1-Page Cheatsheet: James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square

Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James FallowsHere’s my 1-page cheatsheet to James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China [Amazon].

Why Postcards

I love – LOVE – James Fallows’ writing. At 28, he served as President Carter’s chief speechwriter for 2 years (!). Fallows truly works to understand a topic DEEPLY. He walks that fine line between having clear opinions and being fair to differing viewpoints.

On top of all that, he’s a fan of Evernote and has lived in, and written extensively about, Japan. I mean, come on!! That’s pretty much everything I love.

Postcards is a collection of his China essays, written while living in Beijing as an Atlantic Monthly correspondent.

From Fallows’ Wikipedia:

James Fallows is an American print and radio journalist. He has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for many years. […] He is a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, and as President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter for two years was the youngest person ever to hold that job. He is the author of ten books, including National Defense, for which he received the 1983 National Book Award…

Lessons and Highlights

1. China isn’t as monolithic as people think

a. Compared to the Japanese in the 1980s, the Chinese today are less sure of their future

But Shirk said that when she discussed [Fragile Superpower, a book about China] with Americans, they always asked, “What do you mean, fragile?” When she discussed it with Chinese, they always asked, “What do you mean, superpower ?”

…even though the outside world tends to see China itself and “the Chinese regime” as a great homogenous bloc, there are ideological, regional, and personal rivalries at every level.

To me the most striking difference was cultural and moralistic: specifically, Japan’s cocksureness. Japan and many neighboring nations saw its rise as a challenge to the American idea, and they didn’t care who knew it. No one thinks that today’s China lacks cultural confidence. […] But I have encountered virtually no lecturing from Chinese friends, officials, students, passersby, or interviewees. People inside China have a vivid sense of the whack-a-mole challenge they face at every level. For rural people, staying alive. For the urban employed class, finding enough money to pay for an apartment (with prices soaring), get kids into school (also expensive, with fees required even at public schools), fend off health emergencies (ditto), plus somehow save enough for retirement (in the midst of a huge demographic shift, driven by the one-child policy, toward a society with many more dependents and many fewer active workers).

b. China faces many questions about its future

How long can this go on? How long can the industrial growth continue before the natural environment is destroyed? How long can the superrich get richer, without the poor getting mad? […] How long can the regime control what people are allowed to know, without the people caring enough to object? On current evidence, for quite a while.

But I am saying that for now, Americans shouldn’t worry about an ideological challenge from China, or whether China’s economic rise will soon mean the preeminence of the “Chinese idea.” The people and leaders of China have too much else on their minds.

c. …such as how to reduce pollution…

The air in Chinese cities is worse than I expected, and because the pollution affects so many people in such a wide range of places, it is more damaging than London’s, Manchester’s, or Pittsburgh’s in their worst, rapidly industrializing days.

d. …and address the widespread lack of trust…

This man’s answer was that scale requires trust, and “there is no trust in China.” People don’t trust others outside their family, he said. “They don’t trust the Internet. Or doctors. Or the mobile-phone company to bill them honestly. Or, of course, the government.”

e. …and navigate the tacit compromise of suppressed living standards (in return for strong economic growth)

So why is China shipping its money to America? An economist would describe the oddity by saying that China has by far the highest national savings in the world. This sounds admirable, but when taken to an extreme—as in China—it indicates an economy out of sync with the rest of the world, and one that is deliberately keeping its own people’s living standards lower than they could be.

Until now, most Chinese have willingly put up with this, because the economy has been growing so fast that even a suppressed level of consumption improves most people’s quality of life year by year.

2. China is like a huge bazaar, which makes central planning difficult

It makes you marvel at Mao’s delusion in thinking that China could be a centrally planned economy rather than a beehive of commerce. One reason why Americans typically find China less “foreign” than Japan is that in Japan the social controls are internalized, through years of training in one’s proper role in a group, whereas China seems like a bunch of individuals who behave themselves only when they think they might get caught.

One alley near our apartment is lined with shops offering turtles, fish, puppies, kittens, and birds as pets. On the next street over, most of the same creatures are offered as food. Whatever sells.

When foreigners have trouble entering the Japanese or Korean markets, it is often because they run up against barriers protecting big, well-known local interests. The problem in China is typically the opposite: Foreigners don’t know where to start or whom to deal with in the chaos of small, indistinguishable firms.

3. China’s manufacturing scale and speed boggle

Guangdong’s population is around 90 million. If even one-fifth of its people hold manufacturing jobs, as seems likely in big cities, that would be 18 million—versus 14 million in the entire United States.

“Here, you’ve got nine different suppliers within a mile, and they can bring a sample over that afternoon. People think China is cheap, but really, it’s fast.” – quote from Liam Casey, aka Mr. China

4. James’s 2 mysteries of China:

Mystery 1: How skillful is the leadership?

Can China manage a giant-scale and much more repressive version of the social contract developed in Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew didn’t call himself a benevolent despot in Singapore, but that’s what he was. He offered prosperity and public order; he quashed dissent.

Mystery 2: What is the Chinese dream (中国梦)?

In dramatic contrast to the United States, China has not been a deeply religious society. This leaves, for now, material improvement as a proxy for the meaning of life.

But what, if anything, tomorrow’s successful Chinese want beyond a bigger house and better car seems both important and impossible to know.

[this question is something I’m VERY interested in and would love to dig into]

7. What is America?

America means openness

Living and studying in England taught me that America meant openness. Living in Japan and traveling through Asia underscored that message, with a vengeance.

The American idea, as I saw it from Japan, was strength through radically opened opportunity. The good parts of the boom of the 1990s, the parts that preceded the bubble, were consistent with this approach: more room for immigrant talent, more public support for Americans seeking a second and third chance,

America means attracting talent…for now

America’s ability to absorb the world’s talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match—as long as America doesn’t forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.

8. Generally speaking, immigration from China is good for US interests

Young Americans who served overseas during World War II or in the peace corps in the 1960s had a lasting effect on America’s relations with the world—and the hordes of young Mandarin-speaking Americans I keep bumping into in China could do the same.

Chinese returnees, based on all available evidence, are at least subconsciously pro-American. They have made friends and followed sports teams; many have raised culturally Americanized children.

If I were China’s economic czar, I would recycle as many of the country’s dollar holdings as possible on grad-school fees in the United States. And if I were America’s immigration czar, I would issue visas to Chinese applicants as fast as I could, recognizing that they will create more jobs, opportunities, and friends for America than the United States could produce any other way for such modest cost.

9. Random insights

One thing I have learned through travel is that every country is unhappy with its school system.

In the United States, the overall rate of “pathological gambling” is 1.8 percent; for Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants, it is about 3 percent.

That’s It, Folks

If you’d like to see my 200+ highlights from the book, click here.

Previous 1-page cheatsheets include:

Hope that was useful! What could be added or changed or removed? Which books would you like me to read and summarize?

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Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.