Ferraris and Rolls-Royces have become common sights in China's cities as a new class of super-rich indulge a growing appetite for luxury, but tight regulation has meant the private jet, the ultimate status symbol of the global elite, remains rare.
Recent rules changes, however, indicate that China is preparing to open its skies to private aircraft, in a move that may herald the greatest expansion of business and private aviation in the last 30 years.
Last month, China's aviation regulator simplified flight approval procedures for private aircraft and lowered the threshold for obtaining a private pilot licence.
More importantly, the implementation of little-noticed guidelines issued by China's State Council and the Central Military Commission in 2010 will gradually lift the ceiling for low-flying aircraft by 2020.
For companies such as Cessna, Gulfstream, Dassault Aviation and Bombardier, which have spent the last decade trying to build their China business, it may present a unique opportunity to expand in the world's fastest-growing aviation market.
"This tells everyone publicly that China now endorses the use of business aircraft and general aviation just like any other countries worldwide," Roger Sperry, Gulfstream's senior vice president of international sales, told Reuters in an interview. "I'm nothing but optimistic."
General aviation, which refers to all flights that are not operated by airlines, charter firms or the military, is already a $150 billion business in the United States.
In contrast, there are only 1,610 registered general aviation aircraft in China, the latest figures from the China General Aviation Association show.
That compares with about 228,000 in the United States, according to Craig Spence, secretary general of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations.
Joseph Tymczyszyn, a former representative of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in China, said when he mentioned private aircraft to Chinese industry officials nine years ago he was told commercial aviation was the priority.
"When I talked to CAAC about general aviation in 2004, Ma Tao said, 'Don't waste your time and money, nobody is interested in that'," Tymczyszyn, a co-founder and executive director of the U.S.-China Aviation Cooperation Program, told Reuters.
Ma, then the deputy director general of the Flight Standards Department of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), was among a group of Chinese aviation officials who often visited the United States, where their experience of general aviation began to change attitudes, Tymczyszyn recalled.
Still, in a country where the military controls 80 percent of airspace there were formidable obstacles to expanding private air travel. Approval for a three-hour trip on a private plane would take at least two weeks and was never guaranteed.