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Authors: James Fallows

China Airborne

BOOK: China Airborne
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Copyright © 2012 by James Fallows

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fallows, James M.
China airborne / James Fallows.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-90740-0
1. Aeronautics—China  2. Aeronautics, Commercial—China.  3. Aerospace industries—China.  4. China—Economic conditions—2000–  I. Title.
TL527.C5F35      2012     387.70951—dc23     2011046805

Jacket image from a painting by Yu Zhenli, May 1976. (altered detail).
Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund


For Lincoln Caplan and Eric Redman


This book is dedicated with gratitude to Lincoln Caplan and Eric Redman, friends and advisers through most of my life, who during the evolution of this book have once again been generous and perceptive sources of the right mixture of criticism, support, humor, and inspiration. I am fortunate to have them as friends and to know I can rely on them, as I have done very often over the years.

The Atlantic
has been my professional home since the late 1970s; through that time I have grown only more appreciative of its journalistic values and its internal culture. David Bradley and Justin Smith have made one of America’s oldest literary institutions into a viable modern business. James Bennet and Scott Stossel have guided it (and me) editorially, and were generous in letting me take time to work on this book during an already short-staffed period for the magazine. Before them I worked closely with a sequence of wonderful
editors: Robert Manning, William Whitworth, Michael Kelly, and Cullen Murphy. In recent years I have worked directly with Corby Kummer, Sue Parilla, Marge duMond, and Janice Cane on most of my articles for the magazine, including during my years in China, and with Bob Cohn and John Gould for items on the
’s web site. As with previous books, I really should list every name on the magazine’s masthead, but I will mention those I worked with most often during the time I was in China:
Nicole Allan, Marc Ambinder, Lindsey Bahr, Jennifer Barnett, Ashley Bolding, Ben Bradley, Lucy Byrd, Ben Carlson, Steve Clemons, Cotton Codinha, Abby Cutler, Stacey Pavesi-Debre, Betsy Ebersole, Geoffrey Gagnon, James Gibney, Jeffrey Goldberg, Chris Good, Bruce Gottlieb, John Gould, Joshua Green, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, Alisha Hathawa, Carl Holscher, Shana Keefe, Elizabeth Keffer, Aaron Kenner, Jay Lauf, Clair Lorell, Alexis Madrigal, Megan McGuinn, Justin Miller, Chris Orr, Don Peck, Lyndsay Polloway, Michael Proffitt, Natalie Raabe, Yvonne Rolzhausen, Emmy Scandling, Suzanne Smalley, Ellie Smith, Maria Streshinksy, John Fox Sullivan, Derek Thompson, Jason Treat, and Robert Vare.

Since its founding in 2008, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney has been an additional, welcome professional home. I thank Geoffrey Garrett for building and leading the Centre and making me a part of it; his colleagues Sean Gallagher, Nina Fudala, Craig Purcell, Will Turner, Amber D’Souza, and others; and Joe Skrzynski for his hospitality in Sydney. My other long-term unofficial journalistic home has been National Public Radio, and in particular I thank Guy Raz, Phil Harrell, Matthew Martinez, Rick Holter, Daniel Shukhin, and others with whom I have enjoyed working on the
Weekend All Things Considered

Wendy Weil, my literary agent for more than thirty years, represented me with skill, toughness, understanding, and tact on this project as she has on seven previous ones. At Pantheon, my publisher for most of the past twenty years, I am grateful for the insight and guidance of my editor, Dan Frank, who originally had the idea for this book and saw it through several stages of evolution, and for the patience, flexibility, and help of Jill Verrillo, Altie Karper, and Josie Kals.

I have been fascinated by and involved with Cirrus aircraft
since the late 1990s, when I first wrote about the start-up Cirrus Design company for
The New York Times Magazine
. Soon thereafter I bought a Cirrus SR20 and flew it frequently around America and Canada, before selling it when I moved to China in 2006. This book describes the important roles played in China by first Peter Claeys and then Paul Fiduccia of Cirrus. I am grateful to both of them for their time and trust. Also I thank Ian Bentley, Gary Black, Scott Jiang, and Gary Poelma, now of Cirrus. Plus, in other roles in aviation, Alan Klapmeier, Kate Dougherty, Bruce Holmes, and Lane Wallace; and Michael Klein, Boni Caldeira, and Steve Musgrove of Open Air, with whose guidance I have bought and happily flown a used Cirrus SR22. For this book I should also acknowledge my original flight instructors, Ken Michaelson and Chris Baker. Everyone who follows aviation has learned from the insights of Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group. I am grateful for all the time he spent helping me clarify the arguments in this book.

In and around China, for friendship, advice, and help of different sorts between 2006 and 2012, I would like to thank: Andy Andreasen, Fr. Ron Anton, Phil Baker, Andrew Batson, Bing and Daniel Bell, Dominic Barton, Richard Burger, Liam Casey, Liz Rawlings and Steve Chalupsky, Francis Chao, Dovar Chen, Patrick Chovanec, Ella Chou, Chen Xin, Duncan Clark, Melanie and Eliot Cutler, Simon Elegant, Pamela Leonard and John Flower, Rebecca Frankel and Mike, Julio Friedmann, Gao Yuanyang, Jeremy Goldkorn, Jim Gradoville, Paola Sada and Jorge Guajardo, York-chi and Stephen Harder, Guo Liang, Hu Shuli, Andrew Houghton, Andrew Hutson, Ann and Ken Jarrett, Jeremiah Jenne, Isaac Kardon, Kent Kedl, Elizabeth Knup, Kaiser Kuo, Showkee Lee and her family, Kai-fu Lee, Yumin Liang, Mei Fong and Andrew Lih, Rebecca and Kenny Lin,
Jeanee and Brian Linden, Barbara and Robert Liotta, River Lu, Damien Ma, Jim McGregor, Kirk McDonald, Adam Minter, Russell Leigh Moses, John Northen, Evan Osnos, Herve Pauze and Lisa Robins, Minxin Pei, Michael Pettis, Fr. Roberto Ribeiro, Sidney Rittenberg, Robin Bordie and Andy Rothman, Bob Schapiro, Rita O’Connor and Ted Schell, Baifang and Orville Schell, Shi Hongshen, Sam Popkin and Susan Shirk, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Andrew Moravcsik, Sherry Smith and Marcus Corley, Nina Ni and Sun Tze, Andy Switky, Shane Tedjarati, Joe Tymczyszyn, Michele Travierso, Ping Wang, Sean Wang, Louis Woo, Candice and Jarrett Wrisley, Jenny and Bill Wright, Kevin Wu, Michael Zakkour, and Dan Guttman and ZeeZee Zhong.

During a ten-week period early in 2010, I turned my part of the
’s Web site over to teams of guest bloggers while I was finishing a draft of this book. For their excellent work I am grateful to them all. For the record, the full list, including a number of people already mentioned, is: David Allen, Phil Baker, Mark Bernstein, Eric Bonabeau, Keith Blount, Don Brown, Liam Casey, Ella Chou, Parker Donham, Kate Dougherty, Xujun Eberlein, Lizzy Bennett Fallows, Deborah Fallows, Eamonn Fingleton, Julian Fisher, Julio Friedmann, Piero Garau, Brian Glucroft, Edward Goldstick, Sriram Gollapalli, Paola and Jorge Guajardo, Glenna Hall, Shelley Hayduk, Bruce Holmes, Jeremiah Jenne, Alan Klapmeier, Christina Larson, Damien Ma, Adam Minter, Grace Peng, Lucia Pierce, Guy Raz, Sam Roggeveen, David Ryan, Sanjay Saigal, Kate Sedgwick, Chuck Spinney, Andrew Sprung, John Tierney, Kentaro Toyama, Michele Travierso, and Lane Wallace.

As for technology: This book was written using Literature & Latte’s wonderful Scrivener writing software. I relied on the different and complementary strengths of the programs DEVON-think
Pro, Zoot, PersonalBrain, and TinderBox for storing, organizing, and retrieving research data.

Our extended family—our son Tom and his wife, Lizzy, our son Tad and his, wife, Annie, and their new son, Jack—was of course a source of joy and support to my wife and me during the years in which I reported and then wrote this book. My wife, Deborah Fallows, is the key to everything I have done.

Washington, D.C.

January 2012

The flight to Zhuhai

In the fall of 2006, not long after I arrived in China, I was the copilot on a small-airplane journey from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province near the center of the country, to Zhuhai, a tropical settlement on the far southern coast just west of Hong Kong.

The plane was a sleek-looking, four-seat, propeller-driven model called the Cirrus SR22, manufactured by a then wildly successful start-up company in Duluth, Minnesota, called Cirrus Design. Through the previous five years, the SR22 had been a worldwide commercial and technological phenomenon, displacing familiar names like Cessna and Piper to become the best-selling small airplane of its type anywhere. Part of its appeal was its built-in “ballistic parachute,” a unique safety device capable of lowering the entire airplane safely to the ground in case of disaster. The first successful “save” by this system in a Cirrus occurred in the fall of 2002, when a pilot took off from a small airport near Dallas in a Cirrus that had just been in for maintenance. A few minutes after takeoff, an aileron flopped loosely from one of the wings; investigators later determined that it had not been correctly reattached after maintenance. This made the plane impossible to control and in other circumstances would probably have led to a fatal crash. Instead
the pilot pulled the handle to deploy the parachute, came down near a golf-course fairway, and walked away unharmed. The plane itself was repaired and later flown around the country by Cirrus as a promotional device for its safety systems.

On the tarmac in Changsha, on a Sunday evening as darkness fell, I sat in the Cirrus’s right-hand front seat, traditionally the place for the copilot—or the flight instructor, during training flights. In the left-hand seat, usually the place for the pilot-in-command, sat Peter Claeys, a Belgian citizen and linguistic whiz whose job, from his sales base in Shanghai, was to persuade newly flush Chinese business tycoons that they should spend half a million U.S. dollars or more to buy a Cirrus plane of their own—even though there was as yet virtually no place in China where they would be allowed to fly it. I was there as a friend of Claeys’s and because I was practically the only other person within a thousand miles who had experience as a pilot of the Cirrus. In one of the backseats was Walter Wang, a Chinese business journalist who, even more than Claeys and me, was happily innocent of the risks we were about to take.

We were headed to Zhuhai because every two years, in November, the vast military-scale runway and ramp areas of Zhuhai’s Sanzao Airport become crammed with aircraft large and small that have flown in from around the world for the Zhuhai International Air Show, an Asian equivalent of the Paris Air Show. Zhuhai’s main runway, commissioned by grand-thinking local officials without the blessing of the central government in Beijing, is more than 13,000 feet long—longer than any at Heathrow or LAX. The rest of the facilities are on a similar scale, and during most of the year sit practically vacant. As long-term punishment by the Beijing authorities for the local government’s ambitious overreach, the airport has been (as a local manager told me ruefully on a visit in 2011) “kept out of the aviation
economy” that has brought booms to the surrounding airports in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

BOOK: China Airborne
7.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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