A Donald Trump who’s sceptical of tech and Boeing is a friend of China

(Originally published here by South China Morning Post.)

In the torrent of heartbreaking news last week, perhaps the only silver lining was that none of it was created by a Donald Trump executive order.

Leave aside the US president’s denial that the massacre in Christchurch was part of a rise in white nationalism, and we can at least consider it a week free of efforts by him to alienate strategic allies, disrupt global supply chains, dismantle environmental safeguards or demean minorities.

For China, there was another hopeful titbit. As the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX story developed, Beijing should have seen that Trump might be more of a solution than a problem in the still-unresolved stand-off over bilateral trade and investment.

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” Trump tweeted amid reports that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg asked him not to ground the plane. “Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT.”

Besides being a premature conclusion, Trump’s comment about the 737 MAX also underscored his attitude towards the tech industry.

A plea by Muilenburg to keep the planes flying, despite circumstances suggesting a software bug may have brought down two jets, killing 346 people, would be wrong on many levels.

But the company doesn’t deserve a rebuke from the US president that completely dismisses the most crucial element of its success: game-changing technological innovation.

Boeing’s success has always been in more than manufacturing wings and fuselages, and like many companies, Boeing’s family jewels are software and data.

It deserves credit for its history of technological firsts: a two-story jumbo jetliner (the 747), a fully computer-designed commercial aeroplane (the 777) and a mostly carbon-fibre airframe (the 787 Dreamliner), to name a few.

The history of technological advancement is littered with accidents and death. If the two recent 737 MAX crashes turn out to be attributable to a software glitch, Boeing will have a lot of work to do to save its reputation and compensate for the catastrophic loss of life.

But as aviation expert Jeff Wise pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece last week: “The gradual spread of automation through the civil aircraft fleet is a primary reason the accident rate worldwide has fallen from about four accidents per million flights in 1977 to less than 0.4 today.”

Trump wouldn’t cite these statistics, just as he wouldn’t point to overwhelming evidence that immigration has and always will be a net benefit to the US economy. Instead, Trump would like his supporters to believe that he can rebuild a manufacturing base for sweatshirts, washing machines and steel rebar.

As part of Trump’s efforts to bring back the 20th century, he has surrounded himself with former executives and lobbyists for the industrial metals and fossil fuel industries while getting into occasional scraps with the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Texas Senator and fervent Trump supporter Ted Cruz recently spoke reductively of California as “tofu and silicon and dyed hair”.

With their animus towards advanced technology, Trump and his friends threaten the sector whose health determines America’s ability to retain the world’s most dynamic economy.

Trump sees the current stand-off with China only in trade-deficit terms because he knows this problem can easily be rectified by Beijing.

Meanwhile, the brighter bulbs in his administration, including Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, seem to sense the Chinese government’s endless financial and regulatory support for its tech sector is far more threatening to American interests.

There’s a reason Detroit crashed and Silicon Valley thrived. Trump would like Americans to believe that China took their manufacturing jobs and that the only beneficiaries in the US have been a small group of pointy-headed tech geniuses in Silicon Valley and Seattle.

The truth is that American manufacturers would have moved many of their manufacturing jobs overseas whether or not China had geared up to take them. And the US economy would have continued to be skewed towards tech giants and away from steel mills.

As long as Trump and his friends maintain their hostility towards the engineers that produce advancements like those that have brought down the accident rate in commercial aviation, China wins. Beijing should be hoping for a Trump victory in 2020.

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