Mystery of the missing plane

China stunned by disappearance of flight from Malaysia

Building w

It says: we’re waiting for you

The media may not independently analyse or comment on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight. Related coverage must strictly accord with authoritative information issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China and with Xinhua News Agency wire copy.”

This was the directive on March 8 shortly after news that a Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people on board had disappeared, seemingly without trace.

The instruction went on to forbid journalists from “inciting any discontented sentiment” and ordered instead that there be“increased publicity for the Two Sessions [China’s annual parliamentary gathering]”.

The domestic media has largely done what it was told. Coverage of what is likely to turn out to be one of the greatest losses of Chinese life in an air disaster – 153 people – has been extremely muted.

So why are the authorities so keen to limit discussion of the missing plane? One reason was concern about taking attention away from the first NPC and CPPCC meetings presided over by China’s new leadership. Having gone to the trouble of ensuring that the skies in Beijing were blue for the first day of meeting, the government didn’t want the event to be overshadowed by pictures of family members in distress.

Another possibility is that the flight – which took off from Kuala Lumpur on Saturday – was a code share with China Southern, China’s largest airline. Although it only sold seven tickets for passengers on board, the Chinese carrier is still tainted by association.

But the most likely factor was fear that the airline may have been downed in a terrorist attack or that – in the absence of any real information on what had happened – people might assume that this was the case.

At least 29 people died as result of a knife attack on a railway station in the southern city of Kunming a week earlier. This has been blamed on Uighur separatists (see WiC228), with the public warned that militants from Xinjiang are now targeting people in “the heart of China”, as well as symbols of Beijing’s rule in the restive province.

Then again the absence of media coverage of the Malaysia Airlines mystery seems to have backfired. When state broadcaster CCTV opened its evening news bulletin on Sunday night with a report on Xi Jinping and Barack Obama discussing Ukraine, netizens were furious.

To add further insult, the disappearance of MH370 didn’t even get the second slot – which went to the annual parliamentary meeting in Beijing. “What’s the point of the Two Sessions? Aren’t the lives of 150 people more important than politics?” fumed one weibo user. Another asked: “What is wrong with CCTV? Why are they so numb to ordinary people’s lives?”

As the week drew on, however, the tone began to change with state media and officialdom indicating growing frustration with Kuala Lumpur’s “chaotic” response. The Malaysians though were afforded a moment of schadenfreude when it transpired that images that suggested Chinese satellites had located part of the plane showed nothing of the kind. Chinese officials apparently told the Malaysians that the images had been released by mistake. As WiC went to press, the latest revelation was from the US. The Wall Street Journal cited sources stating that maintenance equipment on board the plane continued to send data bursts to a satellite four hours after the plane disappeared from radar.

For the agonised families of those on board, that only deepens the sense of mystery.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.