双关 : Suspicuous liquids and China's efforts to sell machines that use them

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In what could have been a regrettable case of unintended double meaning, or 双关 (shuang guan), Chinese officials last week delivered news of how suspicious, inflammable liquids in an aircraft toilet nearly facilitated a terrorist attack. I would not be so presumptuous to assume that the toilets on China Southern Airlines are unusually unpleasant places (see for instance Mutant Palm's expose of the airline, blocked on mainland), but in my experience toilets on public transport in China are generally places to enter with extreme caution (except perhaps on the all-new 300 k/m per hour bullet train between Tianjin and Beijing. As a resident of Tianjin, kudos to the Ministry of Railways for making my journey to Beijing soon only 30 minutes, short enough likely not to need to go).

The suspicious liquid on the China Southern Airlines flight from Urumqi to Beijing, however, turned out to be gasoline (a particularly suspicious liquid indeed), which, the story goes, someone had been carrying around with ulterior motives. Yet one would think China Southern Airlines were happy in the end to pocket two cans of gas, as the consumption tax on imported fuel was raised by more than four fold on March 5 as part of efforts to limit energy use.

This is not the first incident involving suspicious liquids (especially the flammable types). When a British Airways Boeing jet crash-landed in London in January this year, and it turned out it had departed from China, quality fade expert Paul Midler smelled a rat. With suspicions of contaminated fuel and the possible presence of water in the tanks raised by the crash investigators, Midler thought somebody on the ground could easily have replaced 1% fuel with water, which could be a tidy saving of $2,000. So that's quality fade applied to gasoline: a very suspicious liquid.

With its commercial aviation market booming, China doesn't need a lot of water-tinged gasoline. The country's leading manufacturer of helicopters declared early this year it will be focusing more on developing civilian aircraft to cash in on growing demand, and China is also developing its first passenger jet, the ARJ-21, produced by the country's biggest plane maker, the China Aviation Industry Corporation I. Attempting to break into a very competitive aviation market (forecast to need as many as 3,400 new planes globally in the next 20 years) the 70-90-seater aircraft was showcased in December and delivery to the first customer is expected later in 2009. (The plane's chief designer, Wu Guanghui, sounded a hopeful note in the People's Daily last week, saying a total of 171 ARJ-21 jets had received internal orders, and talks were underway with foreign customers).

Its uncertain, however, whether ARJ-21 is going to keep pace with Great Wall Motor Company, the largest producer of pick-up trucks in China. Great Wall is clearly extending its boundaries and told People's Daily on Wednesday it expects to sell 55.7% more pick-up trucks abroad this year, especially in North America and Europe, exporting a total of about 80,000 units. In December it was reported that China's motorcycle exports reached 7.27 million in the first eleven months of 2007, up 22% over the same period in 2006.

Some of these have really rocked the world of a few villagers in Laos, where (the New York Times reported in December) fruit farmers in the steep hills above the Mekong Delta have been able to purchase cheap Chinese models to transport their produce to the market at the local city of Luang Prabang. And where before improvised bamboo stretchers were the quickest way to get to hospital, the Chinese motorcycle has literally meant the difference between life and death for some. Until, that is, your Chinese bike starts developing maintenance problems, which (as the article put it) was a commonly heard complaint affecting the enthusiasm for Chinese goods. People with money, one local mechanic explained, buy Japanese motorcycles, but at least the influx of Chinese motorcycles (which usually need an overhaul within three to four years) has been good for mechanic shops in Luang Prabang, increasing from only a few a decade ago to more than 20 today.

The motorcycle mechanics in Bangladesh, where Chinese motorcycles are set to enter the market from this month, must be looking forward to the prospect.          

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2 Comments

sam Author Profile Page said:

your analysis is impressive.
how can you be so familar with chinese situation? are you a chinese??
thanks

Barry said:

Many thanks Sam. Actually I am not Chinese, but I live IN China, which helps...

Hope you continue to enjoy our blog,

Barry

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