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on January 11, 2009
James Fallows does a masterful job of explaining the China that we rarely see on the evening news or read about in the daily newspaper. He provides insight into what things are really like in practical terms and with a human dimension. As a journalist and author in residence in China, he tells us why China is so important and tackles some interesting issues, everything from censorship to manufacturing. He's objective in both his praise and criticism, and, like his other books, it's hard to put down. As a person that develops products in China, I've never read a better explanation of how things work. One of the best books I've read on China in a long time.
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VINE VOICEon May 14, 2009
Continuing his tradition of excellence - in both reporting and writing - Mr. Fallows' collection of essays on China is well put together on a variety of topics that will give the reader a snapshot of China in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics including coverage of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province.

What separates Mr. Fallows work from so many other essayists on China (many of them excellent as well) is his detailed and insightful reporting providing context for his observations. If you are traveling to China this book will help prepare you for the China of the 21st century - especially if you've never been or if has been a long time since you have visited China.

This book belongs on your China shelf besides other classics such River Town, The Last Days of Old Beijing, Mr. China and The Search for Modern China.
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on May 2, 2009
Living in both Shanghai and Beijing from 2006 up until the present (2009), James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly has an amazing understanding of modern China. He brings a unique perspective to his China reporting, having also lived in Japan for an extended period of time. Fallows' comparisons between the situations in China, Japan and the U.S. account for some of his most original material.

This slim volume is a quick read but packs a tremendous punch, accurately describing the good, the bad and the ugly in China. Fallows is understandably impressed by China and the amazing amount of progress made over the past 20 years, including bringing millions out of poverty, and in areas where China often is criticized such as the environment. But he also accurately describes the many problems this growing superpower faces; from poverty, to Internet censorship, pollution to creativity.

His views on the China / U.S. currency issue and the effects are very clear and understandable. Perhaps his most moving chapters are towards the end of the book, regarding efforts to modernize China's impoverished western regions, and the creation of a more charitable culture in China following the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake; Fallows argues persuasively that this was a more significant event for China than the much publicized success of the Beijing Olympics. The last chapter is also remarkable about a range of topics, including China's great diversity, strength and openness, while still having a global perception problem and very limited understanding of how the world views it.
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on August 1, 2009
Following a month's stay in Beijing, I've been reading several books about China. I enjoyed this one the most for many reasons: 1) Fallows rings true with my limited experience. He caught many of the same fine scale details I noticed (e.g. how the Chinese media reacts to a variety of things, 2) he displays a keen grasp of some of the basic technological issues facing China and the world, especially with regard to energy and the environment, 3) he gives a fine exposition of the macro-economic forces shaping China and the US today, especially with regards to currency and trade issues, 4) he has travelled extensively throughout China and has come to know the people quite well, and 5) he writes in a way which draws the reader to turn the page and seek more. I had read about half of these articles when they first appeared in The Atlantic Magazine. The new ones were a delight, and the old ones were pleasant to re-read. This is a fine piece of journalism.
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HALL OF FAMEon February 25, 2009
Fallows wrote these essays between the summers of 2006-2008 while living in China; he had also traveled there in 1986.

Clearly, Fallows is impressed with China - noting that Shanghai (in 2006) has five subway lines, with better features than anywhere in the U.S., and is supposed to have 13 lines by 2010. While quite concerned about its pollution, he also reports being impressed with the efforts underway to deal with the problem. Fallows finds China's efforts to limit Internet access somewhat puzzling - they are not that difficult to get around, but most don't bother.

China spends just over 3% of its GDP on education at all levels - about half as much as the average for developed countries. (Other sources estimate U.S. expenditures at about 8% of GDP.) Most of the money goes to the top ten schools.

Returnees from the U.S. bring not only their experience and learning, but a sense that bribery is wrong, support for open academic debate (even with one's elders), and techniques for funding start-ups.

Some economists believe letting the yuan's value rise sharply would drive down import costs (including energy), and not reduce experts much since many of its exports are no longer made in the U.S. or Europe.

Broad Air Conditioning corporation uses natural gas and lithium bromide - this creates little transmission line load (problematic in China), is more energy efficient (fewer energy conversions), and relies on natural gas in the summer when it is cheapest. Workers are paid about $175/month + room and board; typically off two days/month, and work up to 14 hours/day (about 336/month). Yet, Chinese workers have a great sense of hope and save about 50% of pay - something not possible with American minimum-wage workers.

There are no large companies in China - explanations offered include a lack of trust, and a tradition of family-owned enterprises. Supply-chain knowledge (where to get what) is regarded as a competitive secret.

Example of simple automation: Orders arriving from the U.S. via Internet, printed out with bar-codes, lights appearing above the appropriate "pick" box, and double-checking via reading product/part bar-codes. Only an estimated 3-4% of the final price stays in China.

Macau's economy has been growing recently at 20%/year, vs. an overall Chinese rate of 10%. It over took Las Vegas in 2006 - $7 billion vs. $6.5 billion. Macau taxes gambling at rates up to 40% - far above that in most U.S. states. Three-hundred million Americans spend about $50 billion/year gambling; within five hours of Macau are about 3 billion people who now spend only about $12 billion on gambling.

A respected Chinese university publishes a list of top research universities in the world - they see the U.S. as holding 8 of the top 10 positions (England the other two), 17 out of the top 20 (Japan holding the other position), and China with none of the top 100 spots. Chinese education pre-college is much more difficult than the U.S., and easier afterwards.

Families in western China (about 25% of total population) may exist on $10-15/month, and spend their entire lives within a 15-20 mile radius.

Bottom Line: Most Chinese are far better off than they were 20 years ago, and are optimistic about their future.
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on June 21, 2010
Thinking of China in this low part of the cycle reminds me of a bit from James Fallows' book Postcards From Tomorrow's Square: Reports From China. In it, he retells a memorable anecdote from Susan Shirk. Shirk wrote a book in which she called China a "fragile superpower." Shirk says when she talks about the book in America, people ask: "What do you mean `fragile'?" But when she talks about her book in China, people ask: "What do you mean `superpower'?"

We in the West tend to sometimes overstate what China is. In reality, much of China is still quite poor -- in Fallows' words -- "trying to solve the emergency of the moment." And there are many emergencies -- water shortages, awful pollution and more, to say nothing of the fallout from the financial crisis.

Review by a writer for Agora Financial, publisher of economic and financial analysis including Financial Reckoning Day Fallout: Surviving Today's Global Depression,The New Empire of Debt: The Rise and Fall of an Epic Financial Bubble, and I.O.U.S.A.: One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt.
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VINE VOICEon June 1, 2009
Here is a book that actually tells you (in a way you can understand) how China gets all those US dollars and how things actually work from the gambling industry in Macao to internet filtering nationwide.

Many westerners tend to think of China as a well oiled monolith. James Fallows debunks this. One example he gives is of the reservation of 3 places for people to protest during the Olympics. Everyone who applied for a permit to actually protest was arrested. He speculates that the top people were trying to create better image for the west, but lower level security workers didn't understand the program or how to carry it out.

I usually prefer a book with one narrative over a collection of essays, but in this case, the format works really well. Isolated chapters such as those on the reality show Win In China and Mr. Zhang's air conditioning company would have to be cut in a unified work and both are rich examples of what is happening in China.

I recommend this short book to anyone interested in China today and tomorrow.
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on September 18, 2011
So another writer attempts to explain China to us with a 3 year stay. Fallows is definitely more skillful than your run of the mill college graduate teaching English in China, and yet I cannot help but think this book is a bit shallow. For someone who knows a lot about China and has read quite a bit on the country, this book opens no new grounds. Fallows suffers from his lack of Chinese language skills. So what he writes has a bit of third hand feel to it. For someone who has no knowledge of China, and wants to pick up something quick, this is a good book to read.
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VINE VOICEon July 6, 2013
While living in China between 2006 and 2008, James Fallows parses the Chinese economic engine for an American audience looking for a beyond the headline interpretation. Because of the rapid change in China, parts seem incredibly dated (all the discussion on the Olympics, for example), and others are still right on the mark. Most of the chapters were originally published in the Atlantic, for whom Fallows was writing. Each chapter has a subheading for the month/year when it was published.

The first chapter attempts to capture first impressions, but comes off rather pedantic, like a lecture to a high school class.
Fallows strengths come when he has a story to tell, such as the huge success of China's version of business reality tv called Win in China. The producers and contestants come to life as he explains their motivations. In contrast, when he discusses the success of the Chinese manufacturing sector and how (popular views to the contrary) it is beneficial to American businesses, the lack of a personal storyline makes the arguments seem more written for a textbook than popular press.

In a standout piece, his chapter on the attempts at reversing the ecological damage that the unfettered manufacturing growth has wreaked on the environment is eye-opening and still (it was originally published in October 2008) uncommon voice on this subject.

Although sometime the writing mires down, this is an important book to read to understand the context of China's economic gains and how they fit in the context of the rest of the world. Also, having lived in (and written about) Japan at the peak of their bubble and subsequent collapse, he makes a compelling argument on how and why China is different.
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on April 3, 2009
Fallows is a great story teller and brings the vast canvass of modern China into better focus with on the ground insight and reporting--bringing the daily macro reporting of newspapers into a meaningful context
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