Tag Archives: James Fallows

Fallows lauds Obama's China work. How to measure success?

White House Photo

James Fallows has published the capstone to his blog’s meditation on whether U.S. President Barack Obama is a chess master or a pawn—a long-game strategist with high tolerance for disappointment along the way, or a hapless newb whose ability to inspire was never matched by political mettle.

Despite Fallows’ continued exhortations to subscribe, I encourage you not to wait and to read the article now at The Atlantic.

Among Obama’s achievements, he lists:

• putting U.S. relations with China on a better footing than in many years, a task that has to be among the very most important for any president of the early 21st century.

In particular, Fallows describes Obama’s 2009 visit to Beijing, amid a period of increased international bluster on the part of some in the Chinese government:

Yet even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China’s new superiority, members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia. In practically every formal statement by U.S. officials, from President Obama to Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Gates, U.S. representatives hammered home a single message. The message was that America welcomed rather than feared China’s continued rise.

That “pincer” policy included doubling down on U.S. relations with other East Asian countries during a period when China’s diplomatic stance was less than diplomatic. It culminated, Fallows writes, in the establishment of a permanent U.S. base on Australia’s north coast.

I find this account largely convincing, but I do question the “better footing” characterization of U.S.–China relations under these conditions. If the improvement is in the U.S. influence in the region and a perceived retrenchment of Chinese regional power, I’m not sure that puts the relationship on great footing. (I don’t ascribe this tradeoff to Fallows’s account; that’s my own interpretation.)

The relationship between the two countries is complex and, in my assessment, largely stable. Tossing aside abstract international relations debates between those who believe great powers must balance one another and those who believe 21st century economic integration makes Cold War rivalry untenable, I like to argue that the United States and China are so deeply tied that an alignment of interests is inevitable.

Given that integration, a better footing for the relationship would be manifested in each population’s increased understanding of the others’ needs. This means U.S. voters learning about the needs and priorities of Chinese—and about the forbidding diversity of those priorities. And it means Chinese learning about the living standards and unwillingness to compromise among many in the United States. Both sides, in my dream land, would start building policies based on enlightened mutual interest, which by the way should not be limited to these two countries.

As Fallows tells us, a U.S. president only has so much power, and national identity is hard to shake. But what metric should we use to judge the development of one country’s relationship with another? Perhaps we need something more people-based and less focused on diplomatic victories.

The straw man of Internet-fueled civil discourse

Just because people are online doesn’t mean they engage in civil public discourse. This simple idea has emerged as one thread of conventional wisdom in recent years, especially in the context of the People’s Republic of China. In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, Rebecca MacKinnon reinforces the idea:

Back in 2001 a U.S. spyplane made an emergency landing on Hainan island after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet which crashed into the sea. If people in the Chinese Internet chatrooms had gotten their way, the U.S. crew would be in a Chinese jail today. In a recent interview with The Atlantic’s James Fallows, the President of the China Investment Corporation Gao Xiqing pointed out that his P.R. department is inundated with public comments calling for him to sell U.S. dollar assets.

This sort of argument, parallel to the idea that the United States might not like what it sees if some states hold truly democratic elections, has become so common  that I wonder whether MacKinnon can still reasonably say, as she does in the letter, “Americans tend to think of the Internet as the medium that will inevitably free the Chinese people of authoritarian rule.” Maybe my reading diet has become more isolated, but I don’t hear that argument anymore except as a foil. Is the narrative of a liberalizing Internet medium becoming a straw man?

On the multiplicity of individuals in China

James Fallows got worked up over David Brooks’ ignorant musing about Chinese and Asian collectivity. The product was this excellent paragraph, which follows part of Brooks’ words.

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

This is the kind of thing you can say only if you have not the slightest inkling of how completely different a billion-plus people can be from one another. Beijingers from Shanghainese,  Guangdong entrepreneurs from farmers in Sichuan, Tibetans from Taiwanese, people who remember the Cultural Revolution from those who don’t, people who remember the famines of the Great Leap Forward from people who’ve always had enough. The guy across the street from his brother. His daughter from his wife. People hanging on in big state enterprises from those starting small firms. People who stayed in the villages from those who came to the city for jobs. Christians from Buddhists. Hu Jintao from Jiang Zemin,  Olympic weightlifters from Olympic tennis players, Yao Ming from Liu Xiang, Wen Jiabao from Edison Chen  — and while we’re at it, Filipinos from Koreans,  Japanese from Chinese, Malaysian Chinese from Malaysian Malays. Lee Kuan Yew from Kim Jong Il. People from Jakarta from people in Seoul. Hey, they’re all “Asians”.

Are Pollution Stories Anti-Chinese? Sometimes, yes.

James Fallows notes, but does not really respond to, a criticism of his persistent posts on bad air quality days in China. A reader recounts the thoughts of a Chinese friend, who “pointed out that the focus on pollution before the Olympics is a phenomenon of the typical inability of the Western press to focus on more than one idea at a time, when they’re thinking of China (if at all).” Where are the stories about Beijing’s efforts to replace coal heat with electric installations?

Let me start by pointing out what Fallows didn’t bring up: It’s simply not an accurate representation of “Western” news coverage to say they only focus on the environment. Thousands of stories come up in Google News searches on China and human rights, or China and Darfur. The U.S. press is preoccupied much of the time with a possible economic and military threat from China. The way I see it, at least the English-language news world focuses on several major story-lines with China, and the environment is one. It may be more prominent because the environment (thankfully) is a major story overall, and China plays an important role in the global environment.

That said, it is not unreasonable to criticize a large number of North American and European press reports for a failure to put China’s present environmental problems in perspective, especially when it comes to air quality in the cities. I happened to have a brief conversation yesterday with a man who was at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the late ’60s. He remembered burning coal for heat—the stoves glowing red in some cases because of the high burning temperature of coal. And he remembered façades blackened from centuries of coal smoke.

In Beijing, I told him, some neighborhoods have seen their streets dug up repeatedly over the last weeks in preparation for heating season as the city installed brand new electric heating systems to replace coal-powered radiators. This year, the hutong apartment I live in is heated by electricity for the first time (aside from space-heaters), and coal is no longer the primary source of heat here. Before the systems turned on this week, some neighbors were burning coal to keep warm on cold nights. No more.

The new heaters have timers. Mine is programmed to come on at 10 p.m. and stay on until 6 a.m. My landlord tells me we’re doing this because electricity is cheaper at night. But the key here is that I can turn mine off when I leave town. I can also turn it off if I’m warm enough under a good blanket and don’t need the leftover heat in the morning. (Now to better seal my windows before the deep freeze…)

The English-language press is not devoid of stories recognizing the efforts by Chinese authorities to improve the environment. It’s also not terribly rare to read an article that notes London’s blackened history. People in the United States need only to visit steel country and take a good look at the University of Pittsburgh’s iconic tower to see some old U.S. industrial gunk. (They might have cleaned it up, but you could see it when I was there for a wedding a few years ago.)

When Chinese state media stories argue that developed countries who have already gotten rich at a cost to the environment should be responsible for tightening their belts more than those still developing, it’s hard to argue. But just try to get that sort of thinking through the U.S. Congress, and notice how far the Kyoto Protocol got with that ethic partially enshrined.

A sense of responsibility for past emissions needs to accompany pressures on emerging emitters. Richer countries with cleaner environments should work with poorer countries in the process of development to slow environmental degradation. The air in Beijing is indeed quite striking when you come from the United States—especially for me, from a background in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. But as the same Rhodes Scholar told me when I mentioned that I balked at jogging in Beijing air, “get over it.” Whether or not it’s the only focus of the “Western” press, and even though I don’t believe Fallows intends to be demeaning or contribute to a paternalistic narrative, putting across the message that “holy moly these people have dirty cities” does not create the understanding we’ll need to put together real solutions in the future. And dirty or not, we all keep going through life here.

Olympic Threats, Bush's China Crutch, North Korea, and the Environment (U.S.–China Links)

Olympic threats: really dumb. China: Bush’s diplomatic savior? The North Korea deal: not what the White House hoped. And China meets the U.S. Congress to plan for a post-Bush climate reality. Recent China–U.S. relations news.

  • Steve Clemons agrees with me (OK, he agrees with James Fallows, whom I agree with) that “Boycotting the Olympics today or trying to preempt China’s hosting the games as Perle suggested in 2001 are hollow threats that perpetuate the mistaken notion that America is in a serious position to isolate China.” Clemons’ post today on China and his comments in the item below are worth attention.
  • In a New York Times Week In Review piece today Steven Lee Meyers argues that George W. Bush is using China’s influence in Iran, North Korea, and Burma as a “diplomatic crutch”—that having spent much of his country’s international political capital, Bush is lucky to have China to turn to. Myers quotes U.S Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill as saying “China has become the first stop for any American diplomacy.”
  • Not that the result in North Korea has been exactly what the Bush administration was hoping for, writes Richard Bernstein.
  • I’m a bit late posting this, but Der Speigel reported a “secret” meeting between members of the U.S. Congress and Chinese National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) Deputy Chief Xie Zhenhue. The White House was reportedly left out of this meeting addressing post-Bush administration environmental policy. According to Speigel:

    High-ranking sources close to the participants of the meeting between the Chinese delgation and Congress said the Chinese sought to find out how determined Congress is to push through rigorous climate protection laws in the future. During the discussion, members of Congress made clear that they would soon like to vote on legislation that would set binding emissions limits. However, the members of Congress said they didn’t provide the Chinese with a firm timeline for when this might happen.