May 11, 2010

In talk, columnist probes Americans' "Beijing Olympics opening ceremony" image of China

Atlantic columnist James Fallows spoke to a packed room at International House Thursday about his experiences living in China, arguing against what he saw as American misconceptions of the country as a progressive powerhouse.

According to Fallows, a current writer-in-residence for nonfiction, the popular American view of China is that of a coordinated, motivated, and expanding country. This “Beijing Olympics opening ceremony” view implies China is able to tackle the problems of the future while holding a regressive stance on political freedom, but that is only true episodically, he said.

Fallows added that China may not be as ready as most Americans think to deal with environmental problems and move 1.3 billion people into a higher-level economy, because it often seems like “twenty countries glued together.”

Fallows suggested that the American fear of China expanding to become “paymaster” is faulty, and that it’s best for America to cooperate with China. “We should be able to work with them, rather than work against them,” he said, adding that the advancement of each country’s interests is not necessarily a zero-sum game.

While the United States’ debt to China is worth correcting for the health of both economies, not just for American interests, there is one potential area of conflict, Fallows said. If a Taiwanese independence movement were to get serious, then China and the U.S. would have to take sides, possibly leading to military conflict, he said.

Fallows argued that Americans overstress political freedom in China. “To know China mainly by the arrests of dissidents is like knowing the U.S. mainly by Guantanamo,” he said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Committee on Creative Writing. Fallows is at the University for the quarter as the Committee’s Vare Writer-in-Residence, a position given to distinguished nonfiction writers to teach a writing course for one quarter.