Washington - China took a step towards the aviation big league Friday with the long delayed, but finally successful, maiden flight of its first modern passenger jet.
China hopes its airline industry can someday challenge the Western duopoly of Boeing and Airbus, especially for its own large and fast-growing domestic market. But the flight of the single-aisle, twin engine C919 is also a symbol of the country's ambitions to develop an advanced high-tech economy over the next decade.
State media burst with pride and patriotism as the plane's debut flight from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai was broadcast live, adding that around 3,000 officials, executives and other onlookers clapped "ecstatically" as the plane landed, carrying a skeleton crew of five pilots and engineers.
But the reaction on social media was a little more muted, with some pointing out that the flight was a reminder of how far China still lagged behind the West.
The government says the ability to build and fly a modern passenger plane would be the "pearl" and "flower" of modern manufacturing, a centrepieces of the government's "Made in China 2025" industrial plan that also includes ambitions to develop world-class robotics, advanced information technology, medicines and hi-tech transport industries. But there is still a long way to go down the road to a globally competitive aerospace industry.
The plane's development was beset by production problems and delays - it had initially been slated to fly in 2014 - and it still relies on a wide-range of foreign technology, with General Electric and French firm Safran supplying the engines through a joint venture.
The single-aisle plane is designed to carry between 155 and 175 seats, and fly 2,530 miles (4,075 km). It is expected to enter commercial service with China Eastern Airlines in 2019, and its maker, state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) says it already has 570 orders from 23 customers.
Most of the demand is coming from state-owned Chinese airlines, and the plane will initially target the domestic market, which is set to displace the United States as the world's biggest by around 2024, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts.
It says the 1.3 billion passengers will fly to, from and within China every year by 2035. To meet that demand, Boeing predicts China will need 6,800 new airplanes, valued at $1 trillion, over that time period, as its economy and middle-class continue to grow.
Most of the flights will be on single-aisle jets like the C-919. Chinese media said the plane will cost around $50 million, significantly less then a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320, its closest equivalents.
COMAC is now seeking certification from Europe's aviation safety regulator. But Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group, told Bloomberg News that China may have to wait till its next aircraft to really break the duopoly for jets that can carry more than 100 passengers.
"At the moment, they are in a real replication mode, which is not where you want to be," he said. "First off, they need to privatize and open their supply chain up to a global network, rather than just people who will transfer yesterday's technology."
China's ambitions to develop a passenger jet of its own date back to the time of Mao Zedong. In the 1970s it developed the Shanghai Y-10 airliner, but the plane was beset by problems, including its heavy weight, high fuel consumption, limited range and safety concerns. Only two prototypes were ever built.