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.

James Fallows: Pandas

  • David Rubenstein on the 'Panda Sex' Principle of Politics

    "Not this year, honey," as Mrs. Panda said to her mate.

    This morning, on the final day of the Washington Ideas Forum, I got to interview David Rubenstein on topics ranging from the Chinese succession to his own decision to give away his fortune rather than leave it to his children. The world knows Rubenstein as co-founder and head of the Carlyle Group, and because of the public-philanthropy projects he has undertaken. (Underwriting post-earthquake repairs to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral; buying a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation for display at the White House and of the Magna Carta to be shown at the National Archives; numerous university gifts; etc.) I knew him originally as a fellow low-salaried, mid-20s toiler on the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign and in the Carter White House.

    David Rubenstein has also been to the Chinese panda reserve I described in our magazine a few years ago. This morning he applied lessons from panda life to the ongoing political struggles in the Capitol. You can see the results below. (He is the gray-haired guy with the glasses. I am the gray-haired guy without glasses.)


  • Your China News Roundup of the Day

    Pandas, presidents, and high-speed trains

    1) On the Jiang Zemin situation, NMA of Taiwan weighs in with a somewhat coarse but amusingly illustrated account. (Again, no joke, good wishes to members of his family.) I am always a sucker for NMA's ominous-panda figures, for instance around times 0:15, 0:30, and 0:50.


    2) If you are getting a pop-up ad with every single click on our site -- I am too, and sorry, it's a temporary bug. We want to invite you to subscribe, but we don't want to drive you away.

    3) Back to pandas: the very worthy Pandas International, whose work I described in the magazine, reports on new floods in the (already earthquake-devastated) Sichuan panda refuge areas, including this photo of a bridge I saw in drier times.


    The Pandas International report adds:
    >>According to local forestry authorities, following heavy rains on July 6th, a wild giant panda drowned. The body was found in the Zipingpu Reservoir by a local villager on Tuesday morning.

    The male, aged about 10, drowned after it was swept into a section of the Minjiang River by rain-triggered floods and mudslides....

    In addition to the panda's death, 6 people have died.<<
    4) Somehow this seems connected: a report that air pollution leads to "brain damage and depression." No wonder I have felt so stupid and unhappy in recent years.

    5) Back to Jiang Zemin, a very interesting Reuters report by Benjamin Lim and Sui-Lee Wee helps explain why there could be so much sensitivity about the health of a leader who handed over power long ago to people who themselves are about to leave power. I'll let you read it for yourselves.

    6) Chinese chart of the day: airfares on the highly lucrative Beijing-Shanghai route, before and after the arrival of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train. This via the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, in Sydney.


    See if you can guess when the high-speed rail service began. I hope to try it next month and see how it compares with the planes
    UPDATE: the truncated vertical scale of the chart -- it shows only the span from $250 to $425, not from zero to $425 -- of course makes it somewhat misleading. The fare fell suddenly by about one third, not by the 90% or so that the chart would suggest. Still, the suddenness of the change is the interesting part. Thanks to Parker Donham  for the reminder.
  • 'Every Time I Try to Get Out....' (updated)

    Another area where China is Number One

    ... there turns out to be another panda complication to pull me back in. This one I have to respect, because it's a panda-man .... in the China Daily. From today's news:


    As is so often the case, it is impossible to improve on the China Daily's own description:

    >>A man dressed in a panda costume rides an electric bike on a street of Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang province, Dec 16, 2010. The man, surnamed Wen, said he bought the costume for a shopping mall's promotional activity last year. Now he wears the panda uniform to keep out the cold, despite the looks he gets from passers-by. [Photo/Southeast Business Newspaper]<<
    Can anyone still doubt that this is the world's greatest newspaper? (Thanks to N.J.)

    UPDATES: Bill Bishop reports that one of his Chinese neighbors, in Beijing, has dyed the family dog panda-style, as shown below. Also, Eric Bonabeau, who steered me toward the ominous-panda generator mentioned earlier, points out that it was inspired by Hi Panda.


  • Further Defense of the Panda-Men

    They're not as odd as you think

    Previously here and here, and below.

    Many, many people have written in to say that dressing up as an adult animal is a known, "normal" way to deal with baby animals. Eg:

    >>Although the guy in the panda suit looks absurd, the idea is actually not so strange among those working to preserve or bring back  animals threatened by extinction.

    In California, the California Condor was reintroduced to the wild using birds brought up by human handlers wearing vulture-head handpuppets. See pic here [the "head" on the right is a keeper's hand, in a puppet-glove]:


    And here is a video of the puppet in action.<<

    Similarly, about cranes:

    >>Something similar has long been done with captive-raised endangered birds intended to be released into the wild. Young animals easily imprint through visual stimulus, and if they imprint on human beings (or any other species), they have a much harder time living in the wild and often are not responsive to mating overtures from their own kind.

    See here for the lengths to which researchers go with cranes, for instance [below]. And hand puppets [as above] are used with smaller birds, as in the California Condor recovery project.<< 


    And, getting back to large mammals:

    >>Your posts about the panda-men reminded me of Ben Kilham's work in New Hampshire; an article in National Graphic some years ago inspired me to read his wonderful book, "Among the Bears." His work is controversial, but just as a matter of interest -- a propos of the panda story -- he suggests that it is futile for humans caring for bears to try to fool them visually (e.g. by keeping them in pens where their vision is blocked so that they can't see the humans who come to bring food).  He says that they know by smell regardless.  

    Maybe the Wolong keepers make sure their panda costumes not only look like but smell like adult pandas?<<

    I can't answer the last question. Topic for future research.

  • OK, It Seems the Panda-Men Are Real

    Implausible? Yes. Incredible? No.

    Yesterday I mentioned what I thought was an amusing but crude hoax: a story out of Chengdu about panda-handlers who dressed up as pandas to avoid spooking little cubs. Eg:


    Turns out, it's real. I have received several confirmations, of which the most categorical is this:
    >>I can promise you that the researchers really have Panda suits- I have seen them as we share space with these dedicated folks in Wolong.
    Matthew Chapa
    Panda Mountain
    Ecotourism Director
    www.pandamountain.org <<
    I should have had more faith in the realm of the possible in China. Thanks to all for clarifications. And, here's a slide show of what Wolong looked like before the earthquake. Plus, some use of pandas as political artwork in the Beijing Metro, here.
  • I Don't Know if This Makes Me Feel Better or Worse (Panda Dept - UPDATED)

    This probably isn't true. But it's interesting.

    [See surprising UPDATE below!!] Chinese panda-caretakers at the reserve in Wolong (which I wrote about, just before it was heavily damaged in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008) are wearing panda suits to handle baby pandas without getting them too accustomed to the human form.


    So says GoChengdoo.com.  I am not sure I really believe this. Actually, I am pretty sure I don't. Have I ever seen a real panda walking around like that? But the picture is too weird to resist. Another slightly more plausible pic at GoChengdoo. This is in the tradition of "the kind of thing I miss about China."

    UPDATE: Hmmm. It appears that this could be true. GoChengdoo links to the Chinese site QQ, which was down when I tried it earlier. Right at the moment it is up, with some semi-plausible shots of Chinese people in panda suits. One thing I learned, with admiration, while in China: anything is possible. Perhaps even this.  QQ shot of researcher:


  • Now This is a Strange Headline (Pandas + Poison Gas Dept)

    Who killed Quan Quan? The answer may come as a shock.

    From China's (government-guided) Global Times today. Actually, tomorrow:


    Details here. If the headline seems strange, here is a sample from the story:

    There is also speculation that the zoo was only driven by business interests, especially as management leased the air-raid shelter to someone planting mushrooms at the beginning of this month, China National Radio reported Tuesday, citing sources from the Civil Air Defense Office in Tianqiao district in Jinan, who are responsible for the management and use of air-raid shelters.

    This is the kind of thing I miss from daily life in China. Glad I can still see the papers online! And one of a zillion useful correctives to the "China: omni-competent and coordinated in all ways!" narrative otherwise planted in many people's minds.

  • Remember Little "Butterstick" ?

    America's favorite panda is all grown up and back home. Out of quarantine too!

    Five years ago, Tai Shan the infant panda was the cuteness king of Washington. Now he's all grown up, back home in China, and looking like this:


    This picture, and many more on this Facebook page, come courtesy of Pandas International, which has been doing wonderful work for a long time in supporting the panda centers and habitats in China. A description of their work here in the magazine, from 2007. They deserve your support.

    Also via PI, the Chinese news video of Tai Shan when he was coming out of health quarantine, after his journey from the Washington DC birthplace, early this spring. If you watch even the first 15 seconds you'll get to hear the reporter saying, "Tai Shan -- Ni hao!" Later (I believe) they discuss how quarantine time has eased the new arrival's adjustment to Sichuan food and the distinctive Sichuan dialect (!). By the end of the clip Tai San has been released from his quarantine cage and is prowling around his enclosure, and a sponsor announces a big birthday party for him on July 9.

    The role of ABCs, or "American Born Chinese," has been important or at least interesting in China's modern evolution. Tai Shan now joins that group. Think of his birthday this coming week. Happy Independence Day, Tai Shan!
  • Tai Shan Reveals a New Skill

    If a "bear cat" can learn a tricky dialect of Chinese, why can't you?

    Tai Shan the panda -- so cute and widely beloved during his early years at the Washington National Zoo, now a lumbering near-adult recently dispatched to his ancestral homeland -- has just come out of a one-month quarantine period in China and is prepared to begin his new life. Below, with his new best friend, trainer Wu Daifu:


    In conformance with stereotypes of superior study-skills of those in Chinese academic institutions, Tai Shan has already mastered one of the trickier dialects of spoken Chinese --  the regional style of Sichuan, in which several tones are reversed from standard Mandarin. That's hard, Tai Shan! The Chinese panda-news bulletin informs us about his other achievements:
    Now, "Taishan" can not only understood Sichuan dialect, but also communicate with the keeper by eye contacts, even can do something like standing, squatting, and sitting down as guided by the keeper....

    The animal keeper begins its feeding with much love. He will train "Taishan" when feeding, guiding him to make different positions in whistles as well as by gestures. Currently, "Taishan" can cooperate very well under the keeper's instructions, and also can be proceeded with the routine physical examination like phlebotomizing and B Ultrasonic scanning.

    "Taishan" has a strong adaptability, gentle personality and good mental state. Its appetite is also great, especially like eating bamboo and wowotou (a kind of steamed corn bread), and conserves a decent style when eating. He's such a courteous gentleman.
    This last observation will make all Americans, the virtual parents of Tai Shan, especially proud. More Chinese accounts of his progress here and here. A amazingly charming two-minute Chinese-language video of Tai Shan's emergence from quarantine is here. It includes an interview with Dr. Tang Chunxiang, whom I wrote about here, saying that everything is going well for Tai Shan on his return to his homeland.

    Tai Shan-like, I too am emerging from quarantine and will attempt to contribute once more to the Atlantic's website.
    For the record: The Chinese word for giant panda, 熊貓 or xiong mao, means "bear - cat." Thanks to M. Griffith for Tai Shan tips.
  • If you have been wondering about Tai Shan....

    He's made it back "home" now -- well, if not his birth home of Washington DC, then at least his ancestral home, in Sichuan province in inland China. The latest newsletter from the highly-admirable Pandas International has this update on his arrival, including a number of en route photos of him like this:


    Plus this info about provisions for his care:

    "Prior to his arrival he was adopted for life by the Sichuan Auto Industry Group for a million Yuan or about $150,000. This donation will help support Tai Shan with food, housing and medical care."

    Tthe photo that really got my attention was this one, showing some of the panda-keepers waiting for Tai Shan's arrival:


    I'm pretty sure that the man second from the right is the same veterinarian Tang Chunxiang whom my wife and I spent time with in 2007 at the main panda reserve in Wolong, Sichuan province -- before the reserve was destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.



    Assuming it's him, I am very glad to see him looking so happy again, after the very difficult past 20 months. My story about Tang Chunxiang and the pandas is here; a slide show from Wolong is here. I will always remember the end of our visit when Tang summed up his 20 years in the mountains, in very carefully chosen English, this way: "The more I know the panda, the more I love the panda."

  • China quote of the day

    " 'Maybe it's because we owe China so much money, so they're taking their panda back,' said Desiree Bryce, a mathematics teacher from Hope County Charter School, which was also visiting the zoo."

    On news that Tai Shan, the much-beloved young panda at Washington's National Zoo, will soon be heading back to the birthplace of his parents. Tai Shan, having been born on American soil at the Zoo, is eligible to become president.

    (Tai Shan in his youth, About.com photo.)

    Tai Shan was scheduled to go back to China anyway in 2007, at age two; so his extended stay may have been part of a shrewd charm offensive by the Chinese government. For more on pandas in general, check the Atlantic's coverage here and here; on owing money to China, here; on charm offensives or their lack, here. Good luck, Tai Shan! And thanks to panda fan Daniel Lippman.
  • Three scenes from the subway (includes subversive panda content)

    Life under ground, in three acts.

    1. The subversive pandas go soft-power. For illustrations of their previous quasi-menace, check here, here, and here. Now, a love-bombing campaign, as seen at the Jianguomen station today:

    It's all part of an ad campaign to boost tourism to Sichuan province, homeland of the pandas and of course the site of last year's earthquake.

    2. What is inside those mysterious blue anti-bomb pots?  Not very much, it turns out. (Background here.)  At an undisclosed location, I found one of them sitting propped open. Inside there appears to be a miniature cargo net, to cradle whatever suspect item is placed there. Otherwise it's just a big metal ball. I feel safer now. (You're looking down from the top in this picture, to see an inch-thick metal lid tilted open, and the reddish metal interior.)

    3. Is 'Prison Break' big in China? It is very, very big! The star Wentworth Miller -- "Michael Scofield" -- is absolutely enormous, dominating a skyline view of Shanghai in an ad for the Chevy Cruze.

    That's the rocket ship-shaped Tomorrow Square building, eponym for my latest book, on the far left side.

    GM looks sexier here than it may at the moment in the US -- Buick is still a dominant, tres chic brand.

    Political PS: security is ratcheting up in Beijing, as we move toward a 20-year anniversary that is 36 days from today. A subway cop came over looking hostile when he saw me taking pictures of the 'Prison Break' ads. Relying on the widespread Chinese assumption that I am in fact the 43rd president of the United States, I explained reassuringly that I was interested in the posters because they were of "my friend in the United States." It was too complicated to explain the real connection -- which is that Miller's father was my classmate in graduate school.

  • Subversive Panda II: More freedom, more confusion (updated)

    Recently I mentioned the winsome advertising-panda of the Dongsishitiao subway stop in Beijing. (Cameo reminder photo below; previous post here, with link to larger picture.)

    I asserted that the English version of the slogan -- "More Freedom, More Happiness" -- was ambiguous in a subtly provocative way. Was the beloved symbol of the Chinese nation really saying, "the freer you are, the happier you will be"? Or saying that only to visitors who could read the English translation? Or saying it inadvertently via mistranslation?

    As for the Chinese version of his slogan, 更多自由, 更多欢乐 -- that is, the version that 99.9% of the passersby would pay attention to -- I (wisely!) declared myself agnostic on how that should be read. And I had no explanation for the oddity of a panda talking about freedom in the first place.

    The wisdom of the readers:

    1) Many people, Chinese and otherwise, said that the ad was really a way of stressing that the pandas of Chengdu and greater Sichuan province now enjoyed bigger, freer enclosures than before and therefore are happier.  Sounds like a stretch to me, but: OK. More on the pandas of Sichuan and the now-destroyed Wolong Panda Reserve in this article and this slideshow and these posts.

         1A) One man suggested that it was an ad for tea. The cup in the panda's hand paw in fact says "tea." 

         UPDATE 1B): John Zhu and some other native-speakers of Chinese have said that the "freedom" implied by the term 自由 really implies the ease, leisure, and kicking-back approach to life with which Chengdu is associated. By this reasoning, the ad is speaking neither about bigger enclosures for pandas, nor wider political liberties for people, but simply a nice-and-easy vacation in Sichuan.

    2) I have had a delightful and instructive introduction to the mysteries of language via emails like the two I list after the jump. Basically the pattern has been this: an expert on the Chinese language who is not a native speaker (linguistics professor, long-time resident, etc) writes to say: "Obviously the Chinese phrase means X..." The meaning of X varies from one expert to another. Then a native Chinese speaker will write in to say, "I dunno... could mean one thing, could mean the other."

    3) And, with gratitude to all who wrote, my favorite reply was from reader KS who said that Subversive Panda "will be the name I suggest for my son's rock band, when he's old enough to have a rock band."

    Illustrations of point 2, below.

    More »

  • Comic strips about the earthquake

    Not ha-ha funny comics, but graphic novel-type earnest renderings of some of the earthquake scenes now becoming famous in China. They are by the Chinese artist/illustrator Coco Wang and are here, with captions in English. Check the index on the right side of the page -- "Strip 2: The Boy Who Lived," etc -- to see each of the several-panel installments.

    The current installment tells of the rescue of pandas from the Wolong center -- including the fact that the staff was instructed to rescue the foreign visitors first, then the pandas. The images are copyrighted, so here is just one atypically jokey frame from the panda sequence:

    Most of the other stories are in far more heroic/tragic mode. The strips are interesting in themselves and are a little window on the imagery and tone with which the earthquake is entering public imagination here. (Thanks to Brian Wagner.)

  • An account of Mao Mao the Panda's funeral in Wolong

    I mentioned earlier that the remains of Mao Mao, a 9-year-old mother panda, had been found in the rubble of the Wolong Panda Reserve a month after the devastating Sichuan earthquake. The current home page of Pandas International features an account by PI's Suzanne Braden about the search for Mao Mao, who had been missing since the earthquake, and what happened thereafter.

    It has photos of the search for Mao Mao, an explanation of the "quake lake" phenomenon (which is what did Mao Mao in), and an update on the panda reserve. Strangely moving, including the part about how Mao Mao must have been trapped by rising quake-lake water when the wall finally came down on her. It takes nothing away from respect for the enormous human cost of this event to recognize the other costs too.


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