Americans have good reason to scoff at attempts to “plan” a nation’s economy. In the late 1950s, for example, China started “A Great Leap Forward,” a five-year plan to industrialize a largely agricultural economy. But the plan included making steel in backyard furnaces, forcing farmers off their fields at bayonet point and creating a famine that starved 30 million people.
The country never gave up on its five-year plans though. But the China of the last 30 years or so is a far cry from the Chairman Mao days. The country’s currently on its 12th five-year plan. And part of this plan centers on turning the country into an aviation powerhouse.
Right now more than two-thirds of the world’s airport construction is happening in China. That’s great news to Boeing and, in fact, the country, is primed to be the one of the company’s biggest markets.
However, the government isn’t content to just purchase aircraft. The plan also pours trillions of dollars into creating an aerospace industry from the ground up to build home-grown rivals to Boeing ... and Airbus ... and Gulf Stream ... and Cessna.
James Fallows, a journalist for more than three decades and a licensed pilot, has written a new book, “China Airborne” that chronicles the country’s aviation activities. If China is ever going to stop being shameless copy cats and the day laborers for the world’s best-known brand names, Fallows thinks the aviation industry is the one-way ticket out.
“China’s aerospace future is a test case for its economic and technological development as a whole,” he writes. If China can take part in the international business of manufacturing and selling planes and jets, it will signify a real level of maturity for its economy.
It’s important to remember what the Chinese government hasn’t forgotten as it throws everything it’s got into its next big idea. Boeing is the largest net exporter of all American companies. And the U.S. aerospace sector is overall the leading export sector for our country.
While China’s strange hybrid of capitalism hopes to compete in this market, Fallows also points out the stifling contradictions of its repressive DNA.
There’s no Chinese FAA. Rather the military controls the country’s airspace and flights out its showcase international airports in Shanghai and Beijing are often delayed for hours for purely military reasons. Going from Point A to Point B in China usually means there’s a Point C or Point D for commercial flights since only military aircraft have access to narrow corridors. Finally, for security reasons, commercial flights are kept at altitudes of as little as 10,000 feet, the equivalent of driving down the interstate stuck in first gear.
"The reason this matters is it's a little distillaton of the struggle for China in general," Fallows writes. "Almost everything about China's next step up the economic and cultural and technological ladder requires relaxaton of some government control, some military control. Question is how that balance will be struck."