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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

China Airborne by James Fallows

I am still getting ready for my upcoming trip to China so bear with me a bit.  The task of getting to know China seems daunting and I have a long ways to go to understand the nation that invented large seafaring ships and the technology to print in an economical way a thousand years before anyone else, and yet chose to remain isolated rather than capitalize on these monumental feats.  That China is gone. Today's China is struggling to become the behemoth that it's early advances seemed to promise.  They are playing catch up and they are a major player.

I have been reading James Fallows for the greater part of my adult life, and have always found him to be interesting as a journalist.  This book, an attempt to look at today's China through he microscope of their entry onto the world aviation stage is novel--I know nothing about aviation, so the divergence into areas that might seem uninteresting or repetitive to those more well versed than myself were fascinating to me.

Fallow attempts 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. Very interesting stuff.   I can't wait to see it in real life.

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