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.
  • More Gaokao: a Chinese "red-diaper" perspective

    Lots of fascinating testimony has piled up, on the topic previously covered here. (Gaokao = nationwide university-admission exam in China.) Will parcel it out soon. Here is one from a reader who wishes not to be named. I have omitted only a few comments about people who have written before, using their real names. He starts with his bona fides:

    I have been following the discussion on your blog, on the subject of Chinese gaokao, with interest. Now, before I go on, I feel compelled to state the facts: I had taken the SAT, and received 2400 on it (Yes, one of the less than few hundred a year ones with this result. It is utterly insane in my opinion.) So, I do want to make it clear that this isn't a loser's rant against meritocracy.

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  • Visas in the time of flu

    If you're thinking about coming to China from the US, you should know that visa rules have recently tightened up dramatically, as they did before the Olympics last year. Here's why.

    Inside China, the detected flu cases have doubled, from one person to two, and the quarantine-and-tracking efforts are stepping up. Newspaper charts have shown the infected people's progress through the country and reported the efforts to find and quarantine everyone who was, say, riding in the same railroad car. A report I saw this morning said that most of the people who had been on the same Beijing-Jinan train with Victim #2 were still "at large."


    [Reader R. Skinner points out the inventive West-to-East rendering of the Toronto->Vancouver-> Beijing flight.]
    Meanwhile, in mail from Chinese readers and in Chinese and English news sources I've seen more and more frequent mentions of the need to crack down on the "real" source of the problem: the United States. Both of the infected people had, after all, come on flights originating in the US (flights from Mexico having been cancelled for quite a while.)  Eg this lead editorial in yesterday's Global Times, the new state run voice to the outside world. 

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  • Twitter-scale reaction on new ambassador to China

    I am at a computer for about 90 seconds until late tonight, but:  the reported selection of Utah's Republican governor Jon Huntsman Jr as the Obama Administration's new ambassador to China is an interesting and surprising choice -- and at face value, a shrewd one. Huntsman is reportedly fluent in Mandarin, based on his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan; has an adopted Chinese daughter (plus another from India, in addition to biological children); is experienced in Asia, as a boy-ambassador to Singapore (at age 32) during the first Bush administration; and -- so I gather -- is on the modern-science as opposed to the flat-earth side of the debate about the environmental + climate issues that constitute the most important impending business between the US and China. More later, but on first impression a clever choice from American-interest point of view (completely apart from what it means for internal party politics in the US). Will also give the Chinese leadership something to think about: why the new Democratic president has appointed a rising Republican politician. Sign of bipartisan US views toward China? Etc?

    Subject to revision if there is something important I don't know about Huntsman and his record!

  • Not sure exactly which Chinese people Paul Krugman met...

    ... before writing his column today in the NYT, but:

    While his conclusion -- that China has to be part of global efforts to control carbon emissions -- is obviously correct and important, his premise -- that no one in China admits this -- does not square with my observation over these past three years.* As it happens, I spent this very day at a conference in Beijing where the first five presentations I heard were about emissions-reductions and sustainability in one specific domestic industry. (Also, I wrote in the magazine, a year ago, about Chinese people and organizations making similar efforts in a variety of other fields.)

    If blunt-instrument outside pressure like this column makes it more likely that Chinese authorities will keep making progress, then as a pure matter of power-politics I say: fine. But my guess and observation is that it is just as likely to get their back up -- and encourage the ever-present victimization mentality that makes it less rather than more likely that Chinese authorities will behave "responsibly" on the international stage.

    As I've written a million times (most recently here and here and generally here), arguably the most important thing that will happen on Barack Obama's watch is reaching an agreement with China -- or not -- on environmental and climate issues. We'll see what's the best means toward that end.
    * Krugman says:

    "Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world's largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today's wealthy nations. And they're right...But that unfairness doesn't change the fact that letting China match the West's past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it."

    I've heard that Chinese response too many times to count. But it's mainly a throat-clearing prelude to talking-turkey discussions about what the country will and can do, and under what circumstances.

  • The CIA vs. Sen. Bob Graham: how to keep score at home

    It's easy! If the CIA says one thing and former Sen. Graham says another, then the CIA is lying. Or, "in error," if you prefer.

    (Background here and here, in which Graham says that some of the briefings in which he was allegedly filled in about waterboarding and related techniques never occurred. This matters, because the CIA's claims are part of the same argument that Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress had known about and acquiesced to waterboarding all the way along.)

    Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty. In my eyes he has a specific reputation for very good judgment: he was one of a handful of Senators actually to read the full classified intelligence report about the "threats" posed by Saddam Hussein. On the basis of reading it, despite a career as a conservative/centrist Democrat, he voted against the war and fervently urged his colleagues to do the same. "Blood is going to be on your hands," he warned those who voted yes.

    More relevant in this case, Graham also has a specific reputation for keeping detailed daily records of people he met and things they said. He's sometimes been mocked for this compulsive practice, but he's never been doubted about the completeness or accuracy of what he compiles. (In the fine print of those records would be an indication that I had interviewed him about Iraq war policy while he was in the Senate and recently spent time with him when he was on this side of the world.)

    So if he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.

  • In defense of the 高考: Chinese, foreigners rally to its support!

    Yesterday, two reader-arguments (here and here) that the gaokao or 高考, the standardized, nationwide college-admissions exam for students in China, plays a central role in the parts of Chinese education that people inside and outside the country dislike. (On that larger debate, here.)

    Since then, a flood of correspondence from people generally offering a "Yes, but..." defense of the gaokao. Yes, it's not connected to "real" education. Yes, it makes students' lives hell. Yes... But: it has other advantages. Or, the obvious alternatives would be even worse -- especially given widespread Chinese fear that any more "subjective" system would certainly be rigged. 

    Here is a sampling. Judge for yourself -- and be convinced, at least, that allocating educational opportunity in a country with the scale and extremes of China is a complicated business.

    1. From a reader in China:

    I just read your posts on the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao.  While I agreed that this system did focus too much on memorizing books and exam preparation, it cannot be replaced for the current sociaty.  The advantage of this universal exam system is relative fairness.
    Yes, there are much unfairness in the exam system, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai got too many quotas for the colleges entries, minority groups got extra points, and some can get in based on their privilege and wealth.  However, this system is the most fair and practical one compared to all other alternative systems.  The American system including essays, reference letters, community service experiences...all too subjective and easy to manipulate in China.  The privileged ones will benefit even more from American system and squeeze the poor talented ones out of the best schools. 
    I am all for a reformed education system to promote innovation.  But the first thing the education should achieve is fairness: the best students can be selected to get the best education. 

     2) From Ella Shengru Zhou, a Chinese student who has just finished college in Beijing and will enroll in a Harvard graduate school this fall. She has worked with me as a interpreter and assistant.

    Officially done with my college study today, I feel I just have to say something about the discussion on China's education. I don't think gao kao is the problem in China's education.

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  • Aftermath on Buffalo / Colgan crash

    About the public hearings on the terrible crash in Buffalo three months ago, in which 50 people died:

    - Authoritative wrapup of the situation here by Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, who has had well-informed stories on this topic from the beginning.

    - This more-complete information supports the hypothesis Pasztor raised early on, as discussed previously here, that the cause of the crash was  a basic and fatal failure of airmanship. That is, at a moment when saving the airplane would have required pushing the plane's nose down -- to regain airspeed and avert an aerodynamic stall -- the pilot apparently fought the autopilot, which was trying to push the nose down, and succeeded in pulling the nose up. This further reduced airspeed and, apparently, put the plane into a full stall, at which point it stopped flying and fell to the ground. If you're not 100% confident on the difference between aerodynamic "stalls" and normal stalls, see the note after the jump.*

    - The complete transcript of over-the-airwaves transmissions and in-cockpit chatter, available in PDF from the WSJ site here, has the intrinsic horrific fascination of any document of this sort. You know you are observing the routine preoccupations and chit-chat of people who don't realize, as you do, that they are in their final moments of life. I don't share the total astonishment of some commentary about how much of the en route talk is "unprofessional" -- about career plans and family problems and the rest. Given how things turned out, any banter whatsoever now looks very bad. But none of it would have mattered save for the one horrible error in judgment and reaction. Had the pilot pushed forward on the stick rather than pulled back, in all likelihood it would have been another normal flight -- albeit in rough winter conditions -- and he and everyone else would now be going about their regular lives.
    - Of course the big question is how much the loosey-goosey atmosphere in the cockpit had to do with that awful error. Miles O'Brien, a pilot and ex-correspondent for CNN, has his thoughts on the subject here.

    - This is NOT crash related, but for a way to see what it is like to descend into a cloud bank on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing, check out this YouTube video taken from inside the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22 in the last three minutes of its approach to runway 16R at Van Nuys airport. (The Cirrus is a four-seat single-engine plane of the type that, as it happens, Miles O'Brien flies and that I used to own and fly before coming to China.) The shot does not concentrate on the instrument panel during the descent, which is what the pilot is obsessively scanning when he can't see anything outside the window. Also,the propeller appears to "stop" or move jerkily at times, just because of a strobe effect with the camera. But the beginning and end of the clip conveys something most passengers never see: how it looks to enter the clouds, and then finally to see the runway -- in this case, underneath quite a low cloud ceiling. Really, watch this and you'll have an idea of the mantra drummed into your head a million times in instrument-flight training: that you've got to watch the instruments and trust the instruments, because there is no other guide to where you're headed.

    (UPDATE: YouTube appears to be getting Firewalled again in China, as happens from time to time. I posted this link while using a VPN, as I do most of the time to get around the firewall. But after hearing complaints from others, I turned the VPN off and couldn't reach YouTube from Beijing. Oh well.)

    - Speaking of runway 16R at Van Nuys Airport, here is the site for a movie called One Six Right, about that very runway and the activity that surrounds it. It's for sale on DVD rather than free download, but it is visually very rich, eye-opening, and fascinating to watch. It also talks about all the routine safety measures that are normally built into aviation, and which in this Buffalo case didn't prevent a huge tragedy.

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  • Further on the 高考

    From Joshua Davis, a foreigner teaching English in China, a further critique of the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao, following this one earlier today by another foreign teacher. These are worth noting less for the novelty of the complaint (objecting to the effects of the test on Chinese education is like objecting to the effects of money on American politics) than for giving examples of how central and powerful the test's effects are. Mr. Davis writes:

    Earlier this year, I decided that one of the things that stifles creativity in China more than anything else was high school. All Chinese students are required to take an all inclusive, end-all, be-all exam at the end of their high school careers called the Gao Kao.. If I can remember from the top of my head, this test includes physics, biology, math, politics, Chinese, English, history, geography, and maybe 3 or 4 others.

    Because this is the only grade that actually matters in high school, it's the sole determiner for students going on to college. There is no college essay, interviews, etc. The only thing that matters is the gao kao.

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  • Today on Chinese education: shadow of the 高考

    From Benjamin, a foreign teacher who recounts what his Chinese students don't like about their educational experience. The big focus here is the 高考, or gaokao, the nationwide college entrance exam that, as in some other Asian countries, is the make or break moment for many life prospects. Americans think their kids are stressed by the SAT.  Hah!

    The ripple effects of the gaokao (and its Japanese and Korean counterparts) are a familiar theme in complaints about Asian school systems. But after the jump, Benjamin gets his students to explain what a better Chinese school system would look like. He writes:

    Having taught English here for the past year, mostly to recent high school and college graduates (and a few primary and middle school students), I have had countless opportunities to hear what Chinese students have to say about their educational system.

    They don't like it that much, and it goes beyond ideas about critical thinking and creativity. They have said that they find it a very stifling experience, filled with long days focused on boring books and lectures with rote assignments to ensure that they've memorized the essential facts (and pre-decided interpretations) and mastered the essential skills.

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  • Design aspects of software: maps as "thinking tools"

    I don't talk about it as often as, say, small-plane aviation or, recently, Chinese education, or my doomed quest in Asia for good beer. But for many many years I have been fascinated by the relationship between "pure" acts of thinking - logic, memory, argument, expression, the process of making connections and finding distinctions; all of which rely fundamentally on words - and the various tools, cues, shortcuts, and stimuli other than words that can play an important part in what we think of as thought.
    I'm not talking about entirely separate realms of expression - like music, which obviously conveys meaning beyond words, or the emotional or imaginative power of artwork, photography, illustrations, and other visual representations. Rather I mean systems specifically designed to help the plain old reasoning parts of the brain do their job better, by shoring up common weak spots or by giving more or better material for the "real" brain to work on. For an Atlantic article on this topic from 2007, go here. Things have changed since then, mainly for the better, in ways I'll go into in coming days.

    Today's design theme: the potential of argument maps. These are something like sentence diagrams, without the drudge-work overtone. I was introduced to them through two programs from the Austhink company of Melbourne, Australia: bCisive, whose name is I think a pun on "decisive" and is a tool for decision-making, and Rationale, which is supposed to help students improve the logic of their presentations. Tim van Gelder, who teaches philosophy at the U of Melbourne and founded Austhink, weighed in here yesterday on the Chinese education, defending the proposition that critical thinking can be taught.

    Here's one illustration of an argument map, a small portion of a complex map prepared by Austhink director Paul Monk (an author and former intelligence officer) to weigh arguments about who "really" killed JFK. Different kinds of maps, and reading about them, after the jump. (His argument map on the proposition "The war on Iraq was illegal" is here.)

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  • Expats in China: NOT being called in for health checks (updated)

    Yesterday I posted a report from a teacher in Hangzhou who, along with other foreigners on the staff, was being called in for special health checks as part of anti-flu precautions. The teacher wondered whether this was a Hangzhou localism or a wider policy.

    Since then I have received no reports of special health checks for foreigners, and many comments to the effect that "all is routine here." So it appears to be a one-city or even one-school policy. Worth noting.

    Update: Have heard from one teacher in Suzhou about health checks there too (not far from Hangzhou, so maybe....) and an expat in Beijing about getting temperature checked on the way into his apartment building gym. Adding: "(lucky they didn't take it one the way out. Would have been quarantined for sure. Or perhaps shipped out to a morgue)."

  • May 12

    News and events in China today are dominated by commemorations of the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

    In that spirit, here is a link to a video released today by Afterquake, a project by Abigail Washburn and Dave Liang, American musicians living in China, to document and assist the recovery effort. 


    I think most people will find the video affecting but not depressing. It certainly makes clear why this event so dominated the country's consciousness last year. The only thing the post-earthquake scenes don't convey is how vast the devastated area was. You could drive for hours, far away from the epicenter, and still see crushed buildings and shaken-down mountains like those depicted here. 

    Further links: Sichuan Quake Relief charity
               Additional site on Vimeo for English version of video
               Sites for Chinese version of video on Tudou and Youku
               SexyBeijing.TV, whose Luke Mines shot and edited the video

  • Here it comes: more on Chinese & non-Chinese education!

    From a Chinese person teaching in America; then an American teaching somewhere else; and finally the man who kicked the whole thing off, Randy Pollock himself. (Previously here.)

    First, from a Chinese reader:

    I had a pretty low opinion on Chinese education when I was in China. Certain subjects such as history and Marxist philosophy are just crammed in without any critical discussion. But when I came to US and worked as TA for a top state university, I changed my mind a bit. Almost none of my students (first-year economics) are interested in understanding the materials critically. Most of them are just looking for a good grade. Also the math preparation some of my students received are so inadequate, I doubt they would be able to graduate from high school in China, not mentioning entering a top university. My classmate told me a story that one of his student could not do 7*7 by hand. From what I read in newspapers about quality of inner city schools in US, the situation may be even worse than I see. So the conspiracy theory one of your reader talked about that the poor quality of rural area schools is set on purpose by Chinese government to keep people ignorant is far-fetched. Compared with some of the public schools in US where so much resource are spent with so few results, I think the education system in China is not so bad.

    I don't think Nobel Prize is a valid measure to compare different education systems. Most of the best scientific talents in China are attracted to US, studying and working here. This alone can make any comparison meaningless. Also scientific research in US was weak till 20th century. I remember reading Schumpeter's discussion about why there were so few first-rate American economists till very late in the 19th century, his explanation was that the best talents in US were attracted to entrepreneurial adventures in a fast growing economy. Similar things may be happening in China right now.

    Next, from an American expat:

    I've been reading your series on Chinese education because it so greatly resembles my daily life as an English teacher. The thing is, I don't teach in China, I teach in a Eastern European country.

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  • For expats in China: being called for health checks?

    A foreign teacher in Hangzhou writes with a question:

    I was informed this past Friday by my school's Foreign Affairs Dept. that we should report our "health status" by 3 pm daily. Only the foreign teachers have been asked to report their health (whatever that means, we are still not really sure) according to my Chinese colleagues. I was wondering if you had A. heard any other reports of such behavior and B. Does this indicate that the virus is in Hangzhou? (It doesn't seem likely if Chinese teachers aren't also being "checked") Or is this just another example of over-response (since none of us have been out of the country in over a month)? 

    I have not heard of or experienced anything like this, and my default explanation for regional variations is that it's a great big country with lots of different things going on. But if anyone has experienced something similar, let me know and I'll collate results. Meanwhile, stay healthy!

  • If you're looking for something new to worry about...[IMPROVED!!]

    ... how about the prospect that the GPS system will be the next part of America's neglected infrastructure to be in trouble, with ripple effects on modern commercial life?

    It is impossible to overstate the importance of GPS to the worldwide modern economy. Trivial recent example: the other night in Beijing, my wife and I were lost getting to an address. Didn't see street signs around, although streets in big Chinese cities are usually very well marked. We pulled up the Google Map function on my Blackberry, and it showed us (via the "my location" function) that the street we were looking for was the one we just passed rather than the one still ahead. [This cut is an important improvement to the post! On the reasons for this improvement, see below*] Multiply this a million-fold each day in operations of the world's navigation and transportation functions, and you see how economic life is being built on GPS almost in the way it has been built on electricity over the last hundred years. The world's airlines, to choose one obvious case, would be in huge trouble without reliable GPS.

    And so it is with heavy heart that we learn about a new Government Accountability Office study (here in PDF), via Michael Cooney's story in NetworkWorld, saying that the U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new "IIF"-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out.


    For years, other countries have said they needed their own alternative to the GPS system, precisely because it was run by the U.S. military and, in times of crisis, could be used as a strategic tool. Simplest version of the fear: that in an emergency the US could block or encode signals so that only its own receivers could interpret them, meaning the American military would know where it was going and no one else would. You can get the idea from the illustration below, included in the GAO report, showing sample "aviation" and "ground navigation" uses for GPS.

    There's a long history on this score, mainly involving the European Galileo project, plus Russian and Chinese efforts; plus the Pentagon's gradual willingness to make high-precision signals available to the world generally, rather than deliberately fuzzing the open-use civilian version. All for another time; I invite you to look it up for yourself. 

    But the nightmare scenario no one thought to worry about was that the US-run system would start to crumble and wear out. Arrrgghh!
    * IMPROVEMENT!!!:  Let me quickly shift from Arrrggghh to OOOOOPSSS!  Let's entirely forget that struck-out part above, in light of this item from TelecomAsia.net that a technically sophisticated friend just sent me.

    Ummm, I don't know what I could have been thinking. Of course my Blackberry couldn't do anything like that....


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