective:

    I was pleasantly surprised to read the email you published from an overseas Chinese citizen who thinks the western media treats China unfairly and that he would like to see China being treated the way India gets treated.  As an Indian who lives in the US, I have many many Indian friends who complain that the media here only talks about the poverty in India, that they emphasize only what's wrong with the country and not what's going right with it, that they talk only of the poor and not of the middle class.  Etc, etc.  

    I think both these complaints -- the Chinese and the Indian -- are, in some sense, two sides of the same coin.

    More »

  • Embarrasingly literal-minded note on "First they came for..."

    A peril of today's interconnected world is that people from widely varying language backgrounds can read the same material and come to widely different conclusions, based largely on command of the language itself. This is especially true right now of English, which hundreds of millions of people use as their native tongue -- and hundreds of millions more can understand as the dominant language of international business and media, but naturally with different levels of comprehension and subtlety.

    In a way this is like the problem I've recently described for politicians, who simultaneously address an internal and an external audience. A U.S. or British leader needs to assure the local citizens that he or she is defending their interests -- without doing so in a way that will offend the rest of the world. It's hard.

    This is on my mind because of a post earlier today about quarantine for Canadian students in China, on the basis of nationality rather than exposure to disease, following similar handling of Mexican citizens. The post was called, "First they came for the Mexicans. Then, the Canadians...."

    The "internal" audience for this post would generally recognize the title as a joke. Or at least a joking allusion. That audience -- of native speakers of English, especially native speakers of American English, especially native speakers of American English who had paid attention to politics and political sloganeering -- would know how often the "First they came for..." trope is used as the conclusion of any speech about excessive government control. If you're not already 100% familiar with it, start here. If, on the other hand, you've listened to (especially) American political speeches, you have heard this a million times, often in hyperbolic ways -- including the way I was using it, ironically, here.

    But not every reader is a native speaker of English or familiar with Western political rhetoric. So I have heard from a number of people who took offense at the idea that I was describing super-seriously a systematic manhunt for various national groups. Sigh. I have dealt with enough languages over the years to be humble about the challenges of operating outside one's native language terrain (and to recognize the convenience of being able to write to an international audience in my native language). But I don't know the way out of it. This magazine, in print and on line, is deliberately aimed at high-end readers of English who will understand allusions and tricks of language. We can't water that down, or take on the lead-weight of stage direction footnotes  -- "I'm being ironic here!" -- on parts that some people might misread. But the multiplicity of audiences is worth bearing in mind. And I try to.

    So apologies to any who took offense. Except to those who wrote huffily about what my words "meant," when that was the very thing they didn't really understand.


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