But on Friday, none of that mattered. For a country that only 40 years ago was one of the poorest in the world, the C919 symbolized the industrial might of an emerging superpower — and its dream to dominate a new technological era.
President Xi Jinping of China and many other top leaders attended the event, a sign of the economic and geopolitical significance that Beijing attaches to its entry into open competition with Airbus and Boeing. Planning for the 158-seat C919 began more than a decade ago, but the plane has become a centerpiece of the country’s more recent Made in China 2025 plan to become largely self-sufficient in many high-tech goods and to export them as well.
“We used to believe that it was better to buy than to build, better to rent than to buy,” Mr. Xi told workers during a recent visit here. “We need to spend more on researching and manufacturing our own airliners.”
China’s investment in civilian aircraft manufacturing is enormous. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, better known as Comac, says it already has 570 orders from 23 buyers. But those have almost entirely come from Chinese companies and a couple of small overseas air carriers with links to China. A notable exception is an order for 20 planes from General Electric Capital Aviation Services; G.E. is also a big supplier to the C919 program.
The C919 is designed to compete with the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737, single-aisle planes that are the workhorses of the world’s airlines. For Comac, the plane represents the culmination of decades of work; for Airbus and Boeing, it is a challenge to a profitable duopoly that has endured for decades.
One question is whether China has learned enough about aircraft manufacturing to make the C919 competitive with the 737 and A320. Fuel and maintenance are huge costs for airlines, and it is unclear that China…