Review: China Airborne by James Fallows

china airborne

With a recent glut of books from political commentators attempting to explore the modern Chinese economy, China Airborne by James Fallows stands out for its unique industry-specific focus. James Fallows, a clear aviation buff and a correspondent for the Atlantic who lived in China from 2006 to 2009, weaves together historical research, interviews, personal anecdotes and economic analysis to provide a snapshot of Chinese aviation that will undoubtedly shock those who have not recently flown into China.

The book is full to the brim with surprising anecdotes about the history of aviation in China, from the role of Chinese engineer Wong Tsu in designing Boeing’s innovative Model C Seaplane, the first Boeing plane to be purchased by the U.S. military, to the importance of Boeing 707s in the early stages of U.S.-China economic relations. Fallows powerfully illustrates the dramatic changes in the Chinese aviation industry in the past three decades, starting from a time in which Chinese citizens would need official government approval before purchasing an airline ticket.  In contrast, presently, Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern are ranked first, third, and fourth worldwide in airline market capitalization, and Beijing Capital, Hong Kong and Shanghai Pudong are all quickly rising to the top of the rankings in annual passenger and cargo traffic. In particular, China Airborne details the careful negotiations between Western companies and the Chinese bureaucracy that have succeeded in slowly liberalizing the People’s Liberation Army-issued labyrinth regulation on airspace usage.

Yet rather than a history of the Chinese aviation, China Airborne is actually an effort by Fallows to make sense of China’s current economic challenges through the lens of this particular industry. Emphasizing the massive increase in funding for aerospace research and air travel infrastructure in China’s Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011 to 2016), Fallows argues that China’s efforts to develop domestic air travel and aerospace production represent a true test case of China’s development. He contends that, since aviation uniquely requires both “hard skills,” such as those required in manufacturing and infrastructure construction, and “soft skills,” such as smooth coordination between civil, military, and commercial organization, “if China can succeed fully in aerospace, then in principle there is very little it cannot do.”

Fallows does an admirable job of distilling the current discordant state of the Chinese economy into engaging prose. His description of China’s addiction to infrastructure investment seems particularly prescient given the recent economic reports coming from Beijing. Moreover, the book’s discussion of China’s challenges in transforming from a producer of low-end parts to a true manufacturing power is surprisingly nuanced, with apt comparisons to economic evolutions in other nations. He offers a set of fascinating comparisons to American economic history, noting the United States’ own reputation in the 19th century as a copycat of European technology and innovation and the United States’ own struggles with outsized trade surpluses in the 1920s.

Yet, such historical explorations and international comparisons repeatedly make China Airborne’s exclusive focus on aviation seem unfortunately narrow. In particular, Fallows fails to explore the complex relationship between aviation and high-speed rail in China. Will innovations in one transportation method undermine progress and investment in the other? Do China’s leaders consider air and train travel competitive or complementary for domestic travel? Will travel in China become increasingly bifurcated by economic class? The book seems bound to inspire such questions in many readers, but does not fully discuss any of them. More fundamentally, Fallows fails to explain why he believes aviation rather than high-speed rail offers a better lens into the modern Chinese economy, though both have been the subject of major Chinese investment.

While aviation undoubtedly provides a fascinating prospective from which to investigate modern China, Fallows’ oversized focus on private jets and corporate travel significantly weakens his argument. Much of the book is spent discussing the purchase of Cirrus, an innovative Minnesota-based producer of light private aircraft by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, a Chinese state-owned enterprise. While the purchase clearly sent shockwaves across the private aircraft industry, its relevance to commercial aviation seems small. Similarly, Fallows chronicles the obstacles faced by Western private aircraft salesmen in China in entertaining fashion, but without seriously investigating how the sales must look to the average Chinese citizens. The real question, which Fallows fails to grasp, is not whether China can build planes to compete with Cessna, but whether the average citizen will see those planes as a point of national pride or more evidence of a culture of inequality and corruption. Quite simply, to talk of aviation as a test case of economic development in a country where over 100 million people still live under $1 a day, without even a cursory consideration of general Chinese public perceptions of aviation investment, is unsatisfactory.

While Fallows’ thesis is an overreach and his consideration of the Chinese aviation industry is strangely skewed toward private aviation, the book is still highly engaging and offers a fascinating accompaniment to the developing literature on the history of the Jet Age. Overall, despite a chronic lack of support for its central argument, China Airborne is a fun read, with a mix of anecdotes and substance that seems perfect for thought-provoking in-flight reading.