Hu Jintao, China's president and strong man from 2003 to 2013, wasn't exactly seen as someone with a penchant for experimentation. Yet in 2006 he decided to test the waters in the commercial aviation sector, committing scores of Chinese engineers to design and build the country’s first large-scale passenger aircraft by 2020.
On Wednesday, international aviation experts saw part of that mission accomplished. The ARJ-21, a regional jet with 90 seats, took off at an air show in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai.
"For many employees in the Chinese aviation industry, it's an overwhelming feeling to have achieved so much," said Qi Xuefeng, chief engineer for the ARJ-21 turbine system.
The state-owned manufacturer, Comac, has already received 278 orders for the new regional jet and 430 orders for the C919, a 170-seat midrange aircraft, for which the company plans test flights next year.
Construction of a 300-passenger, long-range jet will also begin soon, according to Tian Min, Comac’s chief financial officer.
For many employees in the Chinese aviation industry, it's an overwhelming feeling to have achieved so much. Qi Xuefeng, Chief Turbine Engineer at Comac
The People's Republic appears determined to become a major player in the aircraft manufacturing industry and a serious rival to global leaders Airbus and Boeing.
In only eight years, Comac has completed a development step that took the Western companies decades – partly the result of technological expertise acquired through joint ventures with Airbus and Boeing in China.
"The superiority of our aircraft will assure us a leading position worldwide," said Lin Zuoming, the head of the state aviation conglomerate AVIC.
Initially, China aims to supply its rapidly growing domestic market with its own aircraft. Last year, Airbus and Boeing sold 133 and 143 passenger aircraft, respectively, in the People's Republic.
In the future, the Chinese intend to challenge the European and U.S. market leaders for a piece of the lucrative passenger aircraft business.
"Thanks to generous support from the government, a strong expansion of market share in China is already certain today," said industry expert Bai Wei.
As recent examples of that support, the state-owned leasing firm, China Merchant Bank Leasing, said this week it would add 30 C919 aircraft to its fleet, and the Republic of Congo, which receives massive financial aid and investments from China, announced an order for the ARJ-21.
Thanks to generous support from the government, a strong expansion of market share in China is already certain today. Bai Wei, Aviation Expert
The government also owns Chengdu Airlines, which is the first customer for the ARJ-21.
It hasn’t always been happy flying at Comac, however. The ARJ-21 regional jet experienced numerous problems after its maiden flight in 2008, including software glitches and cracks that developed in the wings under heavy stress.
Skeptics are curbing the euphorbia of the Chinese. The People's Republic needs another 10 to 15 years "to become a serious player in the aviation industry and get involved in the world market as an exporter," said Michael Santo, an aviation expert.
Airbus is playing it safe.
Although the company currently assembles the Airbus A320 in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, as well as in Hamburg and Toulouse, it has decided to keep final assembly of the new A320 neo, with its more fuel-efficient engines and new wings, exclusively in Europe. In that way, the company hopes to retain its technological advantage for at least the next few years.
Finn Mayer-Kuckuk is Handelsblatt's East Asia correspondent based in Beijing. To contact the author: [email protected]