The Look of China From Above - 1

By James Fallows

I've mentioned many times, most recently here, how valuable photographs are in conveying the unbelievable variations in wealth, modernization, landscape, and other aspects of modern China. The point may seem banal, but I think it matters more for China than most other places because the outside-world's view is so skewed toward images of skyscrapers in Shanghai and Beijing.

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I have only one regret about my current book -- which is not many, as book-regrets go. For reasons of production time and (mainly) cost, it wasn't possible to include any of the hundreds of pictures I had taken of people, places, real-estate projects, and practical and fanciful undertakings that I was describing. [Update: Andrew Galbraith of the WSJ in China has a Q-and-A feature about the book today on the Journal's China Real Time site.]

So I plan to start including a few here. I will begin with photos taken by one of the leading characters in the book, Peter Claeys, who is originally from Belgium but has spent much of his life in Asia and, when I met him, was trying to sell stylish Cirrus SR22 airplanes to the newly affluent Chinese business class. Eventually, as I describe, the Cirrus company itself, of Duluth, Minnesota, was sold to the Chinese government. But that's a different story.

Here are a few of his pictures that resonate with things I saw and described. First, at right, a pilot named Chen Yan -- a combination Amelia Earhart / Kim Kardashian aviator / model / celebrity fashion-icon in China, who is a character in my book. Here she is in the cockpit of the plane that Peter Claeys and I flew to the Zhuhai Air Show, the morning after the hair-raising flight I described here.

Now, in front of the same plane, Chen Yan, Peter Claeys, and a friend. (More about Chen Yan is here.)

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A local booster / entrepreneur, with dreams of bringing an aerospace center to his community of Binzhou in Shandong province, seated in the back of Claeys's plane. Note the air, which adds an edge to any flying in China.

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Ground-level view of the local booster project in Binzhou, which is like the one outside Xi'an that I describe in my book. This is how the one big runway, hoped-for as a magnet for high-tech development, looked:

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And the projected versions of how it "will" look. Ah, this brings it all back. Anybody who visited local governments in China has seen these "if we build it, they will come -- and anyhow, let's just build it" projects:

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I'm betting that when you think of "Red China," these are not the scenes that come first to mind. They are for me.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/the-look-of-china-from-above-1/258321/