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China

The Cut-Throat Chinese Way, Even In The Air

Commentary: China is busy with some serious self-examination about the national “condition” after the tale of a near disaster above Shanghai Airport when a Chinese pilot was determined – at all costs -- to land first.

Boarding China Eastern Airlines at Shanghai airport where a Lucky Airlines pilot recently made news (Ed-meister)
Boarding China Eastern Airlines at Shanghai airport where a Lucky Airlines pilot recently made news (Ed-meister)
Tang Jiachen

BEIJING - A group of people are lining up for the toilets. One of them is clutching his abdomen and asks the people in front of him if he can go ahead. If his request is denied, if you hear responses such as: "I'm in even more of a hurry than you are," or "Me, I'm going to wet my pants!" then, in all likelihood, you have bumped into Chinese people!

It's not that I'd been feeling particularly down about my fellow countrymen. But I just happen to have read a news item making the rounds these days that sounds strikingly similar. Only this time, it happened in the skies.

A few days ago, a Qatar Airways flight had only five minutes of fuel remaining. The air traffic control personnel at Hongqiao Airport, Shanghai, responded by following the emergency landing procedures. Yet the pilot of a flight from the Chinese-run Lucky Airlines, already ahead in the landing queue, refused four times to follow the give-way instructions. The pilot replied to the controller: "My aircraft has got only four minutes of fuel left".

It was reported that the Lucky Airlines flight did not give way until the Qatari pilot issued the "Mayday" signal, the highest alert level for help. In the last few days, Chinese bloggers and Internet commentators have sarcastically declared that the Chinese airline has once again "won glory for the country", and "has created yet another hundred-year miracle in the history of aviation."

In my opinion, Lucky Airlines won "dangerously" by one minute over Qatar. Rather than calling it a miracle, I'd rather say it simply accords with "customary Chinese conditions."

"Conditions' are mysterious things. Anything one cannot explain can be used to end quarrels. Nobody dares to help an old man up when he falls down on the street. This is a Chinese condition. When the deadly earthquake and mine explosion struck, the victims' family were said to be "in steady emotion". (This is Xinhua news' standard expression of reporting). When a person dies in custody with his body covered in wounds, it's because he has drunk himself to death with water, or because he played hide-and-seek with other cellmates, and knocked himself. These are also certainly Chinese conditions.

Don't ever give in

So it is only logical when Lucky Airlines insists on Chinese core conditions – to fight rather than give in, even if it defies standard international flight rules, aviation conventions, and any pilot's basic professional ethics, by lying about his aircraft's fuel status, even if this might have led to the loss of hundreds of lives.

In fact, the choice to fight back than give in is common practice in Chinese people's daily life. Perhaps it's because every Chinese has to face hundreds of millions of competitors once he is out of the womb. "Lagging behind merits a beating" is the ultimate consensus in our teaching. The fear of lagging behind is a universal social psychosis. When the risk of lagging behind is exaggerated, an individual's choice of behavior is naturally motivated to fight to be the first. To achieve the goal, universal values like ethics, morality, and a sense of order quickly become secondary.

This is a behavioral logic that can send a chill up one's back, yet it has been internalized as part of the Chinese people's national character. We are all scrambling along this road. In an extreme way, the "contest" of Lucky Airlines v. Qatar reflects the usual chaos in our daily life.

According to news sources, both aircraft finally landed and were inspected. The Qatari really did have only fuel left for another five minutes of flight, while the Lucky Airlines aircraft had fuel for at least another hour.

The information is to be confirmed by the authorities. But frankly speaking, I'm sure anybody who understands a bit about Chinese conditions wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Indeed, Chinese civil aviation experts have a more detailed explanation for what was happening in the Lucky cockpit. Certain domestic airlines have set up an incentive "bonus' to encourage pilots to economize fuel. The bonus is awarded in proportion to how much fuel is left after each flight. When the Lucky Airlines pilot gave in to the Qatar flight, it meant he had to turn his plane around, spend more fuel in circling for another turn at landing… and jeopardize his bonus. Lagging behind, indeed.

Read the original story in Chinese

Photo - Ed-meister

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