James Fallows: "China Airborne"

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last year, China announced its 12th Five-Year Plan. It included the commitment to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars to jumpstart its aerospace industry. But the Chinese are determined to be more than customers. Its goal is to produce the Boeings and Airbuses of the future.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:24
James Fallows is author of the new book titled "China Airborne: The Dream of Aviation in Emerging China." He joins me to look at the next stage of China's modernization, its problems and potentials. He talks about what China's development could be. We'll take your calls throughout the hour 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to see you Jim.

MR. JAMES FALLOWS

11:08:05
Thank you very much, Diane, great to be here.

REHM

11:08:07
Jim, you start the book by describing really a hair-raising flight across China. I know you love to fly, but tell us about that trip.

FALLOWS

11:08:21
Yes, and you also know that I survived the flight. That was not obvious at every point along the way. This was just about six years ago when my wife Deb and I first arrived in China for what ended up being a multi-year stay. I thought at that point that one of the ways I would try to explore the extremities of China would be to take advantage of my interest in flying and go out to the provinces. For reasons we'll get to that was not to be.

FALLOWS

11:08:45
But I was on a fairy flight to Changsha which is the capital of Hunan Province down to Zhuhai which is in the south near Hong Kong and Macau. And we were carrying, I was with Peter Kleiss (sp?) , a Belgian friend of mine flying a little plane and everything that can be a token, a country that's not quite ready to become a major aerospace power happened to us along the way but we made it.

REHM

11:09:12
Give me an example.

FALLOWS

11:09:13
I'll give you three brief examples. One is airplanes, as a rule normally requires gas to go and there's a different kind of gas that's used for propeller planes, piston planes, like the one we were flying and jets. And the Chinese infrastructure for all these things is not very well developed so we were waiting a couple of days on the tarmac in this airport in Changsha which as a separate note was basically run by some Chinese plutocrat who lived in a version of the Palace of Versailles.

FALLOWS

11:09:44
It's a long story, but finally we got some inventive person to siphon some gas out of a decommissioned Russian trainer...

REHM

11:09:52
Ah-ha.

FALLOWS

11:09:52
...into a barrel and then siphon it from the barrel into the gas tanks of the plane. So that was point one.

REHM

11:09:58
Wow.

FALLOWS

11:09:58
Point two was air traffic controllers the world round are supposed to speak in English but this is not always the case in interior China where they have no English-speaking pilots coming through.

REHM

11:10:08
Do you speak Chinese?

FALLOWS

11:10:09
I can, I can get. I can make my way through the day in Chinese, but Peter Kleiss who was with me is quite a fluent Chinese speaker. But he was thinking that we should rely in English for procedural regularity. We were trying to get clearance from a controller not to fly into the mountains of Hunan and so we were finally about just to, you know, just start climbing ourselves when a Japan Airlines pilot helpfully intervened and he got the controller's attention.

FALLOWS

11:10:37
I think it was not because he was speaking a different version of English or Chinese from us but the controller was used to dealing with airliners and not with individual pilots. And then, not to run this on indefinitely, we were about to land at Zhuhai which is a gigantic airport in the middle of nowhere except for rocky peaks all around it. The landing beam we were following, something went wrong and so it was. We survived but it was an enlightening tale.

REHM

11:11:02
Extraordinary that you did survive, but to what extent is that indicative of what is happening?

FALLOWS

11:11:11
Well I think it is indicative and thank you for asking about indicative because the story I'm trying to tell is how we should think about China's potential overall. Is it going to be something different from what we see now which is this great roiling, fast-moving but sort of low-wage and low-sophistication economy? Is it going to just be more of that or is it going to be sort of a fully-sophisticated, modern German-type or Japanese-type or U.S.-type economy? And this is one of the industries I think is the proxy.

FALLOWS

11:11:44
So the kinds of situations we came into were fully indicative of one thing, which is the very rudimentary state of a sort of private aviation, you know, business jet type market in China which they're trying to ramp up, but from a very low level. And it was also indicative in a sort of touching way of how fast they're trying.

FALLOWS

11:12:03
Now, these controllers in the interior are supposed to be trained in English and I'm sure they were chewed out for not being able to communicate with us but it's a, like everything in China it's a very, very rapid work in progress.

REHM

11:12:14
So for example then how is most long-distance travel undertaken in China now?

FALLOWS

11:12:26
Well, something that's significant about China in general is, if you look at any category of thing whether it's education or construction or anything else and you say are they doing this or are they doing that or are they doing the other? The answer is they're doing all of them. And so too with transportation so China has an enormous road-building program as we've actually talked about before. They have a high-speed rail program that's extremely ambitious and has had some real troubles in the last year because of some very highly publicized and infuriating to the China, public crashes. Lots of people have been killed.

FALLOWS

11:12:58
And most of the airports in existence or in construction anyplace in the world are being built in China right now. In the U.S., there's one or two airports being built. There are more than 100 new airports being built in China right now and all of the oomph in the aviation market is there so the idea is, the country is so big, the people are so numerous, the infrastructure is even now so sort of under built that they're creating more of all the stuff all the time so most of the aviation infrastructure that is happening anyplace is there.

REHM

11:13:26
Do they have enough people with sufficient education to move at the pace they'd like to move?

FALLOWS

11:13:37
That's a fascinating question too because they have sufficient numbers of anything but it's a matter of the kind of training and education and I'll give a general answer and then one, a specific one that I tell in the book. The general answer is you find Chinese universities which, you know, whose rapid, rapid expansion is publicized all around the world are high on volume, but so far very short on all the markers that we think of, of marking a great university establishment.

FALLOWS

11:14:06
For example, plagiarism is so rampant that it's not even considered wrong, it's just sort of how you do things. And a marker that is very, very wounding the Chinese officials is there have been lots of ethnic Chinese scientists who have won Nobel Prizes but never from a Chinese institution. They have to come to Berkeley, they go to Oxford or whatever and then they do their work.

FALLOWS

11:14:28
As it comes to the aerospace establishment, there's a fairly limited, but fast ramping, supply of pilots. Side note, they choose pilots as sort of like the gymnastics team. They screen people for eyesight and if they have good eyesight, they're shunted off to pilot school.

FALLOWS

11:14:44
This, you know, eyesight is really not that necessary, you know. You can wear glasses and it doesn't indicate whether you have other aptitude for this, but so they're ramping it up. But the surprising thing I found in this aspect of China's expansion is how intimately they're connected with the United States, i.e. Boeing, the FAA, United Airlines and others have been in effect the midwives of China's aerospace expansion.

FALLOWS

11:15:10
Training engineers, teaching them how to do pilot inspections, all these things which are crucial to have a Chinese airline remain safe in contrast to this Russian disaster we've heard about just in the last 24 hours.

REHM

11:15:21
Exactly. And that was really rather shocking because isn't it as many as 500 people killed in the last year in Russia because of airline crashes?

FALLOWS

11:15:38
Yes, and this is, to me, a really interesting difference between Russia and China because Russia has a very strong military aircraft tradition. Indeed China until, until it opened up to the West under Nixon and then Jimmy Carter mainly used either Russian Soviet planes or just sort of knockoff Soviet planes they built in their factory.

FALLOWS

11:15:58
And the Russian modern aerospace establishment has had a very, very difficult time making the transition to all, to all the thousands of things that have to go right to have a modern aerospace system, i.e. inspections of the planes, procedures for the pilots, ways to run the airspace and all that. And that is the cautionary example for the Chinese of whether they can put together this huge web of interlocking networks and requirements and top-line safety standards that it requires to have both airplanes that other people will buy and airlines that passengers will willingly go on and to their credit China's system has been very safe for the last decade.

REHM

11:16:40
So how many airline construction companies currently exist in China?

FALLOWS

11:16:50
There are, depending on how you answer it, either one gigantic one or a whole lot of its subsidiaries. The evolution of this bureaucracy within China is a significant marker for China's change in general over the last three decades. Until a decade or two ago there was one organization, the so-called CAAC that simultaneously built the airplanes, ran the airlines, sold the tickets, got the gas, built the airports, inspected the pilots and this had certain problems of checks and balances as you can imagine.

FALLOWS

11:17:23
For example, we have a NTSB, which is independent of the airlines, independent of the FAA and so we think that it's important for governance reasons to break these groups up. And when about 15 years ago, there were really -- really, there was a plague of airline crashes in China which was becoming a real problem. Essentially Chinese officials brought in first Boeing, then the FAA, then United and some other airlines to say, how can we reconfigure our setup?

FALLOWS

11:17:47
So it now is more separated in the way ours are and there is a corporation called ABEC which is the Chinese Aerospace Corporation which is one big entity but it has divisions trying to build a new Boeing-type plane and a Embraer-type regional plane. They just bought the Cirrus Company in Duluth, Minn. which is the leading maker of small planes in the U.S. now. So they have lots of sort of separate entities pushing toward this goal.

REHM

11:18:15
Jim Fallows, his new book is titled "China Airborne" and of course, you're welcome to join us, 800-433-8850, as we talk about China's modernization and the role of the airline industry, stay with us.

REHM

11:20:05
And welcome back. Many of you know Jim Fallows. He's national correspondent at the Atlantic magazine, also contributed to Slate, the New York Review of Books and he's a frequent contributor to commentaries on NPR. I'm pleased to have him on this morning to talk about his talk about his brand new book, "China Airborne." And he's not only talking about the aerospace industry, but indeed how China's industry in that regard is indicative of growth in other areas of the country.

REHM

11:20:55
Jim Fallows, the Chinese military controls nearly all the country's air space. How big a problem is that?

FALLOWS

11:21:05
It's an enormous factor indeed. You could say the main factor in...

REHM

11:21:09
Factor or problem?

FALLOWS

11:21:11
Both, both. And also in determining what's going to happen in this aspect of Chinese modernization and generally for Chinese modernization in this sense. And of your listeners who are pilots will know that if you have an aerospace chart for the United States, you'll most the places you can fly and there are few areas that are military reservations or security zones or whatever, and the rest you can go.

FALLOWS

11:21:33
A Chinese chart, if you could look at it, which as a foreigner you're not supposed to because it's illegal. But if you could, as I have, you'll see that almost all of it is blocked off as military airspace except for these little quarters from one city to another.

REHM

11:21:46
Wow.

FALLOWS

11:21:48
And the effect this has that many -- anybody who's traveled in China is aware of is the huge delays at the big airports at Shanghai or Beijing or the others. And the relatively slow travel time. And the reason is the indirect routing to these tiny quarters. It's -- you have to go to D.C. to Boston, you'd have to go through Cincinnati or something because that's how the military quarter would be.

FALLOWS

11:22:11
And military controllers sometimes say, well, no departures from Shanghai for the next hour or so. This is a fascinating arena for a struggle in the next couple of years framed by this 12, 5-year plan between two of the main interests in China. One is the business interest because they want to buy business jets, they want to go to their factories, they want to have all these luxuries, they want to have faster travel.

FALLOWS

11:22:35
On the other hand is the security state, that is the military. The military doesn't want to give up this airspace, doesn't want to have all these uncontrolled things happening over China's skies. And so, that is -- month by month we're going to see how the frontier in that battle moves. And that's a proxy for the larger struggle in China, between the business, modernizing interest and the security controlling interest. And it ripples through almost everything that China is doing now.

REHM

11:22:58
Not only do you see this division between the security interest and the other interest, but we've been hearing an awful lot about some of the Chinese, the wealthier, being able to buy these grand luxury cars, the separation between those with wealth and those at the bottom of the income scale. So, it makes me wonder how large a fleet the Chinese have right now in terms of quality airplanes.

FALLOWS

11:23:41
If we're talking about airliners, I think most people who've traveled to China are surprised by how, generally, how much nicer the airline experience is in China than in the United States.

REHM

11:23:50
Really?

FALLOWS

11:23:51
Yeah, there are several reasons. One is the whole TSA situation is much different. You keep your shoes on, sometimes you just go through a metal detector. That's a whole separate thing. You know, the Chinese control who gets into the country to start with.

FALLOWS

11:24:02
And the TSA has a lighter load. The airplanes are all new. They're overall much newer than American airplanes because they've been rampant, they've been buying so many new ones. They serve hot meals on all flights, or at least every one I've been on. And this is a delicate point, they're still unashamed to hire flight attendant crews on the basis of being young and attractive.

FALLOWS

11:24:21
So, this is the nature of the Chinese airline experience and it's been safe in the last while. So, the airlines have very, very modern equipment and they're expanding like crazy. You know, Boeing and Airbus both say this is where their hope lies for markets in the next while. The business aviation fleet is quite small now because there haven't been ways for people to use them. But the Gulfstreams, the Pipers, the Cessnas, the Cirruses. But there's a huge, huge portion in that regard for business people to be able to go across the country more.

REHM

11:24:54
What doesn't China have its own ambitions not only of importing these Boeings and the like, but creating them themselves?

FALLOWS

11:25:04
Yes, indeed. And this is consistent with my earlier point that everything is true simultaneously and all at once. So they're buying things like crazy and building things like crazy. And conceptually there are four main things they're trying to do, they sort of match Boeing or Airbus or NASA or the U.S. aerospace establishment. And as a side note, it's worth remembering, Boeing is usually the leading exporter from the U.S. as a company.

FALLOWS

11:25:27
Aerospace is usually the leading export sector for the U.S. So these are things that matter to us. There's a big airplane project for something called the C919, which is a -- it's not the biggest level Boeing or Airbus-type plane, but sort of -- it's a modest scale one. So far, that's mainly been a matter of incorporating parts from GE, from Honeywell, from Rockwell, from Rolls Royce. But it's meant as a trainer project.

FALLOWS

11:25:53
There's a regional jet that's supposed to be like these Embraers or others. There are helicopter projects like crazy. And then there's this small airplane project. The kind of plane I fly myself, the Cirrus SR22, that company was a dazzling illustration of American startup genius, and about a year ago was bought by the Chinese aerospace corporation. So they now run and make the planes and deliver.

REHM

11:26:16
Whoa. And then the question becomes how does this aerospace industry, in theory, represent what's going on the rest of the country?

FALLOWS

11:26:30
And thank you for asking, because this is the main point I'm trying to push in the second half of the book. Almost everything China has succeeded in so brilliantly so far has been in the realm of low-wage manufacturing. You know, all these huge factories we see.

REHM

11:26:47
With gadgets.

FALLOWS

11:26:48
Yes. And, you know, this watch I'm hauling with me in China...

REHM

11:26:51
Yeah.

FALLOWS

11:26:51
My iPhone was made in China, but they're all assembled there and the value is from Apple or it's from Sony or whatever. So it's been that. It's been in construction, all these gigantic cities of tens of millions of people and infrastructure -- airports, roads, ports, et cetera. And those things have made it possible for a peasant group to become an urban working class group. But so far, China has been remarkably unsuccessful in having its own Apple, its own Google, its own Sony, its own Siemens.

FALLOWS

11:27:21
These high value international brands. And this aerospace push is one of several simultaneous things to say if we can really become a rich, modern economy, we'll be in a whole different plane. We'll escape what they call the low-wage trap, the being sort of in this Dickensian factory niche for the long run with some millionaires and billionaires. And just to say one other thing, the high value corporations, industries are really complex.

FALLOWS

11:27:48
That one person I quote says, it'll be much easier for China to send a man to the moon than to have a successful aircraft industry, because a man to the moon is like a flying version of the three gorgeous dam. It's a giant project. But having a Boeing-type industry, there are thousands of things that have to come together consistently, the quality has to be the same. And so, it's a harder thing to do. That's what they're trying to.

REHM

11:28:11
Who is making the money and who is being left behind?

FALLOWS

11:28:18
In China in general, a source -- one answer is that almost everybody is making more money than they were a generation ago. And that is the source of stability for the Chinese Communist Party. And if that becomes not true, they're in trouble. So, so far, almost everybody would say: Are you're better off than your parents were? Yes, they are. Then there's a narrow group of people who are making phenomenal amounts of money.

FALLOWS

11:28:42
All the billionaires who will soon outnumber U.S. billionaires. A problem there is that on to generalize their money is seen is being somehow illegitimate. It depends on crony connections, on having state-owned enterprises go private, things like that. There's a level below that of people who have what we think of as more sort of legitimate entrepreneurial million scale fortune as opposed to billion scale fortune.

FALLOWS

11:29:07
They have their own companies in the tech world or whatever, in real estate, in car building. And then there's a nascent professional class, the people who are engineers and accountants and all that. And there there's a kind of tension too, a supply-demand imbalance, more white collar graduates of universities than those jobs right now. So that's a little bit of a squeeze.

REHM

11:29:27
So, what is it that currently prevents the Chinese from creating a Facebook or an Apple itself?

FALLOWS

11:29:41
It's -- this is a question I try to go at directly. And here's an illustration. If any of your listeners who's been in China knows that the Internet is incredibly slow in China. That's not for any technical reason, it's because it's for political reason that there are all these filters and control. So, overall, pages can take seconds and seconds and seconds to load. And minute by minute, it's not an issue.

FALLOWS

11:30:05
But if you are running a high-end research establishment, if you want to attract the very brightest people in the world to come with you, it's one of a number of handicaps. So, I would say that the most effective and fast-growing industries in the U.S. depend on attracting the smartest people from around the world to work there. That's harder for the Chinese now with political control, with terrible pollution, with uneven technical structure. You don't get the people who want to make their fortunes from India, from Chile, from Russia, even to work in China.

REHM

11:30:37
James Fallows. His new book is titled, "China Airborne." Do join us, 800-433-8850. We got lots of callers, Jim. I'm going to go to the phones. First to Raleigh, NC. Good morning Jeanette, you're on the air.

JEANETTE

11:31:01
Good morning, Diane. It's nice to talk with you.

REHM

11:31:03
Good.

JEANETTE

11:31:04
I really enjoy your show.

REHM

11:31:05
Thank you.

JEANETTE

11:31:06
I just want to make a comment. My son has been in China since 2007. He made a career for himself as a DJ/MC. He's in Guangzhou. And they fly him from one end of that country to the other frequently for his shows because the kids have both the income but they, you know, they're using Americans in the clubs for music, so he's go, go, go, go. And he's not had any trouble with the airline part of it.

JEANETTE

11:31:37
You know, they get him to his connections and they get him safely to where he wants to go. There are some problems, I think, with train system when he -- that scares me. Well, when he's on buses, you know, he's traveling on these winding hills, like, even on the borders of Tibet to do some of these shows. And I am -- I will give kudos to the Chinese that they are working very hard in making travel safe in China.

JEANETTE

11:32:04
They've done a lot, as your speaker said earlier, they've conferred with experts from the United States and speaks volumes for what they're trying to do. There are still some issues. I know Hong Kong's disasters as far as flying in on (word?) and trying to get out of that airport. They've got some things they need to work on still. But I will say this, they're doing a really good job.

REHM

11:32:28
Jeanette, thanks for your call. Jim?

FALLOWS

11:32:30
Yes, and thanks and congratulations to your son for making this career in Guangzhou and around the rest of China. And also especially seeing all the corners of China because it's so varied region by region, city by city, more than the U.S., I would say, or at least as much as the U.S. It is true that -- I think as you move to the modes of travel from air to rail to bus to car in China, it gets more and more dangerous as you go down that pyramid.

FALLOWS

11:32:54
And driving in China is quite frightening. It's -- and statistically very dangerous because it's a nation of first-generation drivers. People didn't grow up knowing how cars worked or how you're supposed to comport yourself for defensive driving. So it's more like offensive driving as a national sport.

REHM

11:33:12
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now to Birmingham, Ala. Basham (sp?) , you're on the air.

BASHAM

11:33:22
Hi, Diane. Hi, Jim. How are you guys doing?

REHM

11:33:24
Good, thanks.

FALLOWS

11:33:24
Greetings.

BASHAM

11:33:25
I am a pilot, flew both corporately and commercially. I spent about a year over in Hong Kong, flying over mainland China for wealthy industrialists. And one of the things I find, the accident rates over in Asia is they use a lot of expat labor. They had a -- there's a supply, a shortage of pilots just in general. And one of the things I found over in Asia was that they started using more and more expats to come in and fly.

BASHAM

11:34:00
And that had a precipitous effect on the number of accidents that they had. And, you know, that's really one of the things that I saw and that I still see. And they are still actively recruiting more and more and more expats.

REHM

11:34:17
Interesting.

FALLOWS

11:34:18
And are -- you mean the accident rate got better or got worse when the foreigners are coming in?

BASHAM

11:34:22
Oh, it got much, much better. I mean, if you look at Korean airlines, you know, before they -- when they decided that they were going to stop using expats, they had massive accidents.

FALLOWS

11:34:30
Right.

BASHAM

11:34:31
Then they brought the expats in and then the accident rates went down. And, you know, this is true all across China because the fact of the matter is that, as an industry altogether, we're not producing enough pilots. And at least in America, we have a homegrown supply where, you know, we have people that are flight instructing and they got all the commuters and so on and so forth. That apparatus doesn't exist anywhere really in the world but here. And it certainly doesn't exist in a place like China where they've just had this exponential growth in aviation.

REHM

11:35:02
That is certainly true. And during my time in China, I actually got a couple of recruitment notes, did I want to be a freight pilot in China.

FALLOWS

11:35:09
So, I thought, you know, if this journalism thing really goes bad, there's always a different angle to take. And I think that there is something that really struck me about this. China's in particular evolution of its aerospace industry is it's been shrewdly willing to incorporate foreign people and foreign standards and foreign practices to its own benefit. You know, there are lots of parts of the world -- there are lots of areas of China's operation where it's kind of foolishly nationalistic.

FALLOWS

11:35:39
This is not one of them. I think it had been quite shrewdly international in trying to say, okay, the rest of the world is safer, how can we match these standards?

REHM

11:35:46
Thanks for calling, Basham. And now to Claudette in Miami, FL. Good morning, you're on the air.

CLAUDETTE

11:35:53
Good morning. I just wanted to comment. I lived both in Hong Kong and Beijing. The better airports, the one in Hong Kong and in Beijing International Airport are super modern. I also want to comment that immigration came and knocked on my door to advice me to have my visa that expired. They wanted me to find my paperwork in order as it was, you know, we'd have to leave.

CLAUDETTE

11:36:19
We had some professional Chinese in our building and I wanted to mention how they had Ferraris and they're drivers. And not all Chinese people can live with foreigners. They are separated. And I want to comment also, the Internet is super expensive there.

REHM

11:36:37
Interesting.

FALLOWS

11:36:38
Yes, a wide range of true observations, from my point of view.

REHM

11:36:42
Yeah.

FALLOWS

11:36:44
Of course, the immigration situation for any foreigner is omnipresent as a factor. My wife and I were always worried. Would we be able to get our visas renewed, et cetera? So, that's always an issue. And the airports are the most modern in the world overall because they're being built so quickly. And so people who are in the business of engineering, environmental abatement for airport construction, radar, that's the market where these hundred new airports being built in China.

FALLOWS

11:37:12
You know, they don't have enough to start with, but that's where they're all being put in.

REHM

11:37:15
And somebody is certainly buying the Ferraris and others.

FALLOWS

11:37:19
Yes, indeed.

REHM

11:37:20
James Fallows. His new book, "China Airborne," certainly one that gives us an insight as to what's happening in that fascinating. Short break. When we come back, more of you calls, your email. Stay with us.

REHM

11:40:04
And for Jim Fallows who's just written a new book titled, "China Airborne" talking not only about the aerospace industry in China, but the extraordinary growth of that country in so many different areas. Here's an email -- no, it's a question from our website which says, "The majority of the western world does not buy Russian built aircraft, certainly not in the U.S. and not countries like the UK or France. How large do you see the export market being for the C919 and other Chinese built aircraft? Do you think they will penetrate western markets? What do you think the largest export market might be?"

FALLOWS

11:41:03
That's a fascinating question. There's a short-term and a long-term answer. The short-term answer is I think even the most ambitious Chinese industrial viziers don't imagine the C919, their new airliner, to be a head-to-head competitor for Boeing or Airbus in the world market. But there are a whole lot of planes that are going to be bought in China itself. So it can be selling to China's own airlines where it will have an edge or to Lao Airlines or Burma State Airlines or Sudan Airlines -- these places where China has a relationship in other ways. So I think that's the short-term answer.

FALLOWS

11:41:37
In the longer term, I think the Chinese realize that there's certain industries and achievements where if you can succeed there it suggests -- it suggests a certain kind of real maturity. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, when Chinese made and designed pharmaceuticals that are accepted worldwide that would be an indication. Universities which take decades of sort of reputation building to think that American universities or British universities matter.

FALLOWS

11:42:04
Airlines and aircraft are in the same category. It will take a long time for people who have a choice, say, yes, I can choose Boeing or Airbus, but there's this new commercial aircraft corporation of China playing. I think I'll give it a try. You know, there has -- that will require something really formidable in the safety record over a long period of years.

REHM

11:42:24
Jim, you and your wife are going back to China for a few weeks visit. You lived there for a little less than four years. You said you were sick a lot.

FALLOWS

11:42:40
Yes, and I'm sure this has nothing to do with the passing of the years in my own case, but it is true that because of the air pollution mainly in the big cities. We were in Shanghai for the first of our time there, Beijing for the second half. The air in Beijing in particular is generally really bad. And it's really bad in China, as a whole. And there was a report from China's own ministry of health a couple of months ago saying that the life expectancy for people in Beijing was about five years shorter just because of air pollution than it would be in other cases.

REHM

11:43:12
So how might the aviation industry affect that?

FALLOWS

11:43:16
Well it's -- there's a bizarre factor. I talked to a guy who maintains engines. G.E. made engines for Chinese airlines and he said they wore out much faster just flying through Chinese sky because of all the particulates and the acid there. I think for Chinese aviation everybody knows that aerospace emissions have a disproportionate environmental and climate change affect. And the people in China know this, too. And if they're planning to double the volume of air flight in the next while they are committed to find ways to offset that.

FALLOWS

11:43:48
So I describe ways to have more efficient engines. They're working on more efficient routing and especially big bio fuels project. There's a joint Boeing and Chinese government project to have algae-based fuel out of Qing Dao -- Qing Dao University. So that's part of what they're trying to do to make it a zero net emissions within a couple of decades.

REHM

11:44:10
What kind of health problems did you run into?

FALLOWS

11:44:14
There were chronic -- so in our own family's case there was a chronic problem that most people in -- most expats have which is sort of chronic throat problems, lung problems, you feel as if you always have a cold and just kind of have malaise. We had a device we called the iron lung in our apartment in Beijing which was this particulate air purifier which we bought.

FALLOWS

11:44:37
Then there were episodic times of being really sick. Like one time in Shanghai I had to go to the hospital because I had drunk in a restaurant what I thought was bottled water. It came out of a bottle, but later I saw somebody filling those bottles from a tap out on the street. So I got really sick then. But it was more the chronic malaise, mainly pulmonary, that was getting us down.

REHM

11:44:56
And so when you go back for a visit where will you stay and how will that be different?

FALLOWS

11:45:03
I think mainly different in duration of exposure.

REHM

11:45:06
Sure.

FALLOWS

11:45:07
I talked to a public health expert near the end of my time there who was saying that for periods of less than five years you basically you rebound after exposure. But more than five years continuous exposure there's a reason you become, sort of, actuarially Chinese in terms of your public health problems so -- but for shorter visits, you know, it's a great, exciting place. I love being there and if you get a little bit sick, you know, life is tough.

REHM

11:45:31
Let's go to Cleveland, Ohio good morning, Frank.

FRANK

11:45:35
Good morning. Can you hear me?

REHM

11:45:37
Sure can.

FRANK

11:45:38
I thought I heard the guest mention the FAA helping China develop its aviation system. Now what would be the reason or justification for that? Is it to facilitate American companies like Boeing doing business or selling products in China?

FALLOWS

11:45:58
Basically, yes. And I'll give you, sort of, a high road short answer and then the somewhat longer real answer. The high road short answer is the FAA is devoted to improving safety around the world. Aviation -- aviation is a profoundly international industry. A plane takes off from China it lands in Seattle or Los Angeles or wherever. So it matters if it's safe. But, also, this was a project that I have a whole chapter about that was sort of midwif-ed by Boeing over the last 15 years where Boeing recognized that one of the main ceilings on its market in China was how unsafe the operations within China were being.

FALLOWS

11:46:36
If planes were crashing all the time, then it was not going to be a big market for aviation. So it helped become an intermediary between Chinese airline companies, the Chinese government and U.S. safety officials -- international safety officials -- say here is how you train pilots. Here is how you test them. Here is how you make sure navigation systems are fine. So it was better all around.

REHM

11:46:56
And here's a follow-up on that from John in Chicago, Ill. Good morning.

JOHN

11:47:03
Good morning. Mr. Fallows, I just -- sort of following up on the previous gentleman's question. I work in the manufacturing and engineering sector and, you know, Boeing is based in Chicago and I just wanted your opinion on it may be a bit strong way to put it, but don't you feel it's some form of -- you know, China's economic warfare on America is pretty tough to begin with and then for Boeing to commit, you know, economic treason, you know, against the United States.

JOHN

11:47:37
Every time we make it safer and more efficient to do business in China, you know, a company packs up and leaves. And I don't personally want China to become safer and more efficient. I want them to, you know, have to compete on a level playing field. And for them to give away our trade secrets and business practices it seems counterproductive to the health of the United States. It might help Boeing itself, but it sure doesn't help the United States in general.

REHM

11:48:09
Economic treason, pretty strong words.

FALLOWS

11:48:13
The -- I'll come in a second to the larger dimensions of U.S.-Chinese economic competition. I think that from Boeing's point of view there are no secrets it's been giving away in trying to be an intermediary for these safety improvements between -- between the Chinese and U.S. officials. I'll give you one illustration. I mentioned, I think, earlier that one big Chinese ministry used to do everything involving aviation. It built the airplanes, it ran the airlines.

FALLOWS

11:48:38
And a problem there is you had safety inspections for pilots might be run by their next door neighbor or their uncle or for somebody they were dependent on. You know, you didn't have the check pilot system, the check airman system that has been an important part of American safety standards. So the FAA and Boeing said here's the way you could ensure that there's a separation between the pilots and the inspectors. And you can have ways that there's not this kind of -- you know, it's done in an honest way. This is how it's done in all the rest of the world. That's why aviation is safer. So that's not a trade secret. It's a procedural improvement.

REHM

11:49:11
So are you saying that Boeing is not saying to the Chinese engineers this is how you construct a plane that will be like ours, that will be safer, that will be more efficient?

FALLOWS

11:49:27
Very much so I am saying that because it's in Boeing's interest to maintain its lead in international aviation technology for as long as possible. Boeing recognizes very well that airplane purchases from China are going to be political to a certain degree. So it's going to buy so many from Airbus, so many from Boeing and that will be balanced and so many of its own, too. But in terms of safely operating an aerospace system I think Boeing argues, and I would agree, that's better for American industry, better for the world, et cetera.

REHM

11:49:55
Thanks for your call, John. Another posting to the website which says "I think it needs to be emphasized that China's aviation growth is being supplemented by American pilots. Our airline Industry is decimating the pilot career and some of these pilots are going to the Far East to make money.

FALLOWS

11:50:24
I agree with that and it's an interesting illustration of what, to my mind, is one of the fundamental points about the U.S. and China. America has lots of problems ranging from decimation of pilot populations in the airlines to how we pay for our federal government and all the rest. You can see a connection between those problems and things going on in China. For example, a pilot laid off here might go to Guangzhou to get a job. But these problems, in my view, would exist whether or not China existed at all.

FALLOWS

11:50:51
You know, there are problems of how the American airlines are run with their pilots. And many pilots feel as if the place they can go for some opportunity is this hugely ramping up operation in China. So these two phenomena are happening at the same time, but America's problems, I think, are independent of China.

REHM

11:51:05
Interesting, to Falls Church, Va. good morning, Jack.

JACK

11:51:10
How are you?

REHM

11:51:11
Good thanks.

JACK

11:51:13
Just wanted to comment. I happen to have the luck or whatever to run the entirety of the United States cooperation agreement with -- cooperation agreements with China in the 1980s. And those included aviation, but also all other sectors of industry. And in the mid 1990s I was the minister counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. embassy responsible for the whole economic relationship. I think it's useful to think of China not as a singular word. It is not one nation. It is like four in terms of the cultures, in terms of the language, in terms of, really, the economic situations.

JACK

11:51:52
You have areas of China that -- where people don't have the $75 a year that it takes to pay to take a child to school and others where there are almost more Rolls-Royces than any other place on earth. So China is not one country. It's a bunch of them and that's one of the problems that the Chinese leadership is having to deal with.

REHM

11:52:12
How interesting.

FALLOWS

11:52:13
My reaction is first why did I find you a year ago when I was reporting. I agree entirely. Third, I'm just looking right now at the page six of my book where it is a chapter called, "The Many Countries of China." It goes on and on about how, you know, it's either -- it's, you know, 20 plus provinces. It's all these contending interests so, yes, I entirely agree.

REHM

11:52:32
Jack, how long were you there?

JACK

11:52:33
I have lived and worked in China over ten years. Met Deng Xiaoping twice and knew the entire leadership through the last two prime ministers.

REHM

11:52:39
How is your -- tell me how your health is these days.

JACK

11:52:43
Fantastic.

REHM

11:52:44
I'm glad to hear that. Thanks for calling.

JACK

11:52:47
Okay, one more quick...

REHM

11:52:48
Sure.

JACK

11:52:49
And that is that it's -- one thing that people don't realize is that the Mandarins and the Cantonese, the northerners and the southerners, so dislike each other. They're so different that they don't learn each other's languages. When they speak with each other, because they haven't learned the other language, they always have to speak in English.

REHM

11:53:07
Wow.

FALLOWS

11:53:07
There are really intense regional tensions. It's true that spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are not comprehensible. The written language, of course, they can comprehend each other that way. One time at a seminar in Beijing about U.S.-Chinese tensions things were getting very boring until one Chinese person said, yeah, I have problems with the U.S., but what I really hate is people from Shanghai.

REHM

11:53:25
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Speaking of language let's go to Tony in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, you're on the air.

TONY

11:53:37
Good day. I was wondering if, now, since English is the international language of flying does -- do you think that the 30,000 character plus written language of Chinese is a major problem? The Japanese much simplified their system and it would seem to me that the written language would be just -- just an incredible problem except in the case just mentioned between the two cultures.

FALLOWS

11:54:10
The effect of China's writing system is a whole 20-hour discussion itself. And I refer you to my wife's wonderful book, "Dreaming in Chinese," by Deborah Fallows, which goes into this. I would say that educated Chinese people now they're required to take an English language exam as part of the national university admissions exam. So some familiarity with English is built into the system. Anybody with ambitions to be a pilot has to learn aviation English, which is a very, sort of, stripped down Morse Code type version of English. But so I think that the problems of the Chinese language they exist, but in terms of aviation they recognize that English the medium in which they need to deal.

REHM

11:54:48
And finally to Jack -- sorry, Zach in Atlanta, Ga. you're on the air. Zach, are you there? No, I'm afraid...

ZACH

11:55:02
Yeah, I'm here.

REHM

11:55:03
Oh, sorry, Zach, I've lost you. Well, let me just complete this conversation by asking, Jim Fallows, where you see China 20 years from now in relation to the United States?

FALLOWS

11:55:23
What makes China fascinating is no one can answer that question confidently. You can imagine 20 years from now China being a bigger version of what it is now still the kind of this low end complementary relationship to the United States. You can imagine it shifting the balance between the business people and the security people so as to become as much more liberal 30 years from now compared to now as it is -- you know, the last 30 years have been hugely liberalizing.

FALLOWS

11:55:50
It's possible the next 30 years will have comparable liberalization. If so then it will be more competitive for the United States, but in a way it'll be easier to deal with because it'll be a more open society. So the fact that we don't know is what makes it fascinating.

REHM

11:56:04
And how will China deal not only with the U.S., but the rest of the world?

FALLOWS

11:56:10
I think that that is one of the -- one of the many problems its leadership is wrestling with now because until now they've been able to deal with the rest of the world in a sort of purely commercial relationship. Sell us your oil, buy our products. That's all we care about. As they get bigger they're not going to be able to get away with that as much. There's going to be pressure from everybody for a more balanced role with Iran, with North Korea, with Syria, with the environment, et cetera. So I think one of the many transitions the country's going through now is can it be more truly responsible in its international dealings. And that's going to be tricky, too.

REHM

11:56:43
James Fallows his new book is titled, "China Airborne" and thank you, Jim, for being here. It's really an interesting book.

FALLOWS

11:56:56
My pleasure, thank you very much, Diane.

REHM

11:56:57
Thank you and thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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