James Fallows Visits SMoCA Lounge to Talk Aviation and Politics in China and His New Book, China Airborne

Many writers claim to hit on "the biggest story of our era," as Atlantic correspondent James Fallows said at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday night. And with China Airborne, the National Magazine Award-winning journalist's tenth book, the claim might be true.

"Will China Dominate the Skies?"a discussion co-presented by Arizona State University and Zócalo Public Square, revolved around the book's central theme that China's aviation industry (read: public planes, private jets, engineers and airspace) can be a window into understanding the country as a whole.

About 70 people filled SMoCA Lounge for the free event, which began with a 30-minute talk by Fallows, who is also a weekly contributor to NPR and a former speech writer for President Jimmy Carter.

Fallows connected the audience to the complex issues in China Airborne (excerpt here) by telling personal stories of the people he'd met and places he'd seen while living and writing in the country in the past decade (see 2008's Postcards from Tomorrow Square).

An instrument-certified pilot, Fallows said he drew on his passion for flying as a way to "switch modes" as a writer and find an "under-reported" angle to cover the ever-growing story of modern China for an English-speaking audience.

When the Chinese government unveiled its Twelfth Five-Year Plan in 2011, aerospace was announced as a new focus for the country's economy. Fallows told the SMoCA crowd that how well China can develop its commercial airlines, private jet industry and airborne search-and-rescue capabilities is a sign of how high The Middle Kingdom's modern economy can soar.

Fallows said the country's biggest challenge is to go from "buying Boeings to making their own," a major indicator in his opinion of "whether [China] will get better, or just bigger."

Fallows, who described China as "a very, very rapid work in progress" on The Diane Rehm Show, told the crowd at SMoCA Lounge that the country's success -- or failure -- in becoming an aviation powerhouse will affect many other areas. Those who care about China's environmental problems, political tensions, working conditions, or international strength should watch the skies for its planes.

"I hope the Chinese model makes it ... the circumstances that would make it a more serious competition would also make them easier to work with," Fallows said.

"Will China Dominate the Skies?" drew a diverse crowd--some people because of the topic, some to see Fallows himself, and others who just enjoy a good discussion.

Alexander Blylie, 14, and Sage Hanson, 15, both students at the Center for Research, Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST), a specialty school within Paradise Valley High School, said they're more interested in China and its relationship with America after hearing Fallows talk.

Derrick Hyatt, a 62-year-old engineer, said he was attended "Will China Dominate the Skies?" mostly because of the event's focus on community and dialogue.

"I think we fail today to have dialogue," Hyatt said. "We don't have people who look at different aspects of a topic and be able to express themselves on that topic in a pragmatic or intellectual way."

Zócalo Public Square, based in Los Angeles, is a project of The Center for Social Cohesion, itself a partnership between ASU and the New America Foundation.

On its website, Zócalo calls itself "a living magazine" that's worked to broaden public discourse and get people to share ideas "in an open, accessible, non-partisan and broad-minded way" through online journalism and events in California and Phoenix since 2003. 

The mobile think space presents "Can Israel Save Its Democracy?" with The Daily Beast 
columnist Peter Beinart this evening at Heard Museum

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Tye Rabens