China Real Time blog interviews James Fallows about his new book China Airborne and about the aviation industry in China:
You highlight the dramatic improvement of China’s airlines as one area of particular success. Are there specific lessons of the airline experience that could be applied elsewhere?
I argue that the experience of China’s very fast-growing airlines is a microcosm of China’s high-end commercial aspirations generally. They’re state-owned enterprises becoming increasingly exposed to commercial competition; they have been shrewd and surprisingly non-defensive in opening themselves to outside improvement and international standard-setting; and they’re buoyed by the overall continued growth of the economy. But they also have to pay their way, in what is worldwide a difficult industry. So they show ways in which “Chinese characteristics” are unusual, and also how they fit global patterns.
As I think is evident in my book, I am impressed by and respectful of the international figures — largely but not exclusively American — who have decided to devote major portions of their working lives to improving the safety, reliability, and efficiency of the Chinese air-travel system. When I asked them about the lessons they would draw, their conclusions were never startling but seemed worth underscoring. They said that they were able to make more of these “governance” breakthroughs because they never presented it in a belittling or publicly embarrassing fashion for their Chinese counterparts; because they quite evidently enjoyed China and their Chinese counterparts; and — an interesting specific point — because they were always careful to say that they were conveying ‘international’ rather than strictly ‘American’ practices and techniques.
No doubt it helped that, unlike some other arenas of foreign-Chinese interaction, this was no sort of zero-sum situation. That is, when foreigners were helping the Chinese make their air operations safer, neither side
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