Fuel-saving plane designer tired of battling China’s red tape

Liu Shiying’s woes highlight the problems of integrating civilian and military sectors

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 8:02am

For Liu Shiying, an aircraft dynamics engineer in Hubei province, trying to make his invention useful to the Chinese military has been a painful process.

Liu, 72, a retired professor with Wuhan University, has spent 24 years designing an innovative rectangular aircraft fuselage that he claims is more fuel efficient.

“My design can reduce aircraft fuel consumption by 40 per cent, because the oblate rectangle fuselage can carry more passengers and cargo,” he said, adding that it could be used in both civilian and military aircraft.

But although Liu has obtained several patents in the US for his design, he has had great difficulty seeing it put to use.

“As a Chinese, I hope my design can be used on Chinese aircraft. However, as a private inventor, I don’t have enough funding or a team to support my invention for further development, because none of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are willing to work with me.”

Breaking down the walls hindering the exchanges of technology between the military, state and private sectors is a challenge on the mainland. Liu said he was exhausted from two decades of dealing with the red tape involved.

Beijing-based military analyst Li Jie said Liu was just one of many frustrated inventors on the mainland. He saida key obstacle to integrating civilian and military development was a lack of standardisation.

“For example, the requirements for military electronic products are much higher than those for civilian goods,” Li said. “But many capable civilian electronics companies [don’t bother] to meet the [higher] standards, even though they are able to produce a high-quality product.”

Liu, an expert in aerodynamics and hydraulics, saidhis inspiration came from Boeing, which called for the development of an energy-efficient airliner three decades ago. The company’s new 1,000-seat A797 is its latest attempt at such a design.

Another military insider said a stronger push was needed by President Xi Jinping to reform the nation’s SOEs, an effort that is seeing resistance from vested interest groups.

“The ultimate goal of [having] integrated military and civilian development is reducing cost and driving China’s defence industry to a market-oriented operation similar to that of the US, meaning some people will lose their jobs,” said the insider.

“And it’s hard to convince the military to share their technologies with civilian companies, because of a lack of protection for intellectual property [in the Chinese civilian sector].”

Retired Major General Xu Guangyu said integrating military and civilian development was necessary to transform the defence industry.

“The idea of the integration of military and civilian technologies in other countries is efficient, as it meets today’s market-oriented economy, with the US, Japan, France and other developed countries all following it,” Xu said.

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“However, it’s very hard for Chinese SOEs to do it because China’s defence business model was copied from the former Soviet Union. All SOEs have only focused on developing one specific type of technology, but the US Boeing company is able to produce everything, from civil aeroplanes to fighter jets.”

Xi, who chairs the Central Military Commission, on Tuesday announced the appointment of vice-chairman Zhang Gaoli as the director of the general affairs office for the commission.

Zhang is ranked No 7 on the Politburo Standing Committee. His new position is an anomaly, in that a member of the party’s leading body doesn’t usually take a role in day-to-day operations.

“The new appointment indicates Xi wants the [office to] coordinate between SOEs and private companies involved in the defence sector,” said Chen Daoyin, a professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk