Company of Chinese president's son is awarded airport security deal

Reuters, The Associated Press | December 12, 2006

BEIJING: A company led by Hu Haifeng, son of President Hu Jintao, has won a government deal to supply airports throughout China with scanners to detect liquid explosives, the company and civil aviation officials said Tuesday.

The company, Nuctech, and the Civil Aviation General Administration said the scanners had outperformed competitors by using X-rays to detect in five seconds whether a liquid was harmless or potentially volatile.

In a demonstration for the news media, executives placed bottles of wine, water and lighter fluid into the devices the size of washing machines. A monitor flashed red when dangerous liquids were detected.

Nuctech, where Hu Haifeng is president, and the aviation authority declined to disclose terms of the deal. But the potential market for Nuctech's scanners is huge, industry analysts said.

The China portion alone is worth at least tens of millions of dollars for Nuctech. The aviation authority's director general for security, Yang Chengfeng, said the scanners would be deployed in each of China's 147 airports, though he did not provide a schedule.

The export price for each unit is $200,000, said Liu Zhuoyan, vice president of Nuctech, though the government often demands large discounts.

China banned passengers from taking almost all liquids on flights in hand baggage after a plane crashed in May 2002 off the northern coastal city of Dalian. The crash killed 112 people and was attributed to a passenger who had set fire to gasoline carried in soft drink cans.

"If you want to guarantee passenger safety, you have to make an investment," Yang said. "We have to protect against liquid explosives. I'm preparing to install these machines at all of China's civil airports."

Nuctech was founded nine years ago as a commercial offshoot of Tsinghua University, which is considered China's top scientific school and is the alma mater of Hu Jintao.

Yang said Nuctech's technology, not its political connections, had been the decisive factor in winning the agency's approval.

"Of course, he has some background, but that had no effect on our decision," Yang said. "This has to do with people's lives, and you can't play games with safety."

Yang added that China had not discovered any specific terror threats to its airlines or airports but that this did not mean the threat was not real.

"Every country has people who are dissatisfied with society, though we've never had anything like Sept. 11," he said. "Yet we do have a problem in Xinjiang, which is unavoidable."

China keeps a tight grip on Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China. It considers militant members of the Uighur, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, to be terrorists and blamed them for a string of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s.

Uighur groups have not previously been blamed for attacks on Chinese aircraft or airports. But China did experience a rash of hijackings in the early 1990s, mostly by people demanding to go to Taiwan, and air safety was tightened. China adopted additional security measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, including putting air marshals on flights.

Yang promised safe travel for passengers during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, saying the civil aviation authority was looking at enacting new security measures like separate security channels for passengers.

Even with the new scanners, he said, the ban on most types of liquids being taken on board in hand luggage would remain.