Book review: 'China Airborne' a fascinating exploration of that nation's budding aviation industry
China has become the world's biggest growth market for aviation. It's now home to two-thirds of the world's airports under construction, and with a quarter-trillion dollars of investment coming in from the government, China is going to triple its air fleet within a decade. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of workers are being mobilized in an attempt to develop China's own Boeings and Cessnas, all part of the struggle China is undergoing to turn its low-profit assembly factories into centers of innovation, and change from a lagging collection of smokestacks into a modern power.
This is the story James Fallows tells in his latest work, "China Airborne," and there's a surprising popular appeal to it, something fans of the longtime Atlantic and NPR contributor will enjoy. Mr. Fallows has an earthy, engaging style, and he sees the human stories of government officials, entrepreneurs, workers and intellectuals all pursuing the dreams they have for themselves and their country as they take off together into the skies.
For him, building an airliner is one of the most challenging tasks in the modern world, and a nation that learns how to build and sell airplanes to compete with Boeing and Airbus will basically be able to do anything. Aviation is the yardstick of modernity, and China is trying to measure up as best and quickly as it can.
Mr. Fallows is a veteran China hand, trained pilot, and longtime tech and aviation industry watcher, and the book seems quite personal. There's a very on-the-ground feel that comes from his familiarity with both Chinese culture and the international aviation industry, as well as anecdotes, quotes and interviews. The book is balanced well in its observation, praise and criticism of China's awkward yet ambitious stab at development, showing a reserve lacking in many popular books on China.
He doesn't pull punches politically either, sharing his run-ins with the police as well as his beliefs in democracy, environmental protection and free expression. This is tightly linked to his subject matter -- China's efforts at establishing its own airlines and manufacturers have been hamstrung by the same bureaucracy that has shoveled money into them.
The military tightly restricts everything from aerial maps to private plane ownership, and even for those who can fly, airspace is strictly controlled, forcing long, inefficient routes on companies that live and die by routing. At the same time, he doesn't attack the Chinese just for being different, and recognizes the power that can be mobilized by the state as well as the problems with America's underinvestment in infrastructure.
The book is accessible in different ways to different people. Sinologists and aviation geeks like me will happily pore through Mr. Fallows' detailed endnotes, trapped at the back where they won't bother casual readers. People looking for a grab buy at the airport will find something light that will also make them think. Businesspeople, students, or tourists going to China can pick this up and get a good grip on the Chinese zeitgeist, as well as the problems China is dealing with (and refusing to deal with).
"China Airborne" is ideal reading for people who have been frustrated at America's infrastructure lagging behind the rest of the world, and wonder what other nations are doing differently. And with frequent parallels to American history and economics, James Fallows gives us points of reference to understand China's growth dilemmas.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am