Any recent air traveler encountering turbulence can appreciate the varying experiences one has with, say, Virgin America’s “pimp my flight” jets with purple night-club runner lights, ample services and buxom flight attendants compared the hostile flight attendants and bare-bones service on Northwest Airlines. When I was a college student in 2000, I took one of these Northwest flights from Detroit direct to Beijing for my semester abroad at Peking University. During my semester in China, I traveled by every means to quite a few destinations outside of Beijing, but to the more far-flung cities I traveled mostly by air. I flew several Chinese air carriers still in existence, including Air China and China Southern Airlines. After a flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu, I gathered my bags to find them soaked in urine and covered in poultry feathers, an unfortunate episode for a college student in an unfamiliar city and no clean clothes. This vignette is one small anecdote that reprises the experience of many Western travelers in developing countries, where the charm of traveling abroad can best be represented through American expectations and the ensuing comedy. In a similar fashion, James Fallows’ China Airborne spins a quaint first-person narrative that builds into a bare and troubling analysis of China’s seemingly decided rise to global superpower.
Writing an encompassing book about China’s rise without appearing polemic, venal or naive is a discouraging task for any writer, especially if they wish their book not to be outdated three months prior to publication. China Airborne steers clear of these hazards and accomplishes much more than the flap copy advertises. The book captures the forced projections of American business success in the first passage, which recounts a difficult sojourn to the Zhuhai Air Show in a small prop plane piloted by Fallows and Peter Claeys, a representative of Cirrus Aircraft, a light aircraft manufacturer out of Duluth, Minnesota. Confronted with a series of insurmountable obstacles in acquiring fuel and other general aviation support en route, Fallows and his flying companion embark on a dangerous flight so that Cirrus can be properly represented at the air show. The key point of this story is that despite the barriers of faulty fuel, difficult flying conditions and poor ground control, Cirrus, their representative and Fallows risked life and limb to land a China connection.
The plane we sat in was the only demonstration model of the Cirrus available in China, and Claeys was the company’s only salesman and company pilot anywhere nearby. If he and the plane didn’t get there by that Sunday evening, he would be embarrassingly absent for the next day’s demo flights, sales talks, and other events he had been lining up for months.
Why risk the life of a valued representative and a well-known journalist to make a presence for a product that, as the book later describes, is essentially barred from operation in China? Fallows proceeds to make an interesting case that the aerospace industry in China serves as a bellwether for the Chinese political economy’s maturation. According to this thought, the level of economic, political, regulatory and technological cohesion required to sustain the creation of a world-class aerospace industry that supports research and development of reliable, indigenously produced air frames would confirm the claim that China is ready to embrace the mantle of global leader. However, as the book describes, the amount of change in terms of academic and civic openness required to support an environment for innovation would translate into cataclysmic changes in the current Chinese system.
Underlying the anticipation of change is the persistent surveillance, restrictions and state control required to perpetuate China’s trademark authoritarian capitalism. One of the interesting hurdles Fallows mentions is, “Chinese law requires that images of Chinese cities from Google Maps, Google Earth, and the like be offset from online street maps.” For those not familiar with geospatial information studies (GIS), that means that online satellite images of Chinese cities are not geo-rectified or rather, the spot on digital images or maps do not match up to where the actual place is on the ground. His examples are as simple as navigating the complex roads of Beijing while trying to attend a function or trying to pilot an aircraft using available GPS data. The Chinese government treats basic GIS data as a state secret even though much of the information has likely already been captured by commercial and intelligence satellites from other countries and exists in the public domain. Again, the statist aspects of the Chinese system require such a level of control that stymies the commercial benefit of mapping resulting in a China left behind.
China Airborne continues further by recounting the history of the aviation industry in China, from the delivery of Boeing planes in conjunction with high-level rapprochement summits to the first key American aviation representatives who had important influence on the development of Chinese civil aviation. Understandably, the old hands came to China during the period of reform or in the post-Tiananmen era during a period of great prosperity. During this era, China was nothing if not clumsy in most sectors and eager to apply reasonable Western methods to bolster the country’s aviation industry credibility. China’s fumbles and lack of sophistication were passed off as a residual characteristic sure to go away with Western knowledge and engagement. At the time, it was the price of playing in a ripe, emerging market. But, today, China’s growth and level of political and economic influence means that the “developing country” grandfather clause, reiterated over and over as a feigned self-deprecating insight, should expire.
Fallows details at every level of his experience the oddities of the Chinese aviation industry. Notably, the construction of a modern regional airport in Weinan, Shaanxi, in the middle of nowhere, juxtaposing the amazing intellect, ambition, vision and cleverness of Chinese businessmen and local officials with the overriding hindrances of the Chinese state apparatus. The nimble maneuvering of Gao Yuanyang, deputy mayor of Weinan, to orchestrate the construction of an airport and “make this remote part of Shaanxi province into an international center for aviation research,” represents the type of foresight that Howard Hughes and others employed to catapult American aviation into dominance. The dark side of this story of inspiring characters remains the state choking out ingenuity at every turn. The limits placed on airspace in China by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leave isolated, narrow corridors for commercial pilots to plan flight paths in between cities, and for Weinan, limits the possibilities of a flight test center or a flight training school. For commercial flights, the results are inefficient flight plans and an inability to adjust in-flight altitude in reaction to weather and terrain. Without the freedom to alter their flight path, common in most open societies, fuel is wasted and often passenger safety is put at risk. On one bright note, China, acutely aware the environmental impact of increased air travel by its mega-sized population, has invested heavily in biofuels for commercial planes. If successful, this research could have a major impact on global efforts to forestall climate change.
Fallows doesn’t sugarcoat his experiences in China and recounts a story where he personally witnessed the extent of the state’s desperate clutch for control. Fallows, his wife and Peter Claeys of Cirrus Aircraft visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre. Observing an altercation in which “a young Chinese-looking man” was “being hustled away by some of the ‘informal’ plainclothesmen,” Fallows attempts to casually take a picture of the scene. He and his party are immediately surrounded by uniformed police officers and questioned about their actions. Fallows’s observations reveals the overlapping layers of security and surveillance employed by the Chinese state. The depth and sophistication of the security apparatus is shocking but certainly barely scratches the surface. Pondering the incident, he later quotes Chinese philosopher Ai Siqi, who wrote, “All reactionary thought in contemporary China is of the same tradition. It emphasizes China’s ‘national characteristics,’ harps on China’s ‘special nature,’ and wipes aside the general principles of humanity.”
The history lost on China is that development is not an isolated path in which a country dictates its level of control. It is a reflection of negotiations, compromises and practicalities imposed by the constraints of the world. These constraints are more pressing in China’s apparent economic, political and military position amongst other nations. James Fallows is right when he says that “a wide range of outcomes is possible.” I agree with him that it is not a cop-out to avoid giving a concrete analysis of China’s future disposition. In hindsight, the United States may have missed an important opportunity over the previous twenty years to change its relationship and therefore the future of China through sustained political and military engagement. Now, it is almost certain that for greater political engagement, like any other “special interest,” American might have to pay to play. Our role and influence reduced, China will be able to push its agenda, and for American politicians and the our military to have an impact in China, we will have to placate and feed China’s ego. The failure to nourish Sino-American relations is one of the greatest foreign-policy blunders of the last twenty-five years. A second but just as important blunder is the failure to perceive the threat from China. Many intellectuals and politicians from the foreign policy establishment who made their mark during the reform and post-Tiananmen era either ignored it or were blinded by their bias. The future is not certain, but our ability to effectively respond is seriously diminished.
China Airborne manages to sift through the intricacies contained in our China dilemma, capture forgotten histories about China’s development and the genesis of its aviation sector, and provide a captivating first-person chronicle of Fallows’s experiences. As a long-time observer of China’s rise, this book certainly appealed to me. It presents a level of detail and “atmospherics” unparalleled in most writing on China. Whatever logical fallacies or errors of bias contained in the book, Fallows overshadows them with the depth of consideration given to each issue and by giving each one an asterisk in the form of his personal stories. The book does what any book, whether fiction or non-fiction, should hope to accomplish; it leaves you informed, somewhat unsettled and eager to consider its implications long after you have finished reading.