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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E5): James Fallows on China’s Aviation Ambitions, 2.25.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E5): James Fallows on China’s Aviation Ambitions, 2.25.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Season 3, Episode 5 explores a hair-raising flight across China by James Fallows, national correspondent and former Beijing correspondent for The Atlantic. A life-long aviation aficionado, Fallows shares the harrowing flight he co-piloted on the Cirrus SR22, a four-seat prop plane, from Hunan province’s Changsha to southern Zhuhai. He also discusses China’s aviation ambitions and what they tell us about China’s prospects as a technology superpower.

James Fallows is a long-time writer for The Atlantic, and author of twelve books. His most recent is Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America, written with his wife, the linguist and author Deborah Fallows. The book is the subject of an HBO documentary airing this April. Fallows has won the National Book Award and the National Magazine Award, and a documentary Emmy for a series called “Doing Business in China.” He first visited China in the mid-1980s, when his family was living in Japan; he and his wife lived there for four years starting in 2006. He wrote two books about that time in China, Postcards from Tomorrow Square and China Airborne.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 5:

JF: The beginning of the book is about a flight I took in the fall of 2006. At that time, I weirdly was the most experienced pilot of a certain small plane, that is now the most popular small plane in the world. So I wound up being the co-pilot with Peter Clayes helping him ferry this plane from Changsha where it had been shown to potential buyers – down to Zhuhai for the air show. This was everything that could go wrong in a small plane flight except crashing.

You talk about the accident change, where you could have broken the string of bad luck. This was an early episode…we had been trying to get gas for our plane. At the airport, they found an old Soviet fighter jet and they siphoned the gas from that plane and you see the poor guy who lost the coin flip and had to siphon the gas.

There were two big problems on the flight: China’s airspace is largely controlled by the military which is why aviation is so slow there, and we were talking with an air traffic controller who had no clue how to communicate with a small plane. We were approaching a mountain range and kept asking the controller to let us climb higher and, thanks to a pilot from Japan Airlines, they let us. They also turned off the landing guidance system when we were in the clouds.

DE: Why did you choose to use aviation as a lens into China?

JF: There are two ways to write about China: the big panoramic macros view, the other is the macro in the micro: the universal and particular. One family, one moment in history…so I picked one industry.

You can find a lot about China’s strengths, weaknesses and ambitions in its aerospace power: To go to the Moon, and become a competitor to Boeing and Airbus, etc. I try to argue that everything connected to China, China’s aerospace ambitions stand as a proxy for China’s developments and limitations as a whole. Success in aviation relies on control and trust…if they could do that, it would be quite impressive. It would be a big step up from supply chain manufacturing. Ten years in…it has not worked out so far. The C919 [plane] and its counterpart are seen as Chinese packaging of international components. Think of it as a big iPhone- it is made in China but with components from other places.

Systemically, taking a flight in China takes about twice as long per mile covered as in the West. That is a sign of control, a rigid part of China where the security state is at odds with the economic state. China’s airlines went from one of the most dangerous to one of the safest in the world in 3-4 years because the Ministry of Aviation opened itself up to the FAA, to United Airlines and others. As China becomes more closed and suspicious, that becomes harder to do.

It is harder to be nimble and internationally connected in [aerospace]. The industry is like universities, biotech, infotech, or pharmaceuticals, that depend on a worldwide flow of [people and information]…China has made itself more bristly in these [flows].

DE: Are billionaires flying around on private planes like they do in the U.S.?

JF: The U.S. has about 5,000 airports that can accommodate a small plane like mine. But China has only several hundred airports. A lot of these flights are in the grey zone, because you can either get approval and go through the process, or you can just go. There is a huge potential for that business in China.

DE: Would you fly again in China?

JF: On a commercial flight yes.

DE: What is next?

We have an HBO movie coming out in about 6 months called Our Towns about small towns and how they will be called upon in the post-economic crisis.

Pictured: James Fallows with his wife and weighed-out luggage as they set out to fly to the small towns featured in the HBO documentary

Full Video of Pieces of China with James Fallows/h4>

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