China’s goal of building a world-class aviation industry has so far yielded few tangible results, but not for a lack of effort: The country is spending heavily on new aircraft development and aviation infrastructure, with plans for 70 new airports by 2015 and a commercial jet, the C919, meant to compete with best-sellers from Boeing and Airbus.
In his new book “China Airborne,” national correspondent for The Atlantic and instrument-rated pilot James Fallows assesses those high-flying ambitions as a proxy for China’s economic and political development. China Real Time recently caught up with Mr. Fallows to discuss China’s obsession with building its own commercial jetliners, the special economics of jet engine technology, and why Americans have been successful in helping upgrade China’s air travel system while struggling to do the same in other industries. Edited excerpts:
In your book, you (probably wisely) decline to forecast whether China’s aviation ambitions will ultimately be successful – but what is your best guess?
Nice try!! But of course, for the reasons I lay out in my book, this is another way of asking the fundamental question: Is China destined to liberalize? Will the miracle of the past 30 years, in which hundreds of millions of people were lifted from rural poverty to urban industrial life, be extended to another generation, in which China becomes a genuinely rich modern society? We’re all operating in the dark here. But you’re forcing me to guess. So I’ll say… Yes! That is my look-on-the-bright-side spirit coming through.
Has that assessment changed since you started writing this book?
Indeed it has. When I arrived in China six years ago, I was influenced by the “Oh my God! Behold the works of the Chinese system!” tone of much outside coverage. What I’ve tried to convey is the range from impressive-to-incompetent, coordinated-to-chaotic is modern China’s pell-mell rush for modernization.
A recurring theme of the book is the complexity of building a modern aviation infrastructure and culture in China, compressing 100 years of aviation development into a fraction of that time. But are there areas where China’s late start might prove an advantage?
Shrewd point. Everyone understands the catch-up advantage that countries like China have had, in jumping directly to ubiquitous wireless connections rather than living through the landline era, and being able to install the latest power-plant and urban-building technology since so much of the world’s building is concentrated there. In the aviation world, there are two advantages of this late-starter advantage. One is that the commercial airline fleet consists almost entirely of new, efficient airplanes, since it has expanded so fast and so recently. The other is that the remote western reaches of the country are being directly opened by modern GPS-based navigation systems, rather than going through the intermediate steps applied in the US and Europe over the past 50 years.
The drama in navigation-change in the United States over the past decade has been movement from the ‘VOR and Airway‘-based system of the post-World War II years, to the brief flirtation with ‘LORAN,’ to GPS over the past decade and the new ‘precision-based navigation’ systems I describe in the book.
In most of China, navigation systems aren’t the limiting factor to how efficiently planes can fly. The military restrictions on routes and airspace are. But the very recent opening of remote areas in western China to commercial air travel is happening faster because Chinese officials are able to move immediately to the very most modern precision-navigation tools.
What is it about the large commercial aircraft space that makes it such an irresistible draw for China’s government and aerospace industry despite the huge obstacles?
Three reasons, I think. Symbolism: Big airplanes are impressive! Direct commercial implications: Year in and year out Boeing is the leading U.S. exporter, and if China could succeed in this field — which of course is a major “if” — the commercial rewards could be significant. And, finally, the indirect implications: Aviation is one of the “apex industries” in which success would indicate the sophistication of a whole associated infrastructure.
You highlight the dramatic improvement of China’s airlines as one area of particular success. Are there specific lessons of the airline experience that could be applied elsewhere?
I argue that the experience of China’s very fast-growing airlines is a microcosm of China’s high-end commercial aspirations generally. They’re state-owned enterprises becoming increasingly exposed to commercial competition; they have been shrewd and surprisingly non-defensive in opening themselves to outside improvement and international standard-setting; and they’re buoyed by the overall continued growth of the economy. But they also have to pay their way, in what is worldwide a difficult industry. So they show ways in which “Chinese characteristics” are unusual, and also how they fit global patterns.
As I think is evident in my book, I am impressed by and respectful of the international figures — largely but not exclusively American — who have decided to devote major portions of their working lives to improving the safety, reliability, and efficiency of the Chinese air-travel system. When I asked them about the lessons they would draw, their conclusions were never startling but seemed worth underscoring. They said that they were able to make more of these “governance” breakthroughs because they never presented it in a belittling or publicly embarrassing fashion for their Chinese counterparts; because they quite evidently enjoyed China and their Chinese counterparts; and — an interesting specific point — because they were always careful to say that they were conveying ‘international’ rather than strictly ‘American’ practices and techniques.
No doubt it helped that, unlike some other arenas of foreign-Chinese interaction, this was no sort of zero-sum situation. That is, when foreigners were helping the Chinese make their air operations safer, neither side was posing a “competitive threat” to the other
One of the more surprising facts raised in your book is the relative dearth of investment in jet engine technology in China, while money pours into other areas. How much would more effective government-led investment address the shortcomings of the Chinese aerospace model?
Engine technology is a fascinating test case of the intersection of public and private efforts and ingenuity. Government-led investment has played an indispensable part in aerospace development generally and engine technology in particular in North America and Europe. In the U.S. it’s been a combination of military contracts — the Army was a crucial first customer for the Wright Brothers, and the Navy for the young company founded by Bill Boeing — plus air-mail contracts, NASA-research developments, and other efforts. But of course GE and Pratt Whitney compete ferociously in engine technology, as does Rolls Royce in Europe. This is the complex public-private relationship that China is feeling its way toward. (And, in the mean time, the three big engine companies — GE, PW, and RR — are trying to walk the fine line between doing enough of their work in China to satisfy Chinese government requirements, without giving away the technologies and advances that are most crucial to their viability and survival.)
To what degree does the current system in China allow for the trickle-down of technology and know-how from the purchases of small companies like Cirrus and Teledyne Continental?
A big surprise to me in my reporting is how de-centralized China’s efforts in this realm are. Of course there is a big central-government push for success in aerospace, as in other high-value industries. But then the ambition and the action and the deal-making is largely at the provincial and local level. So if the central government can remove some of the impediments to China’s development in this field — of which the most important is the military’s control of nearly all of China’s airspace — I think the bottom-up approach will have some effect.
The history of aviation in the U.S. is strongly tied to individual entrepreneurs, from Bill Boeing to Cirrus Aviation’s Klapmeier brothers. How do you rate the odds of a Chinese equivalent arising, and where would you expect to see it – maybe near aviation industry hubs like Xi’an or Chengdu?
My guess is: The farther away from central regulatory authority, the better the odds — a principle that applies in other countries too. In addition to the ones you mention, two other nominees might be in the ‘northeast’ generally, where a small-plane ‘experimental zone’ has been approved for agriculture and forest-related work — and in and around Zhuhai, which is the new head office of Cirrus and which has ambitions to become a general aviation center. I have met people with ambitions of starting aircraft companies in both those places — along with in the Xi’an area. Mainly I hope that conditions open enough to let any of them succeed.
Anyone who has spent time in China has learned to say: Anything is possible. There are lots of potential Klapmeier brothers in China. Whether the country can give them running-room is the interesting question.
– Andrew Galbraith. Follow him on Twitter @apgalbraith« Prev：Profits predicted for airlines in U.S., but not in Europe China says to build 70 new airports by 2015：Next »