Q&A with The Atlantic’s James Fallows, author of ‘China Airborne’

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ChinaAirborneFrontCoverSmall.pngAlexis de Tocqueville helped demystify the America of the 19th century even though he was a visitor rather than a local. In fact, the extra detachment may have helped.

Similarly, James Fallows’s writings will provide future readers with shrewd insights into the China of the aughts and beyond.

In China Airborne, the latest Fallows book, he doesn’t just opine on Chinese life and politics and the national character and the related aspirations. Rather, he also treats us to a cockpit view of the battle between airspace-security zealots and the burgeoning aviation industry in China. And we don’t merely read of China’s abysmal Gini coefficient. He also writes of “a chauffeur-driven Bentley, its plutocratic passenger behind darkened windows in the backseat, brushing past a man pulling a cart by the wooden yoke across his shoulders.”

By way of disclosure, I’ve known Jim for decades, since his Washington Monthly days, before he went to work for Jimmy Carter as a speechwriter.

The big constant over the years has been his knack for staying ahead of the crowd. I can still remember the indignation of certain writers over the fact that around 1996 he and I had started a bloglike Web site, Fallows Central, full of topical observations and samples from his books. The nerve of that man! How egotistical! Today, of course, Jim’s blog is among the pillars of TheAtlantic.com, and he is still writing for the paper magazine as a national correspondent.

In an e-mail Q&A for the Solomon Scandals site and the Georgetown Dish, Jim shared his thoughts on topics ranging from Chinese can-doism to such domestic matters as the possibility of violent revolution in the United States, ultimately, if class divisions keep growing. (He thinks another nightmare is more likely under those circumstances.)

Q. What neighborhood in Beijing would be closest to Georgetown in various ways, such as political influence and the quality of the cuisine? Or is such a comparison impossible to make?

A. You could make the comparison much more easily with Shanghai than with Beijing—and in Shanghai, you’d say it was the “French Concession.” This is the area featured in movies like “Empire of the Sun,” where European and American colonialists lived elegant lives in pre-World War II, pre-Communist China, while Chinese Shanghai was largely a scene of misery. Their old European-style mansions, clubs, and apartment buildings keep getting knocked down, but enough of them remain to give Shanghai a unique feel in China.

Beijing’s city planners are busily knocking down the historic courtyard houses known as “hutongs” as quickly as possible. The city is being rebuilt overnight on a model that combines the scale and excess of Moscow, Houston, and LA.

Q. You grew up in California. What are the similarities and differences between the old California optimism and the Chinese economic variety—the can-do-ism about which you write in China Airborne?

A. An interesting comparison, which I hadn’t thought of in just that way. The main similarity would be the sense that overall, conditions in the country had gotten a lot better over the past generation-plus. In my Beach Boy-era California childhood, it was my parents’ generation who talked about the Depression and going off to war. We were the kids being educated in the new schools, as our parents moved to new houses, and we played in new parks and drove on new roads. That’s pretty much the sense in China now—people have only to look back a few decades to see a real nightmare period for the country.

There’s a similar wacky/plucky optimism among many Chinese entrepreneurs now, including the ones I describe in my book. But consistent with the principle that everything happens faster in China, they may also be in danger of this whole mood souring—that’s what all the scandal revelations, plus inflation, plus a polarized economy can do.

Q. Washington’s tax policies and other actions have squeezed the middle class and the poor in recent decades. Long term, beyond the current tax debates, what are the chances of a reversal of this legalized kleptocracy, and what will it take for this to happen—both politically and in other ways?

A. If I had a good answer to that question, then I would indeed be the political-economic wise man that you and I have searched for over the decades in American public life.

My main source of solace is that we have been in versions of this same predicament several times before. As you well know, the history of the 19th century Gilded Age is surprisingly similar to the patterns and strains we are enduring in the early 21st century Gilded Age. And of course it led, through turmoil, to both the Populist and the Progressive eras, which righted some of the balance. As I wrote some place, maybe even in this book, America is always getting itself into terrible trouble, and at the last possible moment finding ways to escape. I hope we are about to see another installment of the recovery part of that cycle.

Q. If we don’t reverse course, what will the ultimate consequences be? Might violent revolution even happen in time? Or maybe the peaceful the breakup of the United States into something reflecting the divisions in The Nine Nations of North America? As I myself see it, New England is far more civic-minded, and middle-class friendly, than states like Texas.

A. I may lack imagination, but I don’t really foresee violent revolution as a prospect in America. Among other reasons, the forces of order are so incredibly heavily armed. I think the more likely and worrisome prospect is the third-world-izing of America. Rich people in their enclaves, surrounded by people who might as well exist in a separate universe.

Q. How much and in what ways will China’s acquisition of Cirrus and Hawker Beechcraft hurt us? What does this say about the short-term, casino-ish nature of American capitalism today? Will all of the companies’ jobs and technology end up in China? Are there any upsides? How should Washington respond?

A. My general rule about China’s “threat” to America is that almost always the real problem is one we are creating for ourselves. Both Cirrus and Hawker Beechcraft were heading for financial ruin because the US-based financial market was placing such demands on them. In each case their new Chinese owners were sources of “patient capital.” Is this a Chinese menace? To me it looks like a dysfunction of our casino market.

The upside in both these cases is: a) the companies will keep operating; b) for the foreseeable future, many or most of the high-value jobs will stay in the US, because aviation is so carefully regulated an industry that international purchasers are very careful about buying from untested suppliers; and c) they have a better chance of selling into the booming Chinese market. If their alternative was going out of business, this is a better choice. (But then see “casino economy” point above.)

Q. Just how far along are the Chinese in drone technology, and what could this mean for us, militarily and otherwise?

A. I don’t have a good answer to this question! My guess would be: not that far along, because Chinese military technology overall is fairly rudimentary. The exception is the whole cyber-threat world, which is its own case.

Q. Could China displace Silicon Valley in time? My Onda vi40 Android tablet is already about to get Jelly Bean. Someday could China itself be the go-to power in operating systems and other key aspects of computer technology? Negatives and positives from a U.S. perspective?

A. That’s really the argument I take up in the last one-third of the book. I argue that the Chinese model has been great for the kind of low-wage industrialization miracle of the past 30 years. But it might not be right for fostering the high-value, high-tech culture of the next economic step. Certainly the Chinese officials are worried that they’re hitting a ceiling and looking for ways around it.

Q. How much does mass cultural influence rely on economic success? Will Hollywood wane if there’s less of an American dream to peddle?

A. Economic success makes lots of things easier, including this. On the other hand, the Brits still have huge worldwide soft power success—Downtown Abbey, Wimbledon, the insufferable Royals—many decades into their economic wane. So, there’s always hope!

Q. Psst! Care to say what’s your next book will be about?

A. It’s about…America! Details TK.

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David Rothman

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