James Fallows in China

(I know, I said I wasn’t going to post, but I’m compulsive…)

One of my long-time journalistic heroes, James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly, has been living in Shanghai with his family, and he’s finally come out with the sweeping, all-encompassing wrap-up article about life in China that I’ve been waiting for. Tragically, the article is behind a firewall that I cannot violate, but will probably become accessible to all in short order. The price of beer, the wizardry of the new Shanghai subway system, the “bare branches” phenomenon, the skimpy amounts the Chinese government invests in education, the construction boom, the new conspicuous wealth in the cities, the censorship – these and myriad other topics of interest are covered in surprising detail for a single article,

Picking a graf or two from this massive essay to offer up as evidence is difficult, since it’s all delightful reading. So allow me to randomly cut and paste two totally unrelated sections on topics close to my heart: 1.) China’s burning obsession with Japan, oddly contrasted with its willful amnesia of the Cultural Revolution, and 2.) America’s idiotic policy of discouraging Chinese students to study in America. Here goes:

There is one tantalizing further twist to the [anti-Japan] syndrome. When I have asked young people why they should be so wrapped up with events seventy years in the past, the reply is some variant of: ‘We Chinese are students of history.’ There are certain phrases you hear so often that you know they can’t be true, at least not at face value. Yes, China’s years of subjugation by Western countries and Japan obviously still matter. But the history that is more recent but less often discussed is that of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when the parents of today’s college students were sent into the countryside and often forced to denounce their own parents. In an eloquent new book called Chinese Lessons, John Pomfret of The Washington Post recounts the ways that his classmates from Nanjing University, where he was an exchange student in the early 1980s, bore the emotional and even moral imprint of those years. They’d been made to do things they knew were wrong, and they found ways to rationalize away that knowledge. So far every student gathering I’ve been to has included a volunteered reference to the evil Japanese, and none has included a reference to the evils of Chairman Mao (whose picture is still on every denomination of paper money) and his Cultural Revolution.


If I were China/s economic czar, I would recycle as many of the country’s dollar holdings as possible on grad-school fees in the United States. And if I were America’s immigration czar, I would issue visas to Chinese applicants as fast as I could, recognizing that they will create more jobs, opportunities, and friends for America than the United States could produce any other way for such modest cost. Many Americans will nod along with this point in principle. I would have, too, a few weeks ago. I’m saying that I feel it viscerally now, having met some of these people and begun to see their role in China. And to hear them say that their younger counterparts are going instead to Australia, England, or even Japan because of U.S. visa restrictions makes me want to say: America, wake up and watch out!

If you subscribe, you can (and must) read the whole thing. Fallows is, with Pomfret, one of my idols and mentors, and whenever he speaks I listen. You should, too.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

I have a subscription, and I thought it was a great article. It’s interesting that the two Fallows (James and his wife, she of the atrocious Shanghai Slate diary we’ve talked about in earlier posts) are a perfect portrait of two extremes in writing about figuring out China as newcomers. And you know they both saw much of the same things… they both appear in each others articles.

For everybody who doesn’t have a subscription, Fallows decides to go with the popular numbered list format and describes 4 Cautions and 2 Mysteries. They are:

Watch Out!
1) Japanese People (obvious reasons for most of us)
2) Olympians (respiratory issues)
3) America (the quote Richard gave about letting Chinese students flood US universities. Since Fallows thinks this is a win-win, I guess the “Watch out!” is to warn that it’s lose-lose if the US continues to restrict student visas)
4) Everyone (govt oppression, corruption, low trust, social control doesn’t seem as built-in as in Japan)

Two Mysteries:
1) How skillful is the Chinese leadership? (Can they deal with all the problems we’ve all talked about, inequality, pollution, trade – he seems to tilt “yes” but doesn’t know really)
2) What is the Chinese Dream? (American-style consumerism or a Japanese-style alternative *I’m not sure what he means exactly for Japan*, China’s not deeply religious, materialism rules in Shanghai)

He doesn’t really say anything that hasn’t graced PKD before, but he puts it together well and doesn’t say anything I’d call dumb, which is more than I can say for his wife’s diary.

November 22, 2006 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Damn! How could I be so stupid? It went right over my head that the Slate article was written by James’ wife. It never even crossed my mind. Thanks for pointing out what should have been obvious, Dave.

True, there is nothing in James’ panoramic essay we haven’t thrashed out over here in the past, but as you say, he does a good job weaving it altogether and offering plenty of nuggets of insight along the way.

Did you read his article a few months ago on the War on Terror – where he lays out the argument that it’s been an overall success? It came out about a week before Israel’s war with Hezbollah started and I have to wonder whether it will stand the test of time….

November 22, 2006 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

I’ve heard the visa restrictions have loosened this year, thankfully. Anecdotally, my friend from BLCU didn’t have any trouble getting a visa for her post-doc at MIT, and she didn’t have problems getting a visitor’s visa for her teenage son, which was the really worrisome part – everybody had warned her that would be tough because it could look like they were going to stay in the US.

November 23, 2006 @ 1:27 am | Comment

Another thing I thought was terribly careless – veering into the Twilight Zone of China-Rising-Boosterism – was the suggestion that mere numbers of Chinese grad students in America are inherently good.

On the one hand, yes I agree that inviting the best kinds of Chinese grad students to America yields net benefits for everyone concerned. On the other hand, the dismal truth remains that some of them WILL be involved in China’s spy network, and so some caution is still in order here.

In fact, at this time, you can rest assured that ALL of China’s students abroad are involved in China’s spy network to some extent. The question is how to sort out the relatively harmless kinds of intelligence collection (such as reporting on “general attitudes”) from the truly disastrous kind (stealing technological secrets.)
And the special difficulty which China poses is that its intelligence organs deliberately blur the distinctions between roles which tend to be more clearly defined in most other countries.

So yes, let more Chinese grad students in. But don’t become stupidly, disastrously careless out of some naive boosterism.

November 23, 2006 @ 1:46 am | Comment

@Richard: When I read her stuff I looked to see what else she did. That and I think ESWN mentioned it when he gave her a sympathy vote for writing early stuff on first arriving in China/HK. I agree with Roland as far as wishing I had written down more in the early days – who doesn’t? It’s the quality and nature of her writing that bothered me. How does one go from talking about living in the Marriott to seeing a guy brushing his teeth in the gutter and not giving any interpretation or expression of how it makes one feel, especially in a format like a diary?

James talks about talking to Chinese people. His wife, on the other hand, if you go back and read her diary, lives in a hermetically sealed bubble at a five star hotel and her only contact with Chinese people appears to be with fake Rolex hawkers and her Chinese teacher. I’m left with two conclusions: either James never brought her along when he had his interpreter (whom he discloses quitely candidly and unpretentiously in his article made it all possible), which I doubt since I imagine they’re a happy enough power couple, or she simply didn’t include any of that in her diaries. The result is that her diary reminds me of the diary of some Canton missionary wife circa 1900. I don’t know if that’s fascinating and revealing or just a sad loss.

@Lisa: If the US loosens its visa restrictions, I want my business visa loosened here. All that 30 day malarkey on my six month is ridiculous. Oh well; I’ve been told that there’s enough backdoor action in HK/Shenzhen for me to renew without that issue again.

November 23, 2006 @ 1:59 am | Comment

@Ivan: I often wonder exactly how China’s espionage is supposed to differ from anyone elses. US intelligence debriefs returning expats and tourists occasionally, for things like “general attitude”, for example. Most of the Chinese tech spying accusations the past few years, all I’ve seen at least, have fizzled out. And the claim that there are 3,000 Chinese “front companies” is just a distortion of the actual Cox Report findings, as I’ve pointed out here before.

If some Chinese green card holder even gets close enough to steal spy secrets, I don’t think the problem has anything to do with China or Chinese people per se. The problem is that military and government background vetting and clearance processes are broken, and that has little to do with a foreign nationals country of origin. I’ve been doing alot of reading on the current practices for determining security clearance at the US govt, and it’s a mess. There’s a huge backlog, there’s a ton of contractors who claim they did their own due diligence but not really, and the funniest bit I’ve found lately is that the govt agency responsible for checking contractor employees background… relies heavily on contractors, who have been caught doing background checks on themselves.

If some Chinese grad student has access to some sensitive military project, then the fault really lies with the US govt/school authorities who are responsible for vetting them. And if we’re gonna be focusing just on the Chinese, then I’ll bet you 50 bucks the Russians will reap a bonanza while US backs are turned. Ivan, I’d be damn startled if you took me up on that bet.

Speaking of Russian spies, Ivan, I’m waiting for your take on the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning. ESPECIALLY since you wrote before about Anna Politkovskaya.

November 23, 2006 @ 2:28 am | Comment

dave, those are good questions, but at this late hour I’m not going to answer them in detail. Just in brief, for now:

1. Asking me to explain in detail how China’s spying methods differ from those of most other countries, would literally take hours and hours just to tell you the basics in sufficient detail for me to be taken seriously. So on the one hand, I’m not asking you to believe me, but on the other hand, please don’t dismiss what I say out of hand unless you have some personal expertise in espionage.

2. As for the Russians “reaping a bonanza” while US backs are turned: I know you won’t like this, because your biases about the PRC differ considerably from mine, but frankly I have far less of a problem with losing military secrets to Russia than to China – partly because I say we (and Europe) ought to develop a military alliance with Russia. Not overnight, but gradually this is where we ought to be headed.

3. Yes actually I plan to “guest-blog” about the Litvinenko poisoning, in another day or so when my schedule permits, so yes I’ll answer THAT one in detail. 😉

November 23, 2006 @ 2:38 am | Comment


1) We can save the intricacies of Chinese espionage for another time, maybe over a beer. But does this mean you don’t see it as primarily a problem with poor secrecy on the US end?
2) So can I assume, geopolitical preferences aside, that you agree the Russians would take advantage of the situation?
3) Looking forward to it.

November 23, 2006 @ 2:48 am | Comment

OK, just for now, here’s a preview of a few issues I’ll be expanding upon, concerning the Litvinenko case. This is from the “blogs” portion of today’s Guardian, in particular a squib by Tom Parfitt titled,
“Litvinenko is no heroic defector”. Excerpts:

“… does anyone really believe that the Kremlin tried to bump off a low ranking former FSB officer (who was, incidentally, never a spy, and certainly not a “top spy”, as some have decided) who posed not the slightest threat to the country?

The people who are feeding us this line are Litvinenko’s cronies: Boris Berezovsky, the businessman who lives in self-imposed exile in London, and Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen separatist leader.

Mr Berezovsky, as we all know, is Machiavelli’s Prince in living form, a notorious manipulator who once pulled the strings at the Kremlin. Mr Zakayev is the Chechen rebel envoy who saw no contradiction in serving in the government in exile headed by terrorist mastermind, Shamil Basayev, the architect of the Beslan school siege.

Slightly compromised people, no?”


“…In pure pragmatic terms, however, the idea that the Kremlin gave an order to eliminate Mr Litvinenko seems highly unlikely. He just wasn’t worth it.

After six years living in London, he hasn’t made a single revelation of note about the FSB. This is not a heroic defector.”

I agree with that 100 percent, and I’ll explain why in more detail, later.

(The link to the above quotations is: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/news/archives/2006/11/22/litvinenko_is_no_heroic_defector.html

November 23, 2006 @ 8:55 am | Comment

Two things. First, thanks for the heads up re the Fallows article. The guy can write so I’m going to run out and buy the issue. Second, I have no clue whether to agree or disagree with Ivan re Litvenenko, but I am completely unimpressed by his stating something as though it is fact (I know he said he had no evidence) without giving any support and then shutting down the comment section. Don’t even bother.

November 26, 2006 @ 6:58 am | Comment

China Law Blog:

1. I didn’t say I had no evidence. I said I didn’t have 100 percent evidence.

2. I had to make a judgement call as to whether to delete the entire thread or at least leave the bare bones of it up. I decided to do the latter, because in my judgement, it will do more good than absolute silence.

3. Are you really THAT naive?

November 26, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Comment

PS, now see my update on the Litvinenko thread, and you’ll see why, frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck whether China Law Blog is “impressed.”

November 26, 2006 @ 9:30 am | Comment

James Fallows is no hero among foreign correspondents — see his Japan book “Looking at the Sun.” He rode the Japanophobia boom, now I expect he will jump on the China economic threat bandwagon. His reach on international economics far exceeds his grasp.

November 26, 2006 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

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