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Curbing Corruption Within Chinese Airport Construction

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A version of this article appears in the June 16 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Boldly, the young Chinese man struck up a conversation with the foreigner sitting next to him on the flight. Finding that the foreigner was a reporter from Aviation Week, he mentioned that he planned to study air traffic management at university.

“That sounds like good work, but what if you don’t get a job?” he was asked.

“My mother works in the air traffic management bureau,” he said. “She has good connections, so she can get me a job there.”

Even after a decade in China, this correspondent was surprised by that one. Corruption and influence-peddling are rife in the country, and any number of people obtain employment in government offices and enterprises thanks to connections rather than competence. But air traffic management?


Yet perhaps the young man had better study hard, after all. The anti-corruption drive of President Xi Jinping is sweeping across the civil aviation industry as well as the rest of the state sector.

A former deputy general manager of China Eastern Airlines, Chen Haiju, went on trial in April for taking 5 million yuan ($800,000) in bribes. Chen denies the charges and has retracted a confession he made after his arrest last July.

The chief engineer and deputy general manager of the airport project at Liupanshui (see photo), a city in the southern province of Guizhou, are officially suspected of serious breaches of discipline, the usual code for corruption; that almost certainly means they have been arrested and are facing prosecution. The deputy general manager of the airport under construction at Wugang in nearby Hunan is in the same position.

It has been a bad few weeks for deputy general managers, because Wu Hao, the official formerly in that position at Avic Heavy Machinery, part of the state aeronautics manufacturing group Avic, is also accused of a serious breach of discipline.

Aviation is not considered particularly corrupt by Chinese standards, but given the nature of the society, and especially the government, there must be far more than a sprinkling of managers, big fish and small ones, who use their positions in state-owned airlines and related departments for personal gain. The construction sector is generally thought to be far dirtier, so the arrest of officials involved in building airports is only to be expected in an anti-corruption drive.

Nothing like a precise estimate of the effect on the industry of Xi’s push is possible, but Chinese aviation will surely benefit from weeding out some corrupt managers and, more important, frightening others into better behavior. Costs should fall because crooked managers will be much less keen to take kickbacks on contracts for supplies and services.

Competence should rise because not so many unsatisfactory employees will be able to bribe their way in and up, while those who have not been doing much work, thanks to protection from friendly managers, may suddenly find reasons to be a little more diligent—to the satisfaction of hardworking colleagues who previously have had to cover for them. In some state operations, many people get jobs thanks to connections and receive the salary but do not have to turn up for work at all—but, again, aviation is not considered to be among the worst industries in China.

It is probably fair to speculate that morale will improve among the great majority of workers and managers who have always gone about their work honestly and without special favors but have resented the privileges and dishonesty of some around them.

Chinese airlines’ cheap access to airports in smaller cities may become a little scarcer over time, however. Chinese provincial and city governments build most airports, and mostly at a loss. Typically, the smaller airports are unable to collect enough landing fees to cover the interest on the loans that paid for construction. In announcing construction of an airport, officials always say the facility will promote economic growth, which it no doubt will, but there is a remarkable tendency to sign contracts to build more capacity than will be needed even years after completion.

Decisions to build new airports rather than expand old facilities have also sometimes seemed odd. Few cities have followed the example of Shanghai, which cleared space for a new terminal and runway at its very convenient downtown airport, Hongqiao. Compulsory acquisition of property is not nearly as hard for Chinese governments as it is in democratic countries, and the land is also not normally so costly. Yet the usual solution to the inadequacy of an old downtown airport has been to contract builders for a huge new facility far from the city center. Officials can then arrange redevelopment of the land of the old airport.

As in much analysis, it is possible here to see the direction of change but impossible to estimate its magnitude. There is also the question of how long the anti-corruption drive will last. In the past, such efforts have come and gone. But after more than a year, there is not the slightest sign that this one is abating.

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