Annals of the Security State: China vs. America Department

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With a twist that may be enlightening for people on both sides.

A Chinese-citizen engineer recently came to the United States on a month-long business assignment. He was excited, and so was his company. For the company, this was the first-ever foreign installation of new robotic equipment, in a Florida juice-packing operation. For the engineer, it was a chance to be in a very nice part of America, enjoying for a while a lifestyle simply unavailable in his normal environs.

Just before the end of his stay, the engineer stopped to take this photo. Chinese readers may be able to guess why he took it. American readers may be able to guess what happened next.

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To the Chinese engineer, what was fascinating and significant about the picture was its orderliness. The yellow school bus stopped, turned on its "do not pass" flashers, and extended its Stop signs. And -- the amazing part -- all surrounding traffic actually obeyed. Even those who are fans of the excitement and passion of Chinese life will agree that such a scene is hard to imagine in a Chinese city. You'd have motorbikes cutting past on the sidewalk, cars veering into the opposite-direction lane to get around the obstacle, a cacophony of horns complaining about any vehicle that did slow down, and in general the creative-chaos that extends from many other parts of Chinese life to its roadways. (Where it can seem festive, but also dangerous: China's traffic-death rate per active motorist and per mile driven is several times higher than in North America or Europe.)

To local authorities in Florida, what was notable about the situation was:
  (a) a foreigner
  (b) stopping to take pictures
  (c) of a bus
  (d) containing children.
   If you see something, say something. So they detained the man for questioning.

When the police were done with him, he wrote about the episode in an email to an American friend, quoted verbatim:
"The day before yestoday, i was caught by the local policeman for taking picture of kids,but in fact, i took picture of school bus, i tell him when the school bus stopped, all cars stopped, which is very good and i want to show to my friends, then no problem.

why are American so scared of taken pictures? would you tell me, please?"

I got in trouble one time for taking pictures while in China, but that was in a situation that had "political sensitivity" written all over it and where I knew the risk I was about to take. I describe that episode in my new book and discuss what particular Chinese-government insecurities I thought it revealed. I wasn't thinking when I wrote that passage about the comparable photograph-pathology that has emerged in the United States. We're all caught on video all the time, but ordinary people who take pictures -- near airports, of policemen, and now of a school bus -- are presumptively suspicious.

Please fill in the rest of the thoughts; stories like this wear me out.

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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.
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