I did a post the other day, entitled, “Planes, Trains And Automobiles: The China Way,” extolling a James Fallows piece comparing “the Chinese way” with “the Japanese way.” Yesterday, I got a call from my friend and fellow Grinnell College alum, Paul Midler, who wanted to let me know he would be doing a post on his blog, The China Game, taking issue with Fallows. Midler’s post, entitled, “James Fallows Turns On His Television Set,” is now up and I am writing this post to take issue with it.

Real writers observe things others do not. Real writers see the same thing we all see and tell us about it in a way that makes us “see” it more clearly. Real writers tell us things we already knew but could not express. James Fallows is a real writer, yet despite this, or actually more likely because of this, Paul Midler does not like him writing about China. Writers say things I am thinking but have yet to crystallize or am incapable of conveying. Midler does not like writers, he only likes experts. Midler is of the view that only those who have lived in China forever should be writing on China:

James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly reporter who recently moved to China, has written at his blog about how disorienting it can be to turn on the TV and find so many unfamiliar faces. Can it really be, he wonders, that the Chinese have their own TV stars?

Midler is apparently bothered by Fallows’ lack of Chinese sophistication, but I embrace it. I have never known Fallows to pitch himself as a China expert and I would be the first to agree he is not. But so what? We have plenty of so-called China experts writing on Chinese business, law, politics, culture, food, transportation, manufacturing, internet, marketing, schooling, healthcare, etc. Fallows writes about the China he sees and he does a damn fine job of it. The China Fallows sees is that of a writer clearly happy to be writing about one of the most exciting places on earth and his fresh perspective on it is both different from and an oftentimes welcome respite from the experts by which Midler swears.

Midler demands expertise, not just vision and creativity:

Dan Harris over at CLB waxed enthusiastic about a piece that might as well have been titled “James Fallows Looks Out His Airplane Window”. The journalist had the opportunity in Japan to watch while ground crew did a rather professional job of refueling an airplane on the tarmac, and he compared the experience with a much more haphazard refueling effort by workers at the airport in Changsha (they had to improvise in China with a siphon, presumably because the proper equipment was not available). Fallows summary on the differences between China and Japan:
“Japan is all about the way of doing things. Practice, ritual, perfectionism, as much fanatical attention to the process as to the result. China is all about finding a way to do things. Improvisation, little interest in rules, putting up with whatever is necessary to attain the result.”
The conclusion on China hardly squares with my own experiences in a country where at nearly every turn I am told that one thing or another must, or must not, be done because of a certain “guiding”, or rule. Luckily, though, we have Richard Spencer at The Daily Telegraph, who wrote an article titled, “Chinese Learn To Clap And Chant For Olympics”. In that one piece, he paints a curious piece that shows a country very much in love with rules. Nearly anyone who has lived in China for an extended period of time – Spencer has, Fallows has not – knows that the Chinese love protocol. I’m sure Fallows is a nice guy, but he’s not a China guy. He admits time and again that he is just getting his feel for the place. Many of his blog posts read like a letter sent home by a foreign exchange student. “I think I’m acclimating!” was the title of one recent post.

Fallows is writing on China as a newcomer, but newcomers too have a lot to say. I have learned as much about Seattle from my friends who come here from out of town than from my friends who have lived here forever. I remember when my kids were much younger and they would ask me questions or comment about everyday things of which I had simply been too unconcerned even to have noticed. Their childlike wonder of everything forced me to see old things again “for the first time.”

Sure, someone with the China experience of Midler may find little new in Fallows’ pieces, but there are countless millions of Westerners who have never once set foot anywhere in Asia and Fallows is writing for them too.
Midler seems to justify his attack on Fallows by quoting James McGregor (author of “One Billion Customers”) on how the Chinese “know more about us than we do about them” and because China “is such an important subject” we cannot leave it to the greenhorns. Midler is missing the point. First off, as someone who has represented Chinese companies trying to do business here in the United States, my sense is that American companies are much farther along in understanding the Chinese consumer than the reverse. This idea that only Americans are unsophisticated internationally is a myth. More importantly though, nobody is putting Fallows up as a Chinese expert and his lack of expertise should in no way detract from his observations. Yes, it would be great to have more “experts” telling us about China, but that certainly is no reason to have Fallows simply stop writing on it as well.

Because China is so huge and diverse and complicated and so difficult to know, we need various perspectives on it. Fallows’ article on the plane fueling and Midler’s reaction to it are the perfect proof of that. Midler claims China is very much a rule bound society and he presumes (without a scintilla of evidence) that the guy sucking fuel through a tube in Fallows’ piece did so because something had gone wrong, rather than as a matter of course:

Back to this plane refueling business. The Chinese of course wish to see greater levels of professionalism in their lives. They have not yet managed to do so because, in reality, theirs is just a developing country. Given the option, China does not prefer just to wing it, and the Chinese are in fact embarrassed when it is pointed out that their ways are backwards and outmoded. What Fallows saw at the airport in Changsha was nothing but sheer comedy – one guy tipping a barrel while another sucked on a stinking hose. That he took a picture of it and posted it for the world to see is China’s shame. The Chinese don’t believe for a minute that all of their jerry-rigging is a national strength, and there are many signs that the Chinese are dumping such improvisation in favor of modernization.

I think Midler both misses Fallows’ point and is wrong. Fallows was comparing China to Japan and I do not think anyone can dispute that process in Japan is more important than process in China. Fallows was talking about the Chinese way of doing things, not its backwardness. Of course, the Chinese Midler knows would prefer China to modernize, but that is not what Fallows wrote about. Fallows was talking about (I am pretty sure, but have asked him to step in) was how China is not a terribly rule bound society, at least as compared with Japan, and on this I completely agree. It appears Midler disagrees because China is more rule bound than the United States, but if I were to rank rule-bound countries, I would probably put the United States at one extreme. China is less rule bound than Japan or Korea. Fallows’ comparing China to Japan is interesting and, I think, quite accurate.

Will Lewis of the Experience Not Logic blog makes a good point regarding the importance of having someone with the heft of Fallows writing on China:

James Fallows’ articles and blog are going to rub different people in different ways. People who have been in China for a long time, such as yourself, will easily be able to poke holes in his observations and expose his naivete. But Fallows’ audience is the general American public, and his writing follows the theme that Americans should not be too afraid of China. And his writing does feel like an exchange student discovering a country. That this discovery is by a journalism heavyweight of a country that is becoming the whipping boy of American politicians should be a good thing.

China Hearsay concurs with Fallows that China is not a terribly hidebound place:

For the most part, in China:

  • I can go into a store with a Coke and not get yelled at for bringing in food. For that matter, I can bring a Subway sandwich into a Starbucks and eat it with my coffee (and only get a nasty look instead of being yelled at for polluting the place with “outside food”).
  • I can wear a hat during dinner and not be stared at disapprovingly by someone for having bad manners.
  • I can walk down the street drinking a beer.
  • I can blow my nose on the ground (not that I would want to) without a cop arresting me.

You get the point — people here enjoy a lot of personal freedom without a lot of customs and rules getting in the way. Yes, there are also lots of exceptions.

When I was living in D.C., people were being arrested for eating food on the metro, speaking too loudly on cell phones, and smoking in public. Whether or not you agree with those policies, there are a hell of a lot of rules to deal with over here.

I concur with China Hearsay. I have gone to dinner with Chinese lawyers who are wearing shorts and t-shirts, whereas I cannot remember a similar dinner in Korea or Japan where the lawyers wore anything other than a dark suit. I have found dealing with Russia’s bureaucracy and courts at least ten times worse than China’s.

By Midler’s standards, de Toqueville should not have written about the United States, no right to write about the United States, Hemingway should not have written on Spain, and Henry James should not have written on Europe.

I want to hear about China from more than just those with Doctorates, MBAs or JDs who have been there forever. What about you?

UPDATE: ThinkChina has a nice post up on this topic, entitled, “China Hands,” making clear that time spent in China does not directly correlate with expertise:

Fifteen years ago, everything in China was a struggle. It is thus understandable that people who “suffered” through those periods will find themselves superior to the newcomers. Yet, does spending time physically in China directly correlate with level of expertise? I beg to differ. It is what you managed to achieve in China that defines ones capability. Spending 10 years living in China might give you some insight to habits, culture and language. Yet, it is how you spent those 10 years that matter. An expat who spent 10 years working for Motorola in China will not know anything about starting up a magazine in Shanghai.