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: Values

  • On Creativity, Taiwanese Soft Power, and 'Cultural Bonds Being Reknit'

    Little Taiwan flexes its cultural muscles

    In the most recent of my frequent paeans to Next Media Animation of Taiwan, I mentioned that the relatively small population of Taiwan was enjoying considerable creative and pop culture influence now -- especially compared with mainland China -- with resulting "soft power" benefits for Taiwan in general. (The latest NMA animation, by the way, is about the pending SF ban on circumcision.) A reader with a Chinese name has an explanation.

    First, why do I say things like "a reader with a Chinese name"? It's because when I get a message from someone with a name like Zhang Ping, I have no idea whether the writer grew up in Beijing and still lives there; grew up in Hangzhou but now lives in Paris; grew up and still lives in New Haven; has always lived in Taipei; etc. On the other hand, the Chinese-name ID seems significant, versus someone named John Smith. So now you know.

    This Chinese-named reader, wherever he or she is writing from, says the following, which I think is worth reading to the end:

    >>With regards to NMA news and Taiwanese soft power, I have a couple thoughts, in no particular order.

    1. NMA news is quite unique in that it is the one sliver of Taiwanese pop culture that is readily visible to the American public. It's not the tip of the iceberg, it's a small chunk of ice that fell off the iceberg and started drifting in the opposite direction. Taiwan has a virtually hegemonic grip on Mandarin popular culture. The viral status of crazy animation clips was an entirely unplanned side effect of the HK-Taiwan tabloid industry. It's interesting to ponder the implications of a direct line of communication between Taipei yuppies and the Jon Stewart/Conan-watching American young elite. In the event of cross-strait unrest, an NMA video humorously pleading Taiwan's case might have some effect.

    2. The rise of Taiwanese cultural exports can be traced to two events. The return of Hong Kong, and the indigenization of Taiwanese culture and history. In the lead-up to 1997, Hong Kong was a supernova of cultural creativity, showing what Chinese modernity could look like. There is something about existential crisis that breeds creativity (the US in the Vietnam era, W. Germany in the 80s, Taiwan today). After 1997, the baton passed slowly to Taiwan. Secondly, there was a conscious political movement to cultivate Taiwanese culture. In the 80's, it was verboten to even say a good word about the Japanese publicly - it would be like complementing the Nazis. This was loosened in the 90's, and after the pro-independence DPP took power in 2000, the floodgates opened. There is a full-blown re-dredging of Taiwanese history underway, which is reflected in movies, books, music, everything.

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  • A Final State Dinner Note

    America's classic music conveys a thematic message

    As a last entry in this space before turning things over to the guest team, and while the Hu-Obama State Dinner has not entirely faded from the news cycle, here is an atmospheric note, which I haven't seen much about elsewhere. It involves this scene:


    One of the implied background themes of this state visit, from the U.S. side, was calmly reasserting that the U.S. has not, in fact, fallen completely apart or gone away. A year ago, during President Obama's visit to China, there was much hyperbolic moaning about America's desperate position as supplicant to its new Chinese paymasters. Since then, in various ways I won't belabor now, the U.S. has asserted some of its ability to recover (except of course in job-creation), its long-term commitment to Asia and the Pacific, and its diplomatic and institutional resilience. In this same year, the Chinese leadership has in many ways overstepped in military, economic, and diplomatic terms. Indications are that the Chinese leadership recognizes that it has overstepped, and realizes that these moves have made nearly all its neighbors warier of it, and closer to the US, then they have been in years. This doesn't mean the U.S. should launch some new bragging contest or doesn't have some serious problems. Rather it helps restore a situation better for all sides: a recognition that these are two powerful countries that will have ups and downs but will both be around for the long haul.

    The other, complementary message - which ran through every statement by the President and his officials (and was even part of Henry Kissinger's essay just before the meeting) -- is that the United States is not trying to bottle up, contain, or thwart China. As Obama said again and again, China's getting richer doesn't make us poorer -- or shouldn't. It should make everyone better off. Because of sheer triteness, I don't like the term "win-win," but in whatever wording that was the message coming from every U.S. official. The logic here is that China will be the best version of itself if it doesn't feel hamstrung, constrained, disrespected, or resented, and recognizes that America's disagreements on human rights, or trade policies, are not attempts to block China's progress.

    Now, suppose you thought those were two big US themes -- and then you considered the musical entertainment after the dinner. Here is what you might have noticed:

    The program was nearly all jazz, by American performers of the first rank doing classic American numbers. To me the showstopper was the phenomenal singer Dianne Reeves --long famous in the jazz world and known more generally from her role as the 1950s singer in Good Night and Good Luck -- performing with pianist Peter Martin. And of course Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater and Chris Botti and more. It was very good, very up-paced, very loud, and very lively jazz, performed with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation ten feet away in the front row. Obviously music does not prove national economic vitality. (Cf Buena Vista Social Club.) But if you wanted, well, theme music for an America that still had some zip, this would be an artful choice.

    And for the "win-win" concept? There was this improbable bit of showmanship: Herbie Hancock and the young Chinese-born, US-trained pianist-phenom Lang Lang, doing a four-hands rendition of a piece by Ravel with a Chinoiserie theme. They enjoyed each other, and embraced when it was done. Again, it doesn't prove anything, but it was a good choice. Lang Lang on his own then played a Chinese song.

    My wife and I were seated two rows behind Bill Clinton during the music, and -- what a surprise! -- you could see him moving, bopping, smiling the whole time. When the event was all over, at the moment pictured above, Obama made the normal statesmanlike remarks -- and then had a nice ad libbed comment, that he thought he had detected Hu Jintao tapping his foot during some of the numbers. If you have seen the normal immobile public mien of Chinese leaders you get the joke. Hu gave the standard "heartfelt greetings!" response, but I mainly thought: it's a performance that made you proud and happy to be an American and had to have had some infectious effect. (Like the great Chinese-folk-blues performance I described here.)

    The photo: OK, it's blurry, but it was with a camera phone in the dark at short notice. If you click, it's bigger but still blurry. Facing the camera, from left to right, you can more or less make out: Lang Lang, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, trumpeter Randy Brecker (standing back by the portrait), Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, DeeDee Bridgewater, bassist James Genus, Chris Botti holding trumpet, and Michelle Obama. That's the white-maned back of Bill Clinton's head you see in the front row on the right, and the back of Robert Gates's head in the very corner. While I'm at it, that's the back of John Kerry's head at the lower left -- and the baldish head in the center belongs to former SecState George Shultz. If you could see right through his head, you would detect Jimmy Carter, whose wife Rosalynn's head is visible immediately to Shultz's right. Joe and Jill Biden are standing directly in front of Obama. While I'm also at it, how incredibly small-minded was it of Harry Reid and John Boehner to decline invitations to this event?

    Now you know, and I'll see you in a while.

    UPDATE: Thanks to reader JE, I see that Lang Lang has posted the video of his duet with Herbie Hancock here:

  • On the Military Revolving Door

    "Why do we have so many generals and admirals that 39 can retire without making a stir?"

    Recently I mentioned the excellent Bryan Bender takeout in the Boston Globe about the stampede of retired admirals and generals into jobs with defense contractors.  An employee of a Naval research lab writes:

    >>The retired generals and admirals graph may also indicate the present value of the higher officer corps in the market. Decades ago captured utilities (Southern Company, Entergy) or oil firms (Mobil, Exxon) or construction firms would hire them. However in the ensuing time their 19th century management skills have become unusable outside the military industrial complex.  I have a feeling that the percentage of lower level officers working in defense consulting would also track these numbers.<<

     Another reader asks:

    >I think a more important question should be, "Why did we have 39 Generals or Admirals of 3+ stars retired in 2007 and that wasn't front-page news?"  After all, while I'm not old enough to remember it, I do know that giving Eisenhower and Bradley and other leaders of WW2 combat commands got 4th stars after, say, beating the Nazis on their home turf.  Why do we have so many former high-ranking officers now that 39 can retire in one year without creating a massive stir?<<

    And, from another Federal employee:

    >>The revolving door that exists between the military and defense contractors has resulted in the Pentagon more interested in how to defeat the Covenant or the Locust than how to win the wars we are actually fighting. And I don't mean that they spend all day playing Xbox.

    Nor is this revolving door limited strictly to the military, but I'm sure you already know that. One of the things I never understood about December is when I walk around my building (a federal building with over 4000 people in it on an average day) there are tons of flyers for the various GS-14s, 15s, and executives that are "retiring". I don't really considering it retiring when you leave on a Friday and are sitting at the same desk on Monday with a slightly different colored badge, and I refuse to pretend that this is anything but a farce. If anything, you can tell who the real slugs are because they are the ones that don't come back as contractors.<<

    Let's see if any politicians dare take this on.

  • Military Veterans, on the Orszag Situation

    The different kinds of public "service," and what they show about the Wall Street/Washington revolving door

    I won't belabor this much longer, but there are several clean-up points to make after these two previous posts.

    1) Yesterday I "gently chided" Ezra Klein of the Washington Post for the Post's failure to publish a single word about the Orszag/Citigroup amakudari deal. Apart from Klein's blog, it still has not done so. This morning Klein has added his thoughts on the rights and wrongs of the situation, which differ from mine but which I encourage you to read.

    2) A number of people who read only my second item on the topic have written in, often huffily, to ask (a) how dare I say that Orszag himself was corrupt or rule-breaking? and (b) well, what else could he have done? I tried in this first post to address both those questions directly. Summary: the revolving-door problem is a "structural rather than personal" phenomenon; and conceivably there are places to work, for good pay, other than a firm the Administration is being criticized for having bailed out.

    3) In the previous post, I quoted a law student who criticized my criticism, on grounds such as "If someone can make five times more money, especially in our uncertain economic climate, how can you fault them?" Many, many readers disagreed. Let me start with a few replies from people in the military world, which has its own revolving-door problems. First, from a current Defense Department employee:

    >>I'm not sure whether your law student defending Orszag's move is utterly naïve or duplicitous. I have no doubt Mr. Orszag is a very bright fellow, but would he be worth nearly so much to Citibank if he had the same smarts but lacked friends in the White House and senior leadership in Congress? As someone in the defense establishment, I'm quite familiar with how this works in the military-industrial sector. Trust me, when a defense contractor or consulting firm hires a retired General at a very high salary, most of that salary is for access and contacts, not for raw talent and technical knowledge.

    Does this have any corrupting influence? At a small scale, I've seen military educational institutions spend half a million dollars on half-baked curriculum ideas or technologies pitched by senior retired officers and sold entirely on the basis of their friendship with current institutional leaders, where well-developed initiatives by PhD faculty costing 1/10th that get nowhere. At a large scale, how about the case of Darleen Druyun, the USAF procurement official who illegally assisted Boeing's bid to sell a tanker to the Air Force, explicitly in exchange for a high-paying Boeing job when she left the Pentagon right after the bid. Your law student "can't see any evidence" that future job prospects influence public employee behavior? The Druyun case didn't just smell corrupt, it was go-to-prison corrupt! For every Druyun who gets caught when Congress investigates a high-profile case, several others go uncaught. Many more avoid direct quid-pro-quos but know full well that if they "take good care" of contractor X, that X will offer them a very cushy job post-retirement.

    Certainly that logic affects Congressional staffers too; I've heard it's becoming increasingly common for people to seek Congressional staff jobs precisely because they see such jobs as a stepping stone to high-paid work with lobbying firms. If we look at what K-street law firms pay their staff, I'm willing to predict salaries bear a much stronger correlation to the importance of someone's former boss on the Hill than to LSAT scores or law school grades.<<

    Now, from a naval veteran:

    >>I know that you disagree with the student but allow me to point out the most depressing part of his argument "If someone can make five times more money, especially in our uncertain economic climate, how can you fault them? ". It would seem that our student somehow has the impression that the money involved is the most important consideration. There is no thought as to the honorable course of action.

    Early in my naval career (and I've got to hope even before) we were taught to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The standard to review your actions was how was this going to look in the papers, how would the average person view this. The writer mentions retired military personnel sitting on boards. That is just as wrong in my view. Again we're up against the pack mentality that says everyone is doing it so it must be okay, or it's legal so it must be alright (or even my lawyer has advised me as to its legality). When we have to split hairs to see if an action is correct we've started down a slippery slope and unfortunately it would seem that many (or even most) don't even recognize that they are on an incline.<<

    A few more after the jump.

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  • Happiness Abounds as Country Cheers

    A great newspaper produces a great headline

    A friend in Shanghai writes to scold me for missing an obvious opportunity. When I reported yesterday the very welcome financial developments for our magazine, I used a blah headline to the effect of "Good News for the Atlantic." As my friend points out, this should have been the long-sought chance to repurpose a classic headline from my favorite newspaper, the (state controlled) China Daily:


    So, there's the headline, at the top of this item. Better late than never.

    China Daily is also the segue to a weightier issue: official China's handling of the selection of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize. There's more to say here, which will include my best-faith effort to present the perspective of some Chinese readers (none of them government officials) who feel offended by the prize. I don't agree with them, but it's worth hearing their arguments -- which I'll do shortly, when I have "time."

    For now, it's heartening to see that China Daily has lived up to its own standards in coverage of the award ceremony. Click for larger, or read the full story here:


    PDFs of that day's issue of the China Daily (US edition) available free here. More substantive followup shortly.
  • Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize

    A sign of how far China still has to go

    Tomorrow is the day when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo. (Has it only been one year since Barack Obama received the prize and made his surprising speech? It seems like decades.)

    Liu.pngObviously it is deplorable on its own terms that the Chinese government continues to imprison the winner, Liu Xiaobo (left, from Reuters); that it will not allow his wife or other family members or representatives to attend; that it is pressuring so many other countries to boycott the event; and that it is preparing to block news coverage of the award within China. The Chinese central authorities no doubt intend all these as demonstrations of strength. In the rest of the world's eyes, of course, there could be no more dramatic demonstration of weakness and insecurity. As would have been the case if the U.S. government had kept Martin Luther King in prison after his Nobel Peace Prize, blocked all coverage of his award, kept his family under house arrest, pressured other countries not to go to Oslo, etc. And as it was when South Africa jailed Nelson Mandela.

    It is not so much deplorable as sad that the government has* Chinese groups have ginned up a last-minute counter-Nobel "Confucius Peace Prize," and awarded it to a friendly Taiwanese politician who had no idea what it was about or whether he should accept it. I am all in favor of continued harmonious interaction between Taiwan and the mainland, but the award illustrates the principle I discussed in this article: the Chinese authorities' frequent cluelessness about what will seem persuasive and admirable in the rest of the world's eyes. It so evident, from outside, that China could have increased its worldwide "soft power" tenfold if it had released Liu and his family -- or, if it had not have jailed him in the first place. Of course it doesn't look that way to the security forces in Beijing.  (* It's not clear that the government officially had anything to do with this.)

    I know it doesn't advance the argument to say any of this, but on the eve of the ceremony Liu's situation should be as widely mentioned as possible.

    Extra resources: the unstoppable team at NMA in Taiwan has put together two CGI versions of the prize story, this earnest one about Liu and the Nobel, and this more fanciful one about the Confucius award, complete with NMA's trademark armed, violent giant pandas. Also, the PEN American center has a collection of Liu's essays here, including "The internet is God's present to China" (worth reading in the Wikileaks era) and "Authoritarianism in Light of the Olympic Flame."

    South African officials eventually looked back with regret on the years in which they jailed Mandela; while racial inequalities are still with us in America, even Glenn Beck pays honor to Martin Luther King. Let's hope Liu and his family live to see the day when official China can look back with regret on its decisions at this time.

  • Why Obama Didn't Sign the Nobelists' Letter

    Why did Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama sign a joint letter from Nobel Peace Prize winners -- while Al Gore and Barack Obama steered clear?

    As mentioned previously here and here, 15 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize signed a letter this week asking the Chinese government to release the latest winner, Liu Xiaobo, from prison and his wife, Liu Xia, from house arrest. Earlier discussion concerned why three prominent names were not on the list of signatories: Al Gore, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

    I spoke this evening with a representative of Freedom Now, the group that has worked for Liu's release after his imprisonment and issued the open letter. Here is the news, from Freedom Now's perspective, on why those three people did not sign.

    Barack Obama didn't sign because he wasn't asked. That is because the letter was addressed to him, along with several other heads of state, asking their support for an entreaty to the Chinese government. Even if he had been asked, Obama would not/could not have done it: as a sitting head of state, he can't really sign things in a personal capacity. (The same would apply, despite their less powerful executive roles, to Nobelists Shimon Peres, president of Israel, and Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor.)

    On the other hand, in his role as U.S. President Obama did all that the Liu family and Freedom Now could have hoped, in immediately issuing a White House statement congratulating Liu and urging the Chinese government to release him.

    Nelson Mandela was hard to reach, for health and logistics reasons. Desmond Tutu himself was (as has been reported) away a prolonged ship voyage for "Semester at Sea" teaching duties and not in a position to make sure Mandela signed on.

    Al Gore didn't respond to numerous faxes, phone calls, letters, and messages. The Freedom Now people believe he received their requests, though they can't be sure. In any case they say they never heard back from him.

    They didn't even bother asking Henry Kissinger.

    The name on the signers' list that most inflames the Chinese government is the Dalai Lama's. Was there any hesitation about including him? The Freedom Now official pointed out that on the morning of the selection, Liu Xia, speaking for her husband, began by thanking three people who had nominated him for the prize: Desmond Tutu, Vaclev Havel, and the Dalai Lama. (PDF of statement here.)

    After the jump, a few messages from readers and other links. Then the "mystery of the Nobel letter" is finished here until further notice.

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  • Nobel Peace Prize Winners on Behalf of Liu Xiaobo (updated)

    An appeal for Liu Xiaobo's freedom from his fellow Peace Prize laureates


    Fifteen past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize have issued a letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao, asking that the newest winner, Liu Xiaobo, be released from his 11-year prison sentence, and that his wife, Liu Xia, be freed from de-facto house arrest. Announcement of the appeal, from the Freedom Now organization, here; PDF of the letter here.

    One interesting aspect of the effort, which according to Freedom Now was organized by Desmond Tutu, is its "catch more flies with honey" approach. For instance, it says: "The Chinese government's release of Dr. Liu would be an extraordinary recognition of the remarkable transformation China has undergone in recent decades."

    Another interesting aspect is the list of signatories, below. Notably absent is a 2007 winner. I would love to have heard whatever discussion occurred between Desmond Tutu and that Laureate (OK, I'm talking about Al Gore) leading to the latter's decision not to become the 16th signer.

    Let us hope that the overall "correlation of forces," foreign and domestic, convinces the Chinese leadership that they are better off letting Liu and his wife go rather than keeping them locked up.

    Signatory list:
    Desmond M. Tutu
    Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo
    Jimmy Carter
    F.W. de Klerk
    Shirin Ebadi
    John Hume
    The Dalai Lama
    Mairead Maguire
    Wangari Maathai
    David Trimble
    Rigoberta Menchú Tum
    Lech Walesa
    Elie Wiesel
    Betty Williams
    Jody Williams

    UPDATE: An alert reader writes to ask, "Given that Desmond Tutu organized this, isn't Nelson Mandela an even more glaring absence?"  Fair question. (Health? Not working it out by the deadline?) Still, it is an impressive group, and it would be great if the Chinese government could respond to their high-road pitch to think of clemency toward the Lius as a sign of strength and success rather than weakness.

  • Reality Check on Liu Xiaobo

    Our country's first Nobel Peace Prize winner? What's his name, again?

    Ten years ago, tech-savvy Westerners were confident that, once the internet spread across China, the central government's power to control what people thought and knew would surely evaporate. As argued elsewhere, it has not really turned out that way. For instance: the Google-v-China dispute.

    There is a variant of this argument that I would still advance: that in the long run, the Chinese system will have a hard time developing really high-end brands (the next Googles, Apples, Mercedeses, GEs), fostering truly great universities, or attracting top-level talent from the rest of the world (yes, even China needs it) if the media and political system remain closed. Seeing how this tension is resolved will be one of the great nation-scale experiments of the next generation.

    For the moment, here is a sobering bit of evidence about the level of insulation the current system can sustain. It is from a Westerner who has lived and worked in China for a long time. He writes:

    >> Our NGO works extensively in China, with an office there for training and consulting for foreign brands as well as Chinese suppliers. I was in [one of China's fastest-growing and most cosmpolitan cities] last week for our annual conference, and spent some time with our 15 local staff there. With the exception of our 40-something directors, the staff are for the most part in their late 20s and early 30s, educated, worldly, cosmopolitan, savvy, bi-lingual. They work to improve human rights in China.

    Most of them hadn't even heard of Liu Xiaobo. One of our senior staff had heard of him but didn't know he was in jail.

    I consider myself pretty sensible about China, having been involved extensively there since first living in [a big regional capital] from 1985-88, and then in Hong Kong and Beijing in the 90s (with an international NGO). In my work and among friends I've advocated for realism about the limits to Chinese interest in 'democracy,' and recognized how far off we Americans are from mainstream Chinese opinion about Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

    But I was still surprised and a bit depressed to learn how effective Chinese silencing of Mr Liu's voice has been among people who should be more exposed to alternative China news. [emphasis added]<<

    I've said, and still think, that the choice of Liu Xiaobo is an important one in China's long-term evolution -- and that the expansion of liberties and civil society within China is a crucial goal for its people and for the world. But the Chinese system is more robust than many of its Western critics recognize. It has been successful in making (most) people's lives materially better year by year, adaptable in responding (usually) to domestic dissatisfaction before it explodes, and surprisingly effective in steering general knowledge and debate within the country, as this anecdote shows. The more you're exposed to it, the less certain you are about how it will evolve.

  • More on WikiLeaks and the Baghdad Footage

    More on the moral calculus of the shooting we see on film.

    I won't carry this on forever, but here are reader notes representing two strong themes in responses I have received. I have been saying that it's a mistake to concentrate on this crew and its real-time "fog of war" decisions. The deeper responsibility is with the string of policy choices that put them in position to make these kill-or-be-killed choices about civilians in a crowded foreign city. Several people, notably including combat veterans, have written back to say that's letting the crew off too easily. Sample of this reasoning:

    First a question: If these loose rules of engagement were in common use in 2007, how do we explain the behavior of the victims? They were aware of the helicopter. Why didn't they recognize their danger? [Ie, if it was commonplace for gunships to be shooting people with as little immediate provocation as we see, why did they dare expose themselves?]
    Next, an observation: Door gunner-ship is not randomly assigned. It may well be that 99% (or 99.9%) of U.S. troops would not have allowed this tragedy to occur, but that simple fact quite possibly disqualified all those individuals from being in that position. (And I note this as a direct result of my Army tour in Viet Nam.) The same, of course, applies to Granger and gang at Abu Ghraib. It is possible to indict the individuals involved and their commanders and 'the system' without involving American troops categorically.
    And a conclusion: Until one can say one would apply precisely the same reasoning and the same judgment without knowing the nationality of the miscreants, one flounders. (As in the case of the Michigan terrorists, who are just as frightening as Christians as they would be as Moslems.)
    I am in the middle of Matterhorn now, on your recommendation, and that book is pointedly relevant to this matter. Please re-recommend it! [JF note: Yes. Buy and read this book!]

    The other dominant theme is that there is a big moral-calculus difference between the two attacks shown in the footage: the initial one, on a group of men on foot who might or might not have been carrying weapons; and the followup, on a van and its occupants who were trying to collect a still-living victims of the first attack. Sample note:

    You might -- MIGHT -- justify the initial attack on the group on the ground, but the American soldiers were itching to fire on the two men whose only crime was that they were trying to come to the aid of a wounded man. Those men in the van clearly did not have any weapons, and posed no threat to anyone. But the American soldiers were almost pleading with their command to be given permission to kill them. If you are going to excuse this by putting it into "context," then you can excuse almost any behavior.

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  • Maybe Rashomon Was Actually A Story About China

    Three more ways of thinking about Bob Dylan in China.

    Because there certainly seem to be a lot of ways to interpret the real clash of the titans: Bob Dylan vs. Government of China. First version (it was all the GOC's fault) here. Second version (no, maybe it wasn't) here. Versions three and onward are summarized below, from reader mail.

    Dylan's Not Involved In This Anyway. Several people (including Reuters editor and amateur Dylan scholar Robert MacMillan) pointed out that the original claims of censorship came not from Dylan directly but from his Taiwanese tour promoters, Brokers Brothers Herald. So who knows where the complaint really came from? Fair point. You would think that if BBH were just making this up to save face, and that Dylan didn't like their cover story, he would have indicated something as the controversy blew up worldwide. But with these moody poet-troubadors, anything is possible. Conceivably he doesn't know about this or figures it would only make it worse to get involved.

    Dylan Doesn't Back Out Just Because of Weak Sales or other business problems. From reader Marc Syken, who thinks it really was about censorship:

    As someone who has seen Bob on multiple occasions, a couple of quick points - Dylan does not back out of a concert if ticket sales are light.  I've seen Dylan in half filled venues, and he has never canceled.  In fact, I know of no show Dylan has ever canceled b/c of ticket sales.  His tour schedule (with set lists) is here, http://www.boblinks.com/ - he plays at least 50-75 shows a year, which is pretty good for a guy 68 years old.  Dylan has played the far east before, is backed by Sony records, and obviously knows the lay of the land when it comes to the music business. 

    Those facts all militate against Dylan using the history of Chinese censorship as a "cover" to back out of concerts due to his being hoodwinked by an unscrupulous promoter.  Given Dylan's track record as a concert performer (as opposed to a bunch ne'er do wells like Oasis), I would tend to believe the original version of events. 

    And Andrew Sprung, to the same effect:

    it seems odd that a Dylan tour organizer would make outlandish financial requests - Dylan seats are usually pretty reasonable. I saw him in a college gym in Buffalo in about 1995, a venue that was hardly part of a get rich (again) quick scheme.  I've since seen him 2x at moderate cost. Maybe things have changed, or the Taiwanese promoter has its own agenda, but maybe too the 'good authority' [who said it was all about weak sales] ain't so good.

    Maybe All the Explanations Are True. A reader with a Chinese name at a U.S. university says this fits a familiar pattern:

    For an observer from afar, all the explanations you and others given are plausible. Here, I just want to mention one of the tactics that Chinese Government always employs. It is often the case for Chinese Government to use some technicality to hide their real reason for rejection or any other form of action. Like accusing an activist of some sexual misconduct or dissolving certain organizations with the reason of tax filing irregularities.

    All of these make sense to me, which is an illustration of why it is often so absorbing and so frustrating to try to figure out what has "really" happened in Chinese affairs, especially those involving the government.

  • An Entirely Different View of the Dylan-China Saga

    Is Bob Dylan using Chinese "censorship" as a convenient excuse?

    A little while ago I posted something I strongly believe: that the Chinese central government's thin-skinned quashing of "sensitive" topics is a disservice to the Chinese public and an impediment to the country's full development. The (reported) rejection of Bob Dylan's request to hold concerts in China, following a previous turn-down for Oasis, was the occasion for making this point.

    But a few minutes after posting that, I got a reply from Zachary Mexico, a music-world figure and author of China Underground, saying that the factual premise for the comment was probably wrong. That is, how do we know that the Chinese government nixed the concert requests? His first note said (quoted with permission):

    re: Bob Dylan: I have it on good authority that the Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter's outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic.

    re:Oasis: I have heard from several mostly reliable people that the concerts were cancelled by the promoter, EMMA entertainment (they've since gone out of business) for lack of ticket sales, and not for any political reasons.

    Blaming the Chinese government is an easy way out when these tours become financial sinkholes.

    I wrote back saying, essentially: Interesting if true! How do we know these things? He pointed me to this report in China Music Radar and gave a variety of other reasons to be skeptical of Dylan's "censorship" claim. I quote them after the jump.

    I can't judge this first hand, though it's always a positive sign when someone is willing to be quoted by name. I pass on his material because -- assuming it's right -- it adds a different tone to what is becoming a big story; and because this is part of the (valuable) internet tradition of "showing your work" and going public with the process of trying to establish what the truth is. It also illustrates a problem the Chinese government has created for itself, even if it is entirely blameless in this situation: Once you get a bad reputation, you get blamed even for things you didn't do.

    But if Zachary Mexico and China Music Radar are right and the Dylan team is falsely blaming Chinese "censorship," then shame on him or whoever is doing this -- and my apologies for passing along a misleading story. There's enough genuine restriction and censorship to criticize.

    More »

  • Every So Often It Must Be Said...

    Who is more frightening to "all-powerful" China: Bob Dylan, or Bjork?

    ... that it is incredibly tin-horn and defensive for the Chinese government to deny Bob Dylan permission for concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, as it previously has turned down Oasis (after an "unpleasant surprise" from Bjork two years ago).*

    Bear moments like this in mind as you read the next zillion stories about China's unstoppable rise to world dominance, the attraction of the Chinese social-political model, and so on.

          Threat to public order: Bjork. (From Bjork.com)

    On the cautionary side about Chinese power, this is of course a reminder of why it would be bad to have current Chinese-government** concepts of free expression applied beyond its borders. The Dylan/Oasis/Bjork cases may seem trivial; the jailing of civil-society activists like Liu Xiaobo flows from the same mentality but is obviously much more serious.

    On the other side, pettiness like this is a reminder of the self-limiting aspects of the Communist government's internal controls, and the contradiction between its ambitions to have a vibrant, "creative," high-innovation, high-value productive society and its extreme nervousness about certain kinds of free discussion. "Certain kinds" because in many realms, as I've repeatedly  noted, modern Chinese society is rollicking and wide-open. But in well-known zero-tolerance fields, notably including anything involving the threat of "splittism" (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc), plus other areas that become "sensitive" for no apparent reason, the government allows no leeway at all. Seriously, how "vibrant" a culture of intellectual inquiry are you going to have under a government that is afraid of Bjork? How attractive is China going to be as a talent magnet for the wide world if becoming a citizen means a greater risk of arbitrary imprisonment?***

    As I've also said time and again, China is a much more appealing country seen up-close than its government decisions make it appear. This is an extreme example worth noting; it's a decision unworthy of the billion-plus people in whose name it is made.
    * At a concert in Shanghai in 2008, Bjork yelled out "Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence." We were in Shanghai at the time, and it was a truly big deal.

    ** It's worth always remembering: while the Chinese public is often tolerant of government efforts to avoid "chaos" and stamp out "splittism" etc, very few people I've met there would be afraid of hearing from Dylan or Bjork. The government is the only one that feels threatened.

    *** Reason #four million why the Guantanamo / detention-without-trial era in recent American history has been so damaging to our image worldwide. Of course American society has standards of rule-of-law that China doesn't come close to. But it is harder for us to denounce open-ended detention of "security threats" elsewhere than it used to be, or should be.

    ALSO I see that the Atlantic Wire has an item on this.

  • Opening up the Google-China mailbag

    A lot of mail has piled up, largely from readers in China, and lots of reactions, sensible and otherwise, from the commentariat. As a step toward working off the backlog, a very interesting message from a reader with a Chinese name. Most of what I have received has been (sometimes interestingly) entirely-pro or entirely-anti Google, or pro- or anti- China. This one has some of both. Also, see a policy notes about language at the end.*

    The reader writes:

    "I have no sympathy for Google. I'd like to describe the situation as 始乱终弃----it's a Chinese phrase that describes a person who starts an illicit sexual liaison and ends up getting hurt and dumped. Google compromised the integrity of its core service by giving people censored search results as if they are not in order to make money "in the long haul". Now it looks Baidu, a late comer and emulator, will continue to dominate the Chinese search market. Google's prospect of of meaningful profitability is looking dimmer in the long haul. So it chooses to exit in this spectacular fashion.

    "The complaint about the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists being hacked seems a telltale sign that this is just a PR drama. It sounds so plausible, even romantic. A shining youthful hi-tech brand that represents personal freedom and infinite possibilities of the digital age refuses to bend over further in front of an anachronic and repressive authoritarian state machine, out of principle. Give me a break! There is nothing new in Chinese hacking into gmail or corporate and government infrastructures. Four years ago I and other friends of Dai Qing's got a fake email from her gmail account. I had to reformat my hard drive because I opened up an innocent looking attachment from my friend XX XX, whose  email account was hacked. The Chinese have been doing this kind of things since before Google entered the Chinese market.
    "But hypocrisy aside, I do think the strong reaction to and universal support for Google's announcement indicate something important. This may be a harbinger for something that China hopefully will take seriously. It shows it may be too early for China to be so arrogant, and that its rise as a superpower cannot rely solely on its economic might. It has to earn the respectability of the world. It also shows that seemingly small matters will matter someday down the road. Calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in sheep's skin, lecturing Obama that as a black man he should distance himself from the Tibetan spiritual leader because he represents slavery, and letting a sub-cabinet level official wag a finger in front of the American president during a Copenhagen meeting, etc. These are all small matters. But people remember them. When you put them together with the more serious matters such as giving a writer 11 years for writing an open letter, maintaining an overly selfish currency regime, aggressive trade practices and energy deals, and now bullying the beloved Google, it creates a narrative that can prove to be very costly for China.

    "This narrative updates and unites the old ideological cliche about communist regimes with negative feelings about China that are more emotional and maybe even cultural. It may make people feel, more than think, that, after all, this rising power is more of a dragon than a panda.

    "I still try to hold on to the faith that China will not be like that. When I listened to people like Qin Xiao, the Chairman of China Merchant Group, the country's largest, and best managed, private bank, spoke recently on the Caijing annual forum and later in New York during the National Committee event, I felt very hopeful that they represent China's future. I hope the massive negative reaction from the United States to the Google incident will strengthen their hands in China by showing those Machiavellian officials that behaving in a stupid, mean and arrogant way does have a cost, and that their way will only lead to a dead end. You may get away by offending an hurting some people sometimes, but not many people all the time."


    Language note: Usually when quoting reader responses, I leave them just as they are, warts and all. But if I am sure that the note is from a non-native speaker of English, I will sometimes correct small mistakes of spelling, grammar, or usage -- "have" for "has," "hypocracy" for "hypocrisy," -- that would unduly draw attention to themselves. In this note I made three or four of these tiny copy clean-ups while leaving the rest of the phrasing and word choice unchanged. Writing in a second or third language is one of the harder intellectual challenges that exist. (Hey, writing in a first language is not always that easy!) Even though English has a larger share of non-native speakers and writers than any other language and therefore a greater tolerance for "diversity," I think it's justified to remove minor brambles from the writer's path.

    I admit that this practice leaves a logical gray zone. If somebody seems to be a native speaker who just writes sloppily, I don't bother trying to save that person from himself. But if I quickly get the sense that this is not a native speaker -- and within a sentence or two I think I can always tell --  I may do a little cleanup. The gray zone is when the command of grammar is shaky enough to raise questions, but not unusual enough to suggest that the writer grew up with a different language and therefore deserves affirmative-action help. This is all part of the endless saga of language being one of the most absorbing aspects of dealing with different cultures.

  • Beijing, 3am

    Well, we're going to see a lot of these shots in the next 24 hours out of Beijing, as the 60th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People's Republic take place. This is from a reader looking down Xidawang Lu, not far from our former home, at 3am local time October 1-- a few minutes ago as I write.


    This item, "China's Looming PR Disaster," at the Interpreter site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, makes the point I've made frequently (including once on a live Chinese government TV show in Beijing) since the plans for a gala military parade were announced this spring: In showcasing endless seas of Chinese soldiers and weaponry, the regime may make itself look stronger to its people -- at the cost of looking threatening to everyone else. (Versions of this argument here and here.) As Alistair Thornton says on the Interpreter site:
    "I have a sinking feeling that this could turn out to be the worst PR stunt of all time. To me, it screams, 'Hey! You in the West! How's the recession? We just nailed 9% growth. Scared of a rising China? Check out all of our tanks and never-seen-before missiles'. It's not really the vibe you want to give off in the midst of unprecedented shifts in geopolitical power."
     But the other obvious point is that all politics is local, in China as well as anywhere else, and impressing the home crowd will always outweigh the hand-wringing concerns from the diplomats. So, the show begins. I will leave most further photos to the news services, but thought it was worth kicking off the observations with this pic.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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