With the maiden voyage of the Comac C919, China is underscoring its ambition to shake up the global duopoly of large aircraft manufacturers, i.e. Boeing and Airbus. While the whole process from maiden voyage to roll out is still to take several years and perhaps even decades, the plan is clear. China has to take the next step in its economic development and supplying the world with jets is a truly global undertaking – at least in theory. The company says that more than 500 orders are already in for the C919, but those are mostly from domestic carriers or foreign companies with a vested interest in the project. Hence, despite the display of optimism many questions linger. The most interesting of which is whether China can create a “Made in China” brand or will forever be stuck in perceived mediocrity when it comes to questions of quality.
The pride and joy – for now
The only way
To stay with our airplane example, ask yourself: Would you feel comfortable sitting in a Chinese jet? I know that I would not – at least for several decades to come. And you can quote me statistics, Airbus and Boeing disasters or the general safety of air travel argument – I simply would feel uneasy. I believe the same is true for most readers here.
However, if I think about my bias along more objective lines I will quickly find that it really is grounded in nothing but bias. If the C919 becomes certified abroad (especially in Western Europe and North America) it probably means it is as safe as its competitors from Boeing and Airbus. It could even mean that China creates a plane better than its competition, as it has the second mover advantage and has the ability to move fast. However, bias is by definition somewhat unqualified and mostly grounded in reputational issues. And the bottom line is that foreigners cannot help but equating “Made in China” to poor quality.
The funny thing is that Germany suffered from a similar reputation towards the end of the 19th century. Brits who were fed up with inferior quality German products being sold into the UK insisted upon such imports to be marked as “Made in Germany”. However, Germany succeeded in leveraging this into a brand that is today respected the world over for quality. This certainly is one of those Cinderella stories China is trying to copy.
Lenovo – coming to a shop near you
Made in China and proud of it
No matter what, China needs to get its act together and start producing genuine quality. By now, there are plenty of examples which speak to the Chinese being able to do just that, just think of Lenovo computers and Qingdao beer. In my view, the biggest problem is that there is not yet social agreement on who will benefit from an increased success for Chinese high end products on the international stage. Thanks to many millennia of little systemic trust, the Chinese government coming out to say “Hey, let’s all work hard to produce better quality and bask in the admiration of our international peers” will do little but provoke laughs from those who actually build the stuff. Compare this to Japan or South Korea for example, where you have whole nations subjecting themselves to the will of government or powerful conglomerates. But, so goes the thinking, at least they will take care of me in return. The Chinese do not yet have that type of trust. All parties involved in such a social new deal are still hesitant to make the first step. The big bosses do not trust their employees and vice versa while we do not even have to talk about the government. However, only when a deal between these three can be reached will China be able to rise – and I will be comfortably flying in a Chinese made plane.