On May 5, 2017, at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, a new passenger airplane took off on its first flight. The Comac C919 that soared into the sky over eastern China that day wasn’t trying to set any records in size or speed or to demonstrate amazing new aviation technologies to the world. Rather, the slim white airliner with the lime green tail was built to send the world a simple message from the Chinese government: China can design and build a commercial aircraft. It won’t seriously challenge the Boeing-Airbus duopoly for now, but that’s not really the point.
It may sound like a bizarre move for a rapidly growing power like China, which in 2019 was the world’s second largest market for commercial air traffic. But the country sees plenty of upside in its attempt to break into an enormously complicated and fiercely competitive industry valued at almost $200 billion. More than just a vehicle to fly the Chinese flag, the C919 is both a first step and an insurance policy.
Even if it never flies outside of China, the plane is part of the country’s long-term goal to become a leader in technology and heavy manufacturing. Selling those goods to the world is one part of this effort, but moving beyond the production of cheap commodity products also would allow the country to become more self-sufficient in everything from telecom equipment to transportation. And by building its own aircraft industry — an area where the country remains dependent on Western suppliers — China will keep billions of dollars at home and have its own airliner free of tariffs.