James Fallows

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This piece originally appeared at Blogcritics, and re-appears here with permission of the author.

By Xujun Eberlein

A proprietary approach I use to help assess English journalism books about China is to measure how much they tell me, a Chinese, that I don’t already know. This, needless to say, lacks objectivity, and it can easily undervalue an otherwise excellent book. As an example, Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan consists essentially of stories I had already read from the Chinese media or the internet. Not new to me, but that doesn’t mean the book is not worth reading for Western readers (in fact, it is).

On the other hand, this approach raises a high bar for journalists writing about China. To find stories not broadly known even to the Chinese requires not only extraordinarily acute ears, but also the admirably open mind of a deep thinker. Thus, I can narrow down my reading list to a few outstanding books. James Fallows‘ new book, Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China, is one of them. Many things he writes about are new to me, but that’s the least of the delightful surprises.

Being an old China foot, having stepped out after growing up there but still keeping a close eye on it, I found Postcards from Tomorrow Square to be surprisingly fresh and deep. Nowadays, with outspoken critics of China shouting from one line, and vocal supporters yelling back retorts from another, it seems there is little room left for dispassionate discussion. This book enquires into the heart of some of the most important issues facing China, and America, rather than picking at them from the sides. As such, it forms one of the best collections of writing on China I have seen.

The book is made up of twelve essays, eleven of which were published in The Atlantic Monthly between 2006 and 2008. There is a fair breadth of topics covered, and a fascinating array of characters lined up. The topics range from gambling to the balance of trade to technology innovation, from farming to internet policing to reality shows. The book provided me by far the clearest explanation of how China’s “great firewall” works, and why the imbalance in trade between the United States and China is unsustainable for both countries.

Unlike some other Western reporters who thought they knew what they were looking for in China, Fallows, a renowned journalist, was unexpectedly unassuming when he entered China again in 2006, having been there several times already during the 1980s and 90s. “This opportunity for discovery is the real payoff of life as a reporter: the chance to answer questions you did not previously know you wanted to ask,” Fallows writes in “Introduction.” And he does not shy away from saying his stories “do not presume to be complete or final accounts. They offer a few parts of the complicated picture of China.”

In fact, they offer a few very important parts of the complicated picture. While the chapters are organized chronologically in the order they were reported, I find the ninth chapter, “China’s Silver Lining,” one of the most significant.

In a small town in eastern China, an engineer named Tang Jinquan has spent his entire career trying to clean up cement production. He has created a cogeneration system, an energy-recycling technology that shoots two vultures with one arrow: it turns the huge amount of heat normally wasted in cement making into electric power, while at the same time reducing dust and waste in the process. Now Tang is selling the system to cement producers in many other countries.

The cement plant case is only one of those homegrown, and very creative, “green” efforts popping up across the country. I’ve seen others during my annual visits to China. One of my favorite examples is the electric bicycle which I first saw in Chengdu several years ago. These are popular with people who want more than a bicycle, but can’t afford, or don’t want to deal with, a car. And there is not just one kind. There are lots of different brands using different kinds of components. Nobody is waiting for the right battery. They just make the things and try, apparently successfully, to sell them. Some look like junk, some look pretty good, but they are out there and being used.

Solar water heaters, flourishing on rooftops in some cities, are another example. In many hotels, guests must keep the door key inserted into a switch to obtain electricity, which shuts off power use when one leaves the room. Flying out Shanghai’s airport, I’ve seen big fields of wind mills. Most recently, Bloomberg.com reported that China has become only the second country to begin operating a plant that converts coal into liquid motor fuel.

And I just heard this: When Fallows was doing a phone interview from Beijing with NPR on this book, it was afternoon in the US but 2 a.m. in China. He was frozen in the cold of his office, because the building’s heat was turned off at night. Another small effort to save energy.

Here’s a bigger one: in the second chapter of Postcards from Tomorrow Square, Fallows tells a story of how Zhang Yue, a tycoon in central China, runs the world’s largest Freon free air conditioning manufacturer, using technology abandoned in America. Such air conditioning utilizes a nonelectric cooling process that saves energy by requiring fewer stages of conversion and taking advantage of seasonal availability of natural gas.

This is the first time I’ve heard the stories of Tang Jinquan and Zhang Yue. They are my favorite characters from the book, and their stories excited me enormously. The two men and their stories are remarkably different but both have success based on Chinese education, ingenuity and hard work, instead of graft and corruption. It is heartening to read about people who are, very simply, doing things that are helping in a country that is facing so many difficult obstacles. They are no less heroic than the democracy activists often hailed by the West. People like Tang and Zhang might not be fighting for human rights directly, but they work toward saving mankind’s otherwise dismal future, and the importance of this should be recognized.

These stories are significant because mankind is facing an unprecedented energy and environmental crisis. Solutions and efforts like the above are not just China’s silver lining. Like many of Fallows’ other stories, they also have policy implications for Americans. While America is bailing out GM hoping for a car of the future, the Chinese are innovating from the bottom up.

America is the world’s largest energy consumer, China is second. China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, America is second. Only when the two countries work together in all sorts of “green” efforts, can we have more hope. Any effort in either country toward a greener economy should be encouraged. This means while China learns from America, so should America learn from China. Both countries should be willing to follow suit when a good idea emerges in either one.

The extent to which the essays in Postcards reflect not only on what is happening in China, but also in America, is impressive. Understanding China and the way to deal with it requires an understanding of both how Chinese people perceive America, and how America really works. Too often, both Chinese and American ideologies are presented as cartoons and the consequences of this can be terrible.

A popular columnist of the New York Times had an op-ed piece several months ago with a title quite similar to this book. He had recently visited Zhuhai’s wind turbines, but somehow reached the conclusion that unless the one-party system is changed, “China can’t have a greener society.” This assertion is simply illogical and foolish. China does need political reform, but should its people halt all “green” efforts until that happens? Furthermore, a multiparty system hardly guarantees results on the energy and environmental front. A united effort across nations and ideologies is needed more than anything else.

So it is all the more impressive that there is a lot of simple honesty in Fallows’ essays, which is both disarming and informative. Taken as a whole they provide a picture vivid with colors that do not seem shifted to the red or the blue.

In fact, even when Fallows writes about things going wrong, from billowing clouds of white and black smoke, to a stubborn intention to control information flows, it evokes a certain optimism. There are two reasons for this. First, his writing is not judgmental, it does not try to demonstrate any conclusion so much as present the evidence and discuss what can be concluded from it. More importantly, it clearly reflects the dynamic nature of modern China. Things are constantly changing, some for the worse, some for the better, but there is always a difference. In fact, a concept Fallows repeatedly emphases is variety. In his own words, Fallows says, “The most important thing about them is, indeed, the variety of the aspects of China they present.” I can’t agree with him more that variety is the key concept for Westerners to begin to understand China.

I read Postcards not long after reading Out of Mao’s Shadow by Phillip Pan. Taken together, these two books help understanding where China is today and where it is heading. Style-wise, I have the impression that Pan is more interested in telling good stories, while Fallows is trying hard to figure out how things work. In content, Out of Mao’s Shadow focuses much more strongly on the dark side of human nature. While Pan does a splendid job of bringing the characters to life, his stories are quite depressing and provide a limited view for readers who are not familiar with China. Postcards from Tomorrow Square covers a broader range of disciplines and activities that reflect the bigger picture, and shows us the sky is not all grey. In fact, to gain a more complete picture of China, one should read the two books side by side.


China Beat has been faithfully following James Fallows’s reports for the Atlantic from first Shanghai and now Beijing since he moved to China in 2006. His reports have covered topics from China’s international image to the financial crisis to the Great Firewall, and he blogs regularly at the Atlantic‘s website. Fallows’s reports have now been gathered together in a collection, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, that will be available for purchase tomorrow. Over email, Fallows chatted with Kate Merkel-Hess about the new book and his thoughts about reporting from China.

Kate Merkel-Hess: Your forthcoming book Postcards from Tomorrow Square is a collection of essays about China that cover some of the same topics you have touched on in your writings for the Atlantic over the past two years. One of the overarching themes you mention in your introduction is the diversity and variety in China—something you say you suspected before coming to China in 2006 but that was confirmed for you as you did your reporting. What other China myths are most in need of debunking, and which did you have the most fun exploding in the book?

James Fallows: I know that for a lot of people based in China, or who have far deeper familiarity with China than I do, my emphasis on the diversity and individuality of modern Chinese life could seem obvious, or banal. It might also seem that way to people with no China experience at all. One American with whom I was talking recently said, “Well, of course, every human being is an individual.”

And of course that is true. But I have found the emphasis important when talking about China for several reasons. One is that, in my judgment, this universal truth about humanity is more vividly true about China than about some other countries and cultures. Partly that’s because of China’s scale, in all senses—geographic reach, regional difference, range of individual experience in the last twenty years and the thirty years before that, and so on. Simply to be true to the spectacle I’ve seen here, I’ve found it worth pushing this theme.

Another important reason to stress the diversity of modern Chinese experience is that it takes some nudging to get many Western readers thinking that way. People freely talk about “China” doing this and “the Chinese doing that,” and I think the starting Western assumption is that there’s one big unified mass. While admiring the technical achievement of the Olympic opening ceremony, I actually thought it served the country ill in projecting the image of countless hordes all doing the same thing under central control.

Oh, yes, to answer your question: the other main assumption I found myself working against is that “rising China” is something that should be feared. Taken seriously, yes. Not condescended to. But the tone in much US and European discussion is that China has solved all its problems and its marching unstoppably onwards. It’s not quite that way, I’ve tried to explain.

KMH: Did you move to Shanghai in 2006 with the intention of writing a book about China? And did that book resemble what eventually became Postcards?

JF: My wife and I left Washington, D.C. for Shanghai with a combination of assumptions and uncertainties similar to those with which we’ve begun other similar long-term reporting stints. There were some things I knew that I wanted to learn about China. How should outsiders feel about the economic miracle underway there? How seriously, really, were its environmental problems? How much, if any, of the old Communist era did people miss – as people miss some of the old days of Soviet glory in Russia? Etc. But mainly we wanted to see and learn about the things we hadn’t known we should be interested in – the things that are obvious and important once you’re on scene but that don’t always make their way into journalistic accounts.

In writing terms, this meant that I went assuming I’d do a series of articles for the Atlantic, as I have been doing – roughly half on topics I knew ahead of time I’d be looking into (environment, financial relations) and the other half on things I’d learned about on scene. While feeling strongly that I didn’t want to write a book just for the sake of writing one, I had my eye open for topics that I thought would support long narrative treatment. (“Long narrative” because I think there are already lots of good books offering overviews on China. I wanted to find specific stories that might shed light on larger trends.) I did find one of those themes, which I plan to explore in a second narrative book I hope to finish in the next year. I hadn’t anticipated that the Atlantic articles I did formed a kind of narrative sequence of their own. The idea to combine them, with new material, occurred to the publisher and made sense to me. That is the genesis of Postcards – which in my biased view does have a kind of coherence in trying to convey what parts of China looked and felt like at this stage in the country’s history.

KMH: This was not your first stint in Asia. How did the four years you spent in Asia in the 1980s inform your time in China? In your first piece for the Atlantic from Shanghai, you mentioned that your time in Japan in the 1980s coincided with the dollar’s collapse against the yen. Was it eerie to be in Asia for another economic crisis? Were there other ways that you drew on that earlier experience—practically or intellectually—to do your work this time?

JF: You’re right: the reason I’m in China in the 2000s is that I spent four years in the neighborhood twenty years ago. My wife and I actually made our first visit to several major cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, a few more – in 1986, when we were based in Japan and faked our way into China as part of the U.S. delegation to the World Esperanto Congress. (We had to learn the language as part of the deal; it’s easier than Mandarin!) I then came back to China three or four times over the next four years, while mainly learning about Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and places other than the PRC itself.

That experience had several residual effects. The main one was to make me interested in China – and aware (as I still am) of how little I know about it. Another was to give me the perhaps misguided confidence that my wife and I could make our way through a place where we had little previous experience and no well-developed connections. And of course it was an intellectual construct: in watching Japan’s rise and then its financial stagnation, we’d seen the last dramatic stage in East Asian economic development. The similarities in China’s approach – and, mainly, the differences – have been an important touchstone all the way through. And as I think will be evident to readers, I have found China’s economic rise to be a fundamentally more open phenomenon, for the rest of the world, than Japan’s approach was.

As for the latest crisis – hey, blame Alan Greenspan! Not me.

KMH: Many of your pieces for the Atlantic move forward from a premise of “Americans typically think X about China, but actually…” Did those pieces grow from your own surprise at discovering something new about China? What were some of your surprises or realizations about China that didn’t make it into your pieces?

JF: Ahah! You have cruelly revealed the trademarked secret of everything I’ve ever written for the magazine! Probably I find it easiest and most natural to write that way for two overlapping reasons. One is that I most enjoy learning about, and then writing about, things that are different from what I expected before bumping into them. I don’t really like writing, but I love reporting, because it gives me an excuse to satisfy my curiosity and often to change my mind. The other reason is that I feel there is some journalistic benefit in exposing people to information or ideas they don’t currently hold. I figure: if I hadn’t heard about subject X, maybe a lot of other Westerners haven’t heard about it either. So I’ll tell them about it and let them see if it changes their outlook as it changed mine.

As for what I haven’t conveyed yet – hmmmm. I have had pretty much a Just-In-Time strategy of getting out the ideas as soon as I learn them. But I have five or six more articles to do from China, and I’ll try to portion them out that way and in the next book.

KMH: In “The View from There,” which originally ran in the Atlantic last fall, you discuss the ways living abroad can change or clarify one’s ideas about the U.S. You argue there that openness to the world is a fundamental component of maintaining American prestige. What opportunities does Barack Obama’s election open for renewed or altered interactions with China? Are there concrete things you are hoping to see from the next administration that could make a real difference for future relations with China?

JF: As for the general prospect of America under Obama: I am sure that heartbreak and disappointment of various sorts lie ahead, just because no one can do as much as is expected from Obama just now. But I view the election results as having spared America a true disaster – by which I mean, ratifying rule by the party that, among other things, had nearly destroyed the “brand” of America in the world’s eyes – and also elevating a person well equipped to address some of America’s most acute needs. Here I’m talking not so much about the financial crisis of the time but rather the cultural underpinnings of America’s long-term vitality and strength. I think that the United States has been successful and vibrant in exact proportion as it has been open to the talent of the world – notably including Chinese talent. Obama stands for that in his policy and his life identity. So from my perspective as an American nationalist, I am relieved to think that our main comparative advantage will no longer be undercut.

Specific dealings with China are a strange exception to what has been, in my view, the general catastrophe of Bush Administration foreign policy. The one area in which Bush has more or less managed to keep his eye on sane, long-term interests has been in relations with China. The U.S. speaks up where it disagrees with the Chinese government, but it treats the relationship as one that must be maintained. (e.g. Bush never threatened to boycott the Olympics, but in his Bangkok speech just before arrival in Beijing he also laid out the areas where the U.S. and China disagreed.) So the initial goal for Obama will be “do no harm” to existing US-China relations. Addressing the financial imbalance will help in that regard.

KMH: It is clear from the books you reference in Postcards that you read widely among popular books on China, from John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons to Susan Shirk’s Fragile Superpower to even a passing reference to David Landes’s scholarship. (It is always exciting for historians to see historical work referenced outside academic writing…) What readings do you recommend to friends and colleagues heading to China? What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

JF: One reason I love my kind of journalism – by which I mean, the high-end magazine world – is that it provides an excuse to read everything you can on a topic. My wife and I spend basically all our time reading as much China-related material as we can: histories of the language, pop novels, political tracts, business analyses. I just finished reading again Jonathan Spence’s To Change China, which I’d first read twenty years ago. Sitting two feet away from me right now is China Marches West: the Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter Perdue, which a friend recommended. I gave a friend for Christmas The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan, which I love on many levels. Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck, justly deserves the big push that Robert Kapp is giving it now. The canon of recent good words of journalism and history is too large for me to dare to start naming names: the risk of offending by omission is huge! It’s a great time to be reading about China.