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.
  • Where was that subway SWAT team when I needed it?

    Yesterday, in the morning rush hour, I was puzzled by the presence of three fully-tricked-out SWAT team members carrying automatic weapons at the Dongdan station on Beijing's line 1.

    Today, in the afternoon rush hour, I could have used the stern hand of the law. At 5:30 pm, the eastbound line 1 between Jianguomen and Guomao was so crammed with humanity that it brought to mind the glory days of the Tokyo subway when we lived there. There is a distinct feeling of having pressure on every surface of the body that I associate mainly with rush hour Asian-capital subways. I don't particular fear it (or love it), but it's part of the sensory package of Tokyo, and of Beijing's lines 1 and 2.

    Then, as the train rolled into Guomao, most of this vast throng wanted to get off, including me. All were yelling at once, including me,下车! 下车! -- xia che! xia che! (getting off! getting off!) -- and had to push through a band of young country-looking men who stood inside the car right in front of the door. I finally popped out on the other side of them, as if from a rugby scrum, reaching the platform as the car's doors were closing behind me. At that second, with human pressure suddenly removed from all sides of my body, I instantly realized that my wallet wasn't there. I was wearing a business suit, with my wallet in a place it wouldn't have left by accident. There had been a distinctly manhandled sensation in fighting through the line at the door.

    A planned routine by the squadron that was forcing all debarking passengers to clambor through them? Something that had happened earlier when my arms were pinned against my side? Who knows, and there is no point in wondering. Until you've seen a thronged Chinese subway station at rush hour, with a departing train pulling out, you don't realize the futility of trying to locate a culprit.

    Immediately start calling the credit card companies in the U.S. Cancel the first one, no problem. The second, a Bank of America Visa card, "And we're showing that your most recent charge was for $5.16 at a Starbucks in Beijing." "Well, no...." "Yes, it was at 6:05 am" -- "That's 6:05pm here, which was ten minutes ago..." Now if only Beijing didn't have a couple hundred Starbucks outlets, I'd be on the guy like a hawk.

    A subway pickpocket who then goes to Starbucks? This is an unpredictable place. And apart from the nuisance, it could have been worse. Not my passport. Not a lot of cash. Nothing of real sentimental value (apart from my FAA pilot's certificate! And my United 1K card, earned through many bitter trips back and forth to California last year). As my wife just said, consolingly, "It could have been your Kindle!"

    I remember offering her support in similar loving tones when she was knocked down and injured (but not permanently) a few months ago by a motorbike that was going full speed the wrong way down a freeway-like, eight-lane, one-way section of the major thoroughfare Jianguo Lu. Silly her: she was looking in the direction the rest of the traffic was coming from. Land of adventure.

  • Bomb security: Israel v China

    After seeing yesterday's picture of the "Suspect Bomb Container" in the Beijing Metro (previously here), reader Alex wrote:

    In Israel there are thousands of explosion containers, but they are just holes in the ground, roughly one foot deep, lined with some metallic or plastic sheet. The Hebrew name is "bor bitahon" (you'd pronounce it "Bawr Bee-tuh-HONE") literally "security hole". The logic would be that the good Earth will do the job of containing a significant proportion of the impact, with people feeling just a tremor. (A Chinese metal box could be blown to dangerous flying smithereens if the explosion is loud enough.) The Israeli version is also cheaper if you must deploy it everywhere, including schools, malls, streets, parks, etc.

    Probably the other important difference is that Israel has a serious bomb threat to worry about and so can't just fool around with "security theater."

  • This too is puerile but pretty funny

    On my tombstone it will say, "He dealt with Clippy." Ten years ago, during an (enjoyable!) six-month stint at Microsoft, I was supposed to be providing a "writer's perspective" on editing features being added to what became Word XP. These mainly involved the track-changes functions, plus embryonic hopes for what is now OneNote. In my spare time, I was inveighing against the maddening feature generally called Clippy -- or TFC* to insiders -- that would pop up and say "You seem to be writing a letter!" whenever you typed out "Dear Mr. ..."

    Soon Clippy was turned Off by default (rather than On), and then it was completely deep-sixed.  We all leave a mark on the world.

    I am therefore particular delighted to see the homage to the original Clippy provided by this mildly subversive new program. You install it on a "friend's" computer -- and until he or she figures out how to turn it off, it pops up every 60 seconds with Clippy-worthy tips like these:



    Download site here; info, including how to turn it off, here. I loaded this onto a backup computer and was able (I think!) to stop and completely remove it when the hilarity was done. But why take a chance? Put it on someone else's computer, not your own.  Thanks to R. Manzetti.
    * TFC = The F... Clown

  • What is this?? (SWAT team in the subway dept)

    8:10 am, April 8, Dongdan 东单 metro station in Beijing: at the exit turnstiles, three black-uniformed troops, with "SWAT" written across their backs in English, holding big, genuine automatic weapons. Considerately, they pointed their rifles at the ground.


     I'm used to rent-a-cop style Metro security officers; I'm used to PLA soldiers standing guard around the embassies; I'm used to various uniformed but feckless traffic-"control" agents; I'm used to policemen listening patiently as the antagonists in a fender-bender grow hoarse yelling at each other. But actual soldiers with machine guns? What is this? I thought a photo would be ill-advised.

    On the other hand, and still on the security theme, Kevin Miller, of the University of Michigan, submits a photo of another of the mystery bomb-disposal containers I mentioned recently. Conveniently, his had a label in English.  

    suspect bomb container1.jpg

    It's not wholly legible in that shot, but the label says "Suspect Bomb Container." Even gives a url, www.jwgk.com, with lots of interesting info in Chinese and, to a limited degree, in English:


    Now I feel better informed. Though I confess I still don't understand what practical purpose these might serve. As another correspondent pointed out, when he felt daring enough to try to crank one open -- as if to stow a suspected bomb -- it took minutes and minutes to do so. Maybe it's part of the economic stimulus plan. We've seen similar "homeland security" efforts in the US.

  • Words I never thought I'd hear from a Secretary of Defense

    From Robert Gates's press briefing today on the 2010 defense budget:

    It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-insure against a remote or diminishing risk - or, in effect, to "run up the score" in a capability where the United States is already dominant - is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in, and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable.  That is a risk I will not take.

    Emphasis mine; sentiments his. This has obvious bearing, as Gates made clear, on whether it is worth "running up the score" in an area of current U.S. dominance by buying more F-22s, among other systems. (Previously on the F-22 here and here.) More later on the details and implications of Gates's budget, and whether he'll be systematic in applying the rationale he has laid out. For the moment, the simple logic of his statement is worth noting. As is the sense of shock at hearing something so logical as part of a budget presentation.
    * Update: I see that Fred Kaplan is already on the case.

  • A good web site for difficult times

    It's Lane Wallace's "No Map. No Guide. No Limits." here.

    Lane is well known in the aviation world as a columnist for Flying magazine and author of books on adventure, science, exploration, and so forth. I've known her as a friend over the last decade, mainly through shared flying-and-writing interests. (As noted earlier, not that weird a combination of tastes.) Here's Lane, during some excursion, from her site:


    As she has made clear in her writing over the years and in this new site, she has chosen a life of adventure partly in response to personal setbacks and losses. The premise of the site is related to Andrew Sullivan's popular "The View from Your Recession" feature: that many, many people have suddenly seen the "certainties" of their life disappear. The site is meant to discuss the ramifications of and best responses to this fact. And her relatively brief book "Surviving Uncertainty," available as a free .PDF download from the site, talks in detail about how to cope with situations in which you are plunged into the unknown. She uses illustrations from flying and mountain climbing to derive principles that would apply to, say, being laid off or losing a loved one. Worth checking out.

  • For the record: three book reviews

    I am grateful for, and note for the record, three recent and positive reviews of my Postcards from Tomorrow Square.

    Here, by Sam Oglesby, in the Philadelphia Bulletin (newspaper from the city of my birth);

    Here, by John Pomfret, in the Washington Post (newspaper from the city where I usually live);

    Here, by John Guise, in the China Economic Review (magazine from the country where I'm living now).

    So where's the Redlands Daily Facts? Newspaper from the city of my childhood. But I digress.

    The nature of the book-writing life is often to grind your teeth about the insights and sublime subtleties of your argument that brutish (or biased!) reviewers have somehow missed. In these cases I feel fortunate in reviewers who saw and explained exactly the points I was trying to make. Also, these writers are Genuine China Hands -- including Pomfret, whose Chinese Lessons is a genuinely important book. Now, back to work.

  • Paradise Beijing, springtime edition

    Nicest day in months -- clear skies, temperature in the low 70s, glorious Sunday of a holiday weekend, forsythia and cherry trees breaking into bloom. Everyone turns out to enjoy it, which means a lot of people.

    A subset of everyone walking across a bridge toward the cherry blossom grove in Yuyuantan Park, near the Military Museum on the west side of town:

    Smaller subset of everyone, under the cherry trees:

    Pedal boats and row boats on the park's lake (click for larger):

    Thrill-ride speedboats on the nearby canal:

    It's actually not all work all the time in China. Autumn 2008 edition of Paradise Beijing here.

  • Mea culpa

    Here's the difference between writing on a web site and writing for a monthly magazine, as I usually do, or in books: on a web site the crucial "hmmm, did I really mean to say that?" delay cycle has less chance of guarding you against something you didn't really mean to say. (Yes, I know, in the hands of genuine bloggers this is part of the medium's spontaneous charm.)

    On reflection, I really did mean to say that Barack Obama's top-of-his-head answer to the "Do you believe in American exceptionalism?" question was extraordinary in its combination of comprehensiveness and concision. As argued here and here. But I've been convinced by the person who posed the question (plus the Yank journalist who recommended that he ask it) that there was no lost-Empire hauteur intended in it. So I didn't really mean to make that cheap joke, and I'm sorry that I did -- and apologize to the man in question, Edward Luce.

    Think how many more of these excesses our magazine would contain if it were published every hour rather than every month!

  • That tricky old language barrier (China, Tibet, and France)

    As I so often say, my favorite newspaper is the (state-controlled) China Daily. It's possible that the French ambassador in Beijing, Herve Ladsous, now has a different view.

    Ladsous was the star of yesterday's newspaper, thanks to his observation in a China Daily interview that Tibet had been a "slave society" before the arrival of Mao's liberators 60 years ago. Below, the lead story on the front page, and the lead paragraphs in that story:

    The front page:

    The story:

    The man himself, as shown in the China Daily:

    Such observations would be heartily welcomed by officials and many citizens in China. That Tibetans lived as slaves under the lamas is one of the Three Unappreciated Truths about Tibet, as propounded by the Chinese government and endorsed by most of the public. The other two: that Tibet has since ancient times been an acknowledged and inseparable part of China; and that the Dalai Lama, despite having gulled naive foreigners into thinking him a "spiritual" figure, is actually a cunning "splittist" bent on breaking up the Chinese state.

    Was this simply...what is the mot juste? Oh, yes, kow-towing by the government of France, in awareness of how many fences it has to mend in China? The complaints on the Chinese side are numerous but mainly seem to involve Tibet (eg, protests in Paris against the Olympic torch relay, mainly about Tibet; Sarkozy's initial claim that he would boycott the Olympics, and his recent meeting with the "splittist" leader). Carrefour, Airbus, and other big French names have felt the heat of Chinese popular ill will.

    So perhaps the French representative had gotten the signal to truckle make nice? I wondered when I saw the story -- and also saw no related item at the sites of Le Monde or Figaro, nor at Agence France-Presse. But it appears -- zut! -- that it was all a misunderstanding, accidental or otherwise. Just now, France-Info has posted an item in which the Ambassador says that the story "did not reflect the tone of the interview" and that "this was not the first time that China Daily" has misrepresented a discussion. I will try to deal with the disillusionment.

  • More on Obama, exceptionalism, and impromptu speaking

    The transcript of the NATO press conference I mentioned a few hours ago is now available here, via CQ Politics. For some reason, I don't see the transcript at the official WhiteHouse.Gov site, though a blog item about the conference is here. Ie, if the transcript is there, at the site run by this famously tech-hip White House staff, it is not in an immediately obvious location, like via a link from the aforementioned blog entry, nor does it come up on a "NATO press conference" search of the site.

    After the jump, the text of what Obama actually said when asked about "American exceptionalism." To my relief, it more or less resembles the way I characterized it from memory! On re-reading, I'm more impressed by how terse it is -- and, as mentioned earlier, how hard it would be to improve on it in the same space, especially in real time.

    Also after the jump, two other excerpts, prompted by this comment from reader Edward Goldstick:

    I think two other moments were even more 'remarkable' than the one that caught your attention (though it is, too):
    1) In response to the provocative Major [Garrett] of Fox News who asked about Afghan laws that supposedly endorsed spousal rape and other dubious practices, I found that Obama walked confidently between the moral imperatives that the questioner presented so blithely and the primacy of the post 9/11 mission and the complex and uncomfortable realities in which the United States and NATO are currently operating.
    2) Perhaps it was a setup, but I thought the question to the audience about US journalists getting questions from the other heads of state was a sly move... though I won't hide my lack of surprise (nor my glee) when he used Sarko as a target.

    On #2, the context of which will be apparent in the excerpt, what I noticed was his light use of the term "Sarkozy" -- not "President Sarkozy" -- which had the same cheeky effect as the reference to "the Brits." Details below.

    On American exceptionalism:

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

    And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

    Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

    And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

    About women's rights in Afghanistan:

    Q [Major Garrett]: Thank you, Mr. President, and good afternoon. I'd like to ask you about a law that's recently been passed in Afghanistan that affects the 10 percent of the Shia population there. A summary of it says it negates the need for sexual consent between married couples, tacitly approves child marriage, and restricts a woman's right to leave the home. The United Nations Development Fund for Women says this legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband. I'd like your assessment of this law, number one. Number two, will you condition future troop movements of the U.S. to Afghanistan on the basis of this law being retracted or rewritten? And if not, sir, what about the character of this law ought to motivate U.S. forces to fight and possibly die in Afghanistan?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, this was actually a topic of conversation among all the allies. And in our communication -- communiqué, you will see that we specifically state that part of this comprehensive approach is encouraging the respect of human rights. I think this law is abhorrent. Certainly the views of the administration have been, and will be, communicated to the Karzai government. And we think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture, but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle.

    Now, I just want to remind people, though, why our troops are fighting, because I think the notion that you laid out, Major, was that our troops might be less motivated. Our troops are highly motivated to protect the United States, just as troops from NATO are highly motivated to protect their own individual countries and NATO allies collectively. So we want to do everything we can to encourage and promote rule of law, human rights, the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, economic development, infrastructure development, but I also want people to understand that the first reason we are there is to root out al Qaeda so that they cannot attack members of the Alliance.

    Now, I don't -- those two things aren't contradictory, I think they're complementary. And that's what's reflected in the communiqué.

    Q But do you object to the law --

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: We have stated very clearly that we object to this law. But I want everybody to understand that our focus is to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that they do not have safe havens from which they can launch attacks against the Alliance.

    About reciprocity and "Sarkozy":

    I'm going to take just two more questions and I'll -- from non-Americans. You guys weren't even on my list, but I'm adding you on so that -- and I want to make sure that the other world leaders treat my American colleagues well, too, though. (Laughter.) Did Sarkozy give you guys any questions? (Laughter.) You see there? There's got to be mutuality in the transatlantic relationship. (Laughter.)

    Again, no dreaded teleprompter involved in any of these replies.

    UPDATE: There is a CSPAN video of the conference here, with the "exceptionalism" question starting at about 19:35 and the "how you say it in Austrian" part at 28:30. And, Michael Scherer of Time also noticed the exceptionalism answer, here. Thanks to Hillel Schwartz and Andrew Perez. Update-update: YouTube of the question and answer here.

    More »

  • This is puerile, but it made me laugh

    Just catching up with the April 1 story in the English-language Taipei Times, about the shocking revelation that Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, the two pandas mainland China had sent to Taiwan as a good-will gesture, were actually fakes. Clip from story below.


    The Onion-worthy part of the story, IMHO, is the setup for discovering the fraud. Unlike real pandas, this pair was extremely randy ("children screamed and parents became irate"). When zookeepers tried to maintain order ("whenever the moaning from the panda enclosure gets too loud we gotta go in there and hose 'em down with cold water") the painted-on panda markings wore off, revealing the truth. Many similar nice touches. See for yourself: online version here, full page PDF here, followup here and here. Thanks to Daniel Lippman.

  • Obama on exceptionalism

    It's after midnight in China, but I wanted to mention in real time an oratorical performance that deserves a second look. It's from Barack Obama's NATO press conference that just wrapped up, and the part worth studying is the two or three minutes that followed a question by Edward Luce of the Financial Times.

    I have nothing against Luce, who wrote a very good recent book about India, but here he asked in what can only be called plummy tones whether Obama still clung to the idea of "American exceptionalism." The general phrasing of the question held that idea out at arm's length as a kind of yahoo colonial oddity.

    "I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama said after one beat for thought. "Just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism..." I don't have a transcript here, but what was impressive was how rapidly he seemed to have figured out the full shape of his answer; how effortlessly the term "the Brits" (and the instant pairing with "the Greeks") offset the seeming Oxbridge hauteur* of the question; and how he went on to give so balanced a response that no one, Yank or otherwise, could fail to be satisfied.

    Of course he was proud of his country, Obama said. But it was also objectively exceptional in several ways: it still had the world's largest economy; its military power was unmatched; and -- with emphasis here -- its Constitutional principles enshrined values and ideals that truly were exceptional. Therefore it should be proud of its role in the world, and embrace its responsibilities.

    Then came the pivot, introduced as usual with the word "Now..." Of course America's strength didn't mean it could do things wholly on its own. And of course Obama's pride in his country didn't blind him to the fact that it sometimes could be wrong, nor to the idea that other people from other countries had good ideas that had to be heeded. Indeed, the very fact of American leadership made it all the more important to show respect and listen attentively. He wrapped it all up by saying he saw "no contradiction" between the idea that America was exceptionally strong and had an exceptional leadership role, and the reality that it needed to work with others as part of a team.

    When a transcript or YouTube clip comes out, give it a look. The thoughts may seem banal, but I challenge anyone to come up with a clearer explanation of American exceptionalism to an international audience in the same number of words -- not to mention doing so on live TV with maybe five seconds to figure out what your answer will be. In a world where evidence mattered, these few minutes would put an end to the "can't talk without a teleprompter" madness. More important, they're a way of explaining to Americans the potential and limits of our international role.

    And, yes, Obama did end the press conference by ducking a question about Kosovo. But knowing what not to answer is a part of rhetorical effectiveness too. Update: He also appeared to refer to the language of Austria as "Austrian," thus: "I don't know how you say it in Austrian, but we call it wheeling-dealing." If this had been GW Bush, it would have been taken as an obvious gaffe, as in his calling the residents of Greece "Grecians." Here you can't be sure whether it's a plain error or a knowing casualism, as in saying that Australians speak "Australian" -- eg, in the ad that says, "Foster's: Australian for 'beer.' "

    * UPDATE #2
    : The questioner has convinced me that he didn't really mean it that way. See this mea culpa.

  • I admit that this creeps me out a little (Lou Pai + search engine dept)

    In several previous items (here and here, with other links), I mentioned a half-mocking quest for the current whereabouts of Lou Pai, the Enron official who got out of the company just before the deluge with more money than anyone else. Various newspaper stories and official documents periodically appear to mark his on-the-record activities: the $31.5 million fee and settlement with the SEC, his purchase and eventual sale of a Colorado mountain, etc.

    Recently a reader sent me links to a set of candid, casual pictures of a family that appears to be Pai's. He, his wife, and a daughter (or so it appears) are happily engaged in recreational and charitable activities, in depictions from a community web site. Here, as evidence, is a thumbnail of Pai himself which I have cropped from a larger picture with his wife, their child, and a pet.


    I'm not including any more clues or info about where this was found, and I don't think it was the reader's intention that I should. The creepy part is not about Pai himself -- this all started with my idle curiosity about why he was so much less well known than Skilling, Fastow, et al when he'd done so much better out of Enron. Instead it is the reminder of how many intimate views are available, through the simplest search tools, even about people who've gone to considerable lengths to shield themselves from public view. If you come across the family details I'm talking about, you'll see what I mean. And reflect about the traces we're all leaving behind.


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



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