Book Review: China Airborne

A month or two ago, I found a copy of James Fallows’ 2012 book China Airborne: The Test of China’s Future on my desk.  My advisor had just read it and, knowing my interest in China (evidenced here, here, here, here, and here), thought I would enjoy the read.  Notwithstanding the occasional dry bits, I did.

The synopsis:

There is a lot of information in this book–culture, history, politics, and technology woven together in a way that helps to make sense of China’s ambitions in the aerospace industry.  I’ll try to hit some of the main themes:

  • China’s massive economic growth in manufacturing, building, and services is also carrying over to their aerospace/aviation industry, albeit with not quite as much success.
  • Despite our mental picture of China as a closed country that is now just opening up, we (the US) have a history of trade and collaboration with China/Chinese people in aviation (see the Wikipedia entry for Wong Tsu.)
  • The Chinese have had somewhat haphazard development of airports and factories–some places with fantastic air terminals, but no one to use them, no fuel and no spare parts on hand.  Massive factory floors with only a few aircraft in production.
  • One of the good news stories about China and aviation is their adoption of pilot training and accountability practices, maintenance procedures, and safety protocols, bringing Chinese airlines’ safety records from one of the worst in the 80’s to now one of the best in the world.  However, the air traffic controllers are not accustomed to managing large amounts of traffic, given that most of the airspace is still military-controlled.
  • Chinese design and manufacture of aircraft is far behind the leaders of the world, and not likely to catch up for the next 20-30 years.  While the US and Europe have matured the aviation industry over the last 80-100 years to produce complex and highly reliable airframes, avionics, and engines, the Chinese do not have the technical background and high-quality manufacturing capacity to produce these on their own.
  • The environmental impacts of the way China does business is going to be a significant factor in the way the industry develops.
  • The politico-military situation is causing friction both domestically and internationally, and is truly a wild card–they could put the brakes on the whole thing if they got too paranoid.

The analysis:

This is an excellently written book, and it summarizes many of complex issues (harmonious chaos) surrounding aerospace industry in China. I found myself thinking of several articles my father-in-law has written about doing business in China: The Rules, Harmonious Chaos, and Chinese Icebergs.

The only “bad” part about this book is that it is probably sorely out of date even less than two years after publication (as evidenced by the progress in opening the airspace at Hongqiao). Hopefully Mr. Fallows will follow up with more articles in the Atlantic or a revised edition in a few year.

The verdict:

An excellent read not only for those interested in China and aerospace, but also those who are interested in Chinese business development in general.

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