James Fallows discusses journalism, China-U.S. relations

Last Wednesday night, renowned journalist James Fallows, the China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, delivered a lecture to a large ’62 Center audience. The talk, entitled “China Rising,” focused largely on disproving the many mischaracterizations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that Fallows described as “pervasive throughout the United States.” Focusing on social, economic and geopolitical issues related to the PRC, the talk was the last lecture in a three-part series focusing on the future of capitalism.

After a brief introduction by Sam Crane, professor of political science, Fallows explained to the audience that he would proceed by outlining the specific areas where he felt Americans had misguided or lacking impressions of the Chinese.
Among the primary areas of misunderstanding that he outlined, Fallows attempted to debunk the western notion of Chinese homogeneity and unity, instead offering an image of a much more “chaotic, diverse and individualistic nation,” he said. Fallows argued that partly as a result of the media portrayals during the Beijing Olympic Games and the more recent celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC, many westerners have a greatly misconstrued understanding of the Chinese as a tightly knit and unified people. Citing regional and ethnic tensions including the Uighur uprisings that occurred in the province of Xinjiang last July, Fallows drew a picture of a much more heterogeneous and, at times, conflicted Chinese nation.

Continuing along a similar thread, Fallows warned listeners not to forget or underestimate the internal problems of the PRC. “When Obama took office, he joked that one would have to be crazy to assume the presidency in such troubled times,” Fallows said. “But the obstacles he faces are nothing compared to those faced by the Chinese leadership.”
Unhealthy environmental conditions, limited natural resources, dependency on exports, regional conflicts and an ailing university system were among the factors that Fallows cited to substantiate his claims on Chinese domestic instability.

Throughout the talk, Fallows repeatedly returned to and emphasized the need for China to adopt more environmentally friendly and sustainable economic policies. “Even if China follows all the advice from world experts in cleaning up its production systems and environmental situation, its demand for more goods and comforts for its people is going to place such a stress on the world’s resources that unless we find a way to cope with that, anything the rest of the world does will be in vain,” Fallows said.

Fallows also touched on the particularly large and powerful nature of the generational gap within Chinese society. “In China, the generations are separated by very clear distinctions, oftentimes the result of rapid social changes,” he said. According to Fallows, the fact that China has endured so many drastic and sweeping social changes in the past century definitely contributes to the country’s generational disparities. He explained how in a mere hundred years, China has journeyed from a two thousand year-old dynastic power to a short-lived republican government, through Japanese occupation to the Maoist era that included the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to economic reform and opening under Deng Xiaoping, before reaching its current place as a major economic and geopolitical player and host of the most recent Olympic games.

Within this procession of social change, Fallows placed particular importance on the Cultural Revolution and its legacies. Because the events of the Cultural Revolution have never been openly discussed or publicly addressed, Fallows argued, the effects are still widely being felt throughout the country today. “Its role in both the conscious and subconscious memories of an entire generation of Chinese people, along with the fact that it has never been fully discussed, makes the Cultural Revolution particular damaging to China,” he said.

Concluding his lecture, Fallows summarized his various points and did his best to link the multiple topics under the prescribed theme of the evening: capitalism. While the Chinese unofficially refer to their economic system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Fallows argued that the system in place in China was effectively a unique and somewhat worrisome type of state capitalism, with strong state-business links at the macro level, and “tremendous small-scale capitalism energy at the small factory and shopkeeper level,” he said.

While taking questions from the audience following the lecture, Fallows answered an array of inquiries, which ranged from the Bush administration’s policies towards China to the Chinese understanding of Taiwanese and Tibetan claims to independence.

The day after James Fallows delivered his “China Rising” lecture to the Williams community, Adam Century ’12 met with the award-winning journalist to discuss further the world of news and the U.S.’s relationship with China.

What advice do you have for aspiring journalists today?

Let me make a point about journalism in general and then about this time in journalistic history – I can’t imagine anything that I could have done that would have made me feel happier than the journalistic life I’ve led. It’s more interesting than almost anything else you can do because you’re in the business of finding out about different things. Also, I think that for young people, historically they’ve had more influence in journalism than any other fields.
Particularly right now though, there is both a short-term and a long-term advantage of getting into journalism. The short-term advantage is that as established media outlets are trying to shed costs, they are getting rid of old deadwood in the form of people like me, while making room for ambitious, less-expensive people who are just starting out. Journalism isn’t going anywhere – the kind of intelligence and sensory system that journalism provides to the world is just too necessary to the operation of modern society. Hence, the current business model is in chaos, but another one will arise that will favor young people.

How do you see the journalistic business model ten years from now?

I think that financially a combination of different payment models – some kind of micropayment scheme, different advertising models, different ownership models and an increase in nonprofits – will evolve to become a funding base for journalism. I think we’ll have a combination of established brands like the New York Times and the New Yorker, which will retain their value in having authentic, authoritative, trustworthy information, but there will also be a healthy proliferation of lots of other sources.

Obama is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao twice in November – once in Singapore then once in Beijing. If you could set the agenda for those talks, what items would you prioritize and why?

In terms of an action agenda, I think there is no contest that the U.S. and China need to work together on climate and environmental issues. Unless China listens to the outside world and cooperates to reduce their impact, the survival of the planet will be seriously jeopardized. The more ways there are to build in our areas of cooperation and to encourage China into a path of responsibility, as it gets more economic, military and diplomatic powers, the better for everybody in the long run.

On the financial front, both countries are imbalanced in ways that cannot last forever – China is far too dependent on exports, while the U.S. is too import-dependent. Both of these have to be modified and balanced, better in a gradual rather than sudden way. I think that anything that builds a connection, understanding and confidence between the two countries is good.

What do you think Communism means to the average Chinese person?

I think that if modern China had not inherited the label of the Chinese Communist Party from Mao, there’s no chance that they would call themselves a communist regime now. I think that structurally, and trying to use this term not in the poisonous way that it’s sometime used, China’s closer to a fascist regime than to a communist regime. I think of it as a unique form of state capitalism, where there is tremendous small-scale capitalist energy at the small factory and shopkeeper level, with state guidance still at the large level. I think the only person who takes Marxism seriously in China is the ambassador from Cuba. He’s a real believer still, and you don’t find many like him.

Last night you convincingly argued that mutual cooperation and fruitful collaboration are essential in the U.S.’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China [PRC], and that Americans should not view China’s rise as a threat but rather as a challenge and an opportunity. Could you expand on this perspective?

First of all, we need to ask: are there parts of China’s rise that are potentially harmful and dangerous? I think that if China is used as an excuse for anti-democratic, anti-liberty sentiment in the world, then that is dangerous.
In its current stage, China more often acts irresponsibly than responsibly in international areas and these are aspects of its rise that are unpleasant. However, I take China’s rise as a given. We can only work to steer China towards the better range of its possibilities.

On a related note, China’s policies in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia have thus far been rationalized as non-interference – how do you feel about China’s evolving influence and role in the developing world?

I think that a positive aspect is the fact that China provides a great example for lifting millions of peasants out of poverty. Are they trying to achieve that in the developing world though? I don’t think so. What’s happened developmentally in China is largely factory-driven, and the Chinese are not building factories in the developing world. Essentially they’re building these raw material and resource projects. China is in the last stages of being able to excuse themselves as a non-interfering developing power; they are just too influential to get away with that line anymore.

A counterargument that I’ve heard from many Chinese in the PRC is that because China is also still a developing country, it should not be given the same standard of behavior as western nations. How does one reconcile the imminent need for China to change with the reality that China is still in essence a poor country with material needs and desires far from being met?

I think that when it comes to the environment, it’s true that it’s unfair for the U.S., having had a century to industrialize, to say that China only has a decade to clean itself up. But life is unfair. If the Chinese take a century to make the necessary change, it will be way too late.

On interactions with the rest of the world – I think that there is a lagging Chinese consciousness that they are still a poor and developing country. Yes, most people there are still poor. Yes, it’s still a developing economy. But its influence on the outside world is now that of a big power.

Even though it’s inconvenient, China needs to become a responsible stakeholder. I have no illusions that that will be an automatic or easy process, when people there are still really poor. But that’s part of the unfairness of the situation.