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.
  • WSJ on detention of Mexicans in Beijing

    Andrew Browne, the WSJ's Beijing bureau chief, has a powerful story just now with names and details of Mexicans being detained and quarantined in China because they are Mexican, not because they've necessarily been in Mexico recently or exposed to flu patients. He has names, details, and quotes about cases like those I mentioned on Saturday:

    Gustavo Carrillo, a 36-year-old manager of a Mexican technology company in China who lives in Beijing, was taken off his Continental Airlines plane Saturday and rushed into quarantine at a Beijing hotel. He had traveled to the U.S. from China on a business trip and hadn't visited Mexico.

    Mr. Carrillo said health officials took the temperatures of other passengers after the plane landed, but didn't check his after they saw his Mexican passport. Instead, they led him down the aisle past gawking passengers. "It was embarrassing and humiliating," he said.


    According to accounts from Mexicans in the hotel, Mexican travelers arriving on various flights from Mexico and the U.S. were singled out by health officials who boarded the aircraft wearing white protective suits, masks and rubber gloves. They led away Mexican passport holders. Several travelers said Chinese television camera crews surprised them at the doors of their aircraft as they emerged. They said the filming continued through the windows of an isolation ward at the Beijing Ditan infectious diseases hospital.

    "We felt like we were in a zoo," said Angel Yamil Silum, a 27-year-old business student, who arrived in Beijing with his girlfriend Saturday en route to Bangkok for a holiday, and ended up at Ditan and then the Guo Men Hotel.

    Again, China has every reason to be careful about this disease, given the memory of SARS. I've assumed this was a panicky overreaction by local officials, which would be corrected once calmer heads prevailed. The calmer-heads stage does not seem to have started yet.

  • More on public health, PR, and China's role in the world

    From a reader with a Chinese surname, in response to my suggestion that Chinese officials stick to scientific data, rather than claims about national dignity, when discussing public health issues like the current flu situation:

    "Western journalists are accustomed to the shrewd answers from their own politicians facing offensive/aggressive questions. It's well known that they, the western politicians, are afraid of negative reports for their own political skins. Therefore you may also assume that Chinese officials should behave the same way, if they ever want to be accepted by the western world.

    "Unfortunately, I have to say that three years stationing in China has not made you thinking like a Chinese. For most Chinese officials, their reaction toward negative western media reports is mostly about domestic consumption. They have to be resolute and principled when it comes to rebutting the 'western defamations' driven by 'ulterior motives'. It's not only about national pride, but has more to do with not being perceived by Chinese people as weak and not being able to stand up to hostile westerners. This may help you better understand why nationalism is so useful for communist government."

    This rings true, and reinforces a point I made several months ago about why the voices of official China -- the government and its spokesmen -- were often so inept in presenting their case to the outside world, even though many individual Chinese people could be quite sophisticated and skillful. As this reader suggests, the root cause is that the system here is mainly inward-looking.

    The complications of addressing both internal and external audiences is hardly unique to China. American politics provides examples of this every day. Same with Japan, where bone-headed politicians often play to domestic right-wingers by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, not knowing or caring that this drives people crazy here in China.

    But at the moment, the internal/external problem is particularly acute for China, because its scale and foreign interactions are so great and its officials' awareness of how things sound to foreign ears seems so limited. For instance, I don't even think they would recognize the irony of hearing that their current detention of Mexican passport holders, whether they have been to Mexico recently or not, might "hurt the feelings of the Mexican people."

    UPDATE: After the jump, a further note just received from the same reader

    More »

  • Three from Frans Hals

    I'm going to start moving through these more briskly now. A pattern is emerging in the elements that make the Obama group portrait seem Old Masterish.  Previously here. For now, three from Frans Hals. First, Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse -- as with The Anatomy Lesson, thematically strangely appropriate for the Chrysler-bankruptcy team.


    If all but six people were removed from the Obama portrait, leaving only (from left)  Geithner, Summers, Obama, Browner, Rattner, and Bernstein, they would match the positions and angles of the six Regents surprisingly well.* Though Carol Browner probably wouldn't be wild about the one matched with her.

    Next, Officers and Sergeants of the St. Hadrian Civic Guard

    And, the famous Meagre Company, apparently so named because the figures are all thin. On this basis, the Obama group portrait should be called Somber Company.

    More coming.
    * Geithner, Summers, and Obama you know. The woman is Carol Browner; Steve Rattner is behind her with round glasses; Jared Bernstein is just in front of him with gray hair. 

  • Latest touch in Chinese-Mexican relations

    Lots of local news here about the plight of Chinese nationals who were left stranded in Mexico when China Eastern airlines cancelled its direct Mexico-China flights. Fortunately for them, a special China Southern Airlines (CSA) flight will be in the air within hours, to rescue them and bring them home! English version of the Xinhua story here.

    One Boeing 777-200 plane of CSA will leave Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, at 9 p.m. Sunday for Los Angeles before flying to Mexico to repatriate 120 or so passengers there, said a CSA spokesman....It is expected these group of passengers will be in the Pudong Airport in Shanghai at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

    Somehow the stories don't mention whether these repatriated travelers, who after all have been in Mexico itself, will taken straight into quarantine when they return, alongside people being held for observation because they have Mexican passports. Or, whether an Aeromexico evacuation flight might be arranged for those stranded Mexicans.

  • Mexican government protests detentions in China

    Via Reuters, this official protest about the detentions in mainland China (as mentioned here last night) and the sealing off of hundreds of people in a hotel in Hong Kong.

    The apparent waning of worldwide panic about the virus's lethality and ease of transmission probably means that we'll see fewer stories about over-reaction as the days go on. As always, it is instructive to see the way governments and institutions react in time of stress.

  • News as art, continued

    Back to the "what does this scene remind me of?" category, previously here, while still looking into further flu news in China. Many nominations for this painting, usually with apologies for the larger Messianic implications:



    After the jump, for greater clarity of detail, an early non-Leonardo copy of the painting as it once may have looked. Plus another version not by Leonardo. More to come, with eventual wrap-up thanks to all contributors.

    More »

  • Flu news from China: Mexican citizens being detained

    This is developing news here in Beijing about treatment of those who hold Mexican passports. It is based on first-hand reports from people I trust:

    - A family of tourists -- two parents; a son age 8; and daughters ages 6 and 4 -- were staying in a five-star Beijing hotel. Like all foreigners in China, they had presented their passports for inspection on arrival. Their passports were from Mexico. At 4 am last night they heard a pounding on the door. Public-security officials asked them to come to the hospital for a few quick tests. In fact they were taken to a hospital and not allowed to leave. They received no drugs or treatment of any sort and were placed in a room where the beds and sheets still bore the marks of the previous ill and bleeding patients. They managed to contact Mexican officials by phone -- which was the first the Mexican government had heard of their situation. There is no indication that they are sick. They were assured that they would be treated as well as "any Chinese citizen." (!) This evening, another family of three has been taken from a hotel because they are Mexican.

    - As international flights arrive in Beijing, from any destination, passengers are being asked to show their passports before the plane comes to the terminal. Those with Mexican passports are not allowed to enter the city. They have been taken to a hotel for quarantine and are still there. Some 40 to 50 people are now being detained in this way. To be clear, this is not being applied to people who've recently been to Mexico, or who are showing signs of disease, or who have been exposed in some other way. It has been purely a matter of whether they are Mexican citizens.

    - A Mexican official in Guangzhou booked a round trip flight to Cambodia. On arriving back from Cambodia (ie, a million miles away from Mexico), he too has been detained, on the basis of his passport.

    You can understand why China is nervous, given its dense urban populations and its experience with SARS. You can understand quarantines based on recent presence in a diseased area or possible exposure to diseased people. You can comprehend why direct flights between Mexico and China have for now been called off.

    But there is no decent reason for quarantine and detention based solely on nationality. To the best of my information, this blanket quarantine of Mexican citizens is not being applied anyplace else on earth. Let's hope this is a panicky mistake by Chinese and Beijing-area officials and will soon be reversed. It is also worth recognizing the overall aplomb and openness that the Mexican government has been showing in handling the flu outbreak.

  • Still on the fence about those flying lessons?

    Here's the news that will make it all worthwhile! According to Mary Grady of AVweb, the easiest (legal) way for Americans to get to Cuba is, under new rules, to fly their own little planes there. Story here.

    This has been theoretically possible for a long time, and in 2005, just before coming to China, I spent weeks trying to satisfy the Cuban and U.S. paperwork and preclearance requirements for flying a Cirrus SR-20 to Havana on a Christmas trip. I finally ran out of patience and time. But now...

    Grady's podcast interview with the CEO of the company organizing the trips is here; that company's site is here. And for lessons there are little airports all over the place in the US. I'd be signing up for the trip if I were on that side of the world. Just trying to be constructive here.


  • Another nominee from Rembrandt...

    ...in the "art prefigures" life category, previously here and here. The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Some obvious differences in composition. But some nice similarities. In the role of the instructive Prof. Tulp we have the instructive Pres. Obama. In the role of the cadaver, we have the Chrysler Corporation, though out of view. (Yes, yes, I have owned several Chrysler cars and know it will be stronger than ever after the restructuring, etc.) More to come.



  • Browser update

    Reports keep trickling in of people having crashes with the latest official release of Firefox, as first mentioned here. I have no way of knowing whether this is signal or noise -- an actual trend, or merely random blips among FF's millions of users.

    I do know that the latest Firefox beta, 3.5b4, has been running smoothly around the clock, at least for me. Available here. And as previously indicated, I will indeed try Opera when I get some "spare" time.

    FWIW, this sociology of browsers from Marty Manley:

    Am testing a site these days, so I keep 3 browsers open: IE, FF 3.0.1 and Chrome. In two days, I have had four hard FF crashes -- unheard of. FF also lost track of all saved passwords, although it recovered  (maybe thanks to Xmarks).

    BTW, Chrome seems ever stronger. If this were college, IE would be the entitled rich kid who acts smart, but isn't, Firefox the impressive high achiever who is actually a bit lazy and dilettantish, and Chrome the kid who works nights to pay bills, is rock solid, and is steadily getting stronger and stronger.

    Or, if you prefer, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. As to Opera -- the garden variety A student of sound quality but without a compelling or differentiating architecture -- I think she makes a fine Secretary of State.

  • The Syndics of Pennsylvania Avenue

    The nominees are coming in for the Fine Arts precursor to yesterday's news photo of the Obama auto-industry task force, as explained here, with several plausible contenders. First up: Rembrandt, with Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, 1662.  More nominees on their way. And in the meantime, on the general phenomenon of Fine Arts precursors to current images, see Lawrence Weschler's Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, with excerpt here.



    I like some of the matchups of Tim Geithner and Gary Locke with their Amsterdam counterparts. Also, a fact worth mentioning to viewers of the second picture: surprising as it might seem given this picture, Lawrence Summers is actually quite a good athlete. The more I look at this picture, the richer it is.

  • News as art

    From my misspent years in DC, I believe I can identify every person in this photo (just now, from Doug Mills of the NYT):


    But why didn't I take more Fine Arts classes in college? Then I would know exactly which Old Master tableau this lineup so powerfully reminds me of. The human dramas suggested by these faces. This is an impromptu work of art.

  • PR wizardry on display

    Where did the swine H1N1 flu virus come from? I certainly don't know, and I gather that epidemiologists are not yet entirely sure. Maybe the US? Maybe Mexico? Maybe someplace else? But for the official health ministry in China to treat the question as a matter of national dignity.... Sigh. It is a reminder of the point raised here, and of the ways in which the government is still learning the basics of expressing itself to the outside world.


    (The Chinese-language version of the story, here courtesy of Danwei, seems to have a similar tone -- as best I can make out. This is the Chinese version of the stalwart concluding quote: "对此, 我们坚决反对.")

    After the handling of SARS in 2003 and of the "blue ear" pig virus two years ago, who could possibly doubt assurances coming from the Ministry of Health?

    Here's free PR advice from an actual foreign media person: All nations get defensive and try to make things look good for themselves -- as the Mexican governor could well have been doing. But go easy on terms like "driven by ulterior motives" and "ruin China's image" when you're dealing with a scientific matter. Especially if you're representing the Ministry of Health! Just stick to facts and say you're eager to help fellow scientists in other countries get to the bottom of this case.  (And the Chinese government is giving $5 million to Mexico to help in anti-flu efforts, which is commendable.) But, please do keep saying "resolutely opposed" ("坚决反对"). Something will go out of the world when that kind of starchiness is lost.

  • More on Firefox 3.0.10

    After mentioning recently my own frequent-crash experience with the latest release of Firefox, these results:

    - Reports from a few readers who'd had similar problems, and a larger number who hadn't;

    - Recommendations from several readers, most enthusiastically Parker Donham, to instead give the Opera browser a try, which no doubt in tinkering spirit I'll eventually do;

    - Recommendations from friends at Mozilla to try out the beta 4 release of Firefox 3.5, which has a variety of new privacy features -- plus requests for debugging details of my crashes with 3.0.10.

    The living nightmare that was my experience with Windows Vista, starting with a Vista beta back in 2006, has made me wary of trying any beta version of anything ever again. (Not that the official release version was that big an improvement. For later, after I finish some pressing "real" work: a summing up of the way that Vista + Lenovo's tweaks to the trusty ThinkPad changed 20 years of buying loyalty and put me on the Mac path.) But I did download that FF 3.5 beta and have been using it with no problems lo these past two days.  FWIW.

  • Two sentences on the 100 Days press conference

    I agree with my colleague Andrew Sullivan that the session was somewhat "dull."

    But I think it was dull in the same way Obama's inaugural address and his hour-long economic speech at Georgetown were initially thought to be: in that it was serious, meaty, sober in keeping with the topics under discussion, and therefore consistent with the Administration's long-term operational, governing, and communications strategy.


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."


An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground


The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."


The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"



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