The sky's the limit

Updated: 2012-06-01 07:56

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Author explores potential of Chinese aviation

Beyond standard economic indicators of prosperity, certain industries can be seen as a microcosm of a country's maturity. James Fallows' new book, China Airborne, argues that Chinese aviation is such an industry, worthy of closer examination for what its successes and shortcomings reflect about China's technological and social progress.

"There are a number of industries that have significance beyond themselves," Fallows says.

"If a country succeeds in those industries, it indicates a larger range of accomplishment and networks of sophisticated production, and aerospace is one of these high-end industries.

"Countries that have successful aerospace industries are capable of building sophisticated operation systems, maintaining safety standards, and can pull off the integration of military, civilian and weather systems on an international level," he says.

 The sky's the limit

James Fallows sees the aviation industry as a microcosm of China's maturity in his new book. Provided to China Daily

"It's a microcosm of the larger Chinese effort to become a higher-value modern economy, and it seemed to me to deserve attention as a test case for China's emergence."

China Airborne traces the history of the nation's commercial airline industry and its more recent attempts to compete as an aircraft manufacturer. Once rated among the most dangerous to fly, Chinese airlines now boast some of the lowest crash rates in the world. But Chinese airplane manufacturers lag behind international competitors in innovation and design - a telling sign, Fallows says.

"There are major catch-up efforts to build regional jets and larger jetliners, and the test is whether these Chinese factories will be able to take the next step up. It has not happened yet, but Boeing and Airbus are very attentive to what will happen in China over the next few years."

In 2011, the Chinese government unveiled its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), in which it pledged 1.5 trillion yuan ($237 billion, 189 billion euros) to develop the national aerospace industry in the form of new airports, navigation systems and planes. As of 2010, the country counted 2,600 commercial planes, about half as many as in the US, with a target of 4,500 by 2016.

Construction of 150 new airports is already under way in China, although Fallows seems to argue that growth can sometimes surpass actual need. Much of China's airspace is highly regulated and in some cases off-limits due to military reasons, severely curtailing the potential of the private small-aircraft industry.

But as Fallows notes, Boeing executives have declared China the sole source of hope "that the world aviation industry is beginning to recover".

China Airborne also outlines the history of Chinese involvement in aviation and aerospace. A Chinese engineer, Wong Tsu, played a significant role in the development of the US industry in the early 1900s, Fallows writes. Born in Beijing in 1893 and sent to England for naval cadet training, Wong eventually became a student at MIT, in the country's first aeronautical engineering program. In 1916 he joined Bill Boeing in Seattle as the Boeing Co's first chief engineer. In fact he designed the Model C plane, the first aircraft Boeing sold to the US military.

China had its first flight in 1909, only six years after the Wright brothers' fixed-wing gas-powered plane made history on a North Carolina beach. But the gap between Chinese and US technologies only widened over time.

For a period, China used only Soviet-made planes. When the then US President Richard Nixon flew to China in 1972 aboard the Boeing 707 that was Air Force One, the simple question of how he would disembark to the runway 20 feet below created a small crisis, Fallows writes. Soviet aircraft were built at a different height and the airport was unprepared for Nixon's visit. Ultimately, Chinese builders rushed production of a set of stairs built from published 707 specs and photographs of similar portable stairways.

During that trip, Premier Zhou Enlai approved the purchase of 10 Boeing 707s as a goodwill gesture, Fallows writes. "This purchase - like all major airline sales in the modern age - was as much a diplomatic gesture as a commercial transaction, constituting a big and noticeable US export to China."

Decades later, when President Hu Jintao visited the US in 2006, his very first stop was a Boeing factory outside Seattle. While touring the assembly line, he spoke to about 5,000 Boeing workers. "Boeing is a household name in my country," Hu said. "When Chinese people fly, it is mostly in a Boeing plane. I am happy to tell you that I came to the United States on a Boeing plane."

Fallows makes the important point that because their products enable travel between nations, airline companies and their executives are de facto diplomats in geopolitics.

"One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story of Boeing's role in China was that while living in China, I was really impressed at the thousands of less-publicized levels of interaction that occur between the two countries," Fallows says.

"For Boeing, they recognized that in many parts of the world, sales are not only commercial decisions but also political decisions. On the Chinese side, Boeing was viewed as a branch of the US government. And in Boeing's role as this quasi-governmental body, it was able to get involved in air-safety ventures and air-traffic issues. Much of the miracle of making Chinese airline travel so much safer has involved intense work between Boeing and the Chinese side."

The American company brought in Western experts to train Chinese airline officials and regulators, and worked to bring China's air industry up to international standards.

"Boeing had a direct stake in improving the safety record of Chinese airlines and felt it had a responsibility to do what it could," writes Fallows.

"If commercial airliners kept crashing - as five of them did within a four-month span in 1992, including an accident in southern China in which more than 140 people aboard a Boeing 737 died - neither Chinese nor foreign passengers would ride on them, and Boeing's prospects would be limited. Thus, making Chinese airlines safer became Boeing's job."

While China's contributions to airline manufacturing remain unremarkable, the government took a huge step in moving toward innovation in 2011 when the State-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China bought US manufacturer Cirrus Industries, known for its state-of-the-art small-propeller airplanes, and Teledyne Industries' piston engine business, which equips small aircraft including Cirrus planes.

"That is a very significant sign of Chinese sophistication," Fallows says. "It's a sign of their potential. It is an interesting choice, and I expect more purchases like that. I think that the people on the Chinese investment side are sophisticated in their purchases - they know if they do too much, there would be an adverse reaction in the US. They are being cautious, but there will be more of this, knowing the kind of ambition that's present in the Chinese industry."

Fallows, who was a speechwriter for former US President Jimmy Carter before his longtime journalism career with the Atlantic, published the 2001 book Free Flight about the US airline industry. He called the experience of reporting and writing China Airborne inspiring.

"I had a lot of fun working on this book and going out to these remote areas, where people were cooking up new airports and had big dreams," he says. "It was very stimulating. If you are interested in life and things changing, China is a very interesting place. The air industry is a field that I have pre-existing interest in, so it was a rewarding way for me to learn more about China.

"I ended up thinking about how much more varied China is than most Americans know, and if you look closely at the particular case of an industry or region or technology, you can see reflections of the country on a larger scale. This is a field in which China is trying to rise to the top, and its success or difficulties in fulfilling that dream will broadly indicate the success or limit of its technological ambition in general. If these Chinese can succeed in aerospace, there's nothing they can't succeed in."

(China Daily 06/01/2012 page21)