WASHINGTON – China’s President Xi Jinping can’t sleep, its Premier Li Keqiang pines for a “thread of hope,” and the country’s mainstream media stands flatfooted. As the mystery of Malaysian airliner MH370, which disappeared while bound for Beijing carrying 153 Chinese passengers and 74 others, continues into its 10th day, Chinese authorities are keen to be seeing as doing something – anything – to find the missing plane.
But the Chinese government, and the thousands of journalists watching the story unfold, are running up against geographic, technological and political realities. The Boeing 777, discovered missing March 8, may have crashed somewhere in the Indian or Pacific Ocean, making it unlikely that the plane’s whereabouts will be discovered soon.
Beijing knows the cost of appearing impotent when its citizens face danger abroad. When expatriates in violence-wracked Libya faced attacks in February 2011, China’s government moved quickly and successfully to evacuate what state media said were over 35,000 Chinese nationals. By contrast, in 2012 and 2013, several Chinese miners were killed and more than a hundred were arrested in Ghana, angering Internet users, many of whom grumbled that Beijing had done little to help .
Beijing seems determined to avoid that outcome this time, even if it has to labor to maintain the appearance of activity. On March 11, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran an article headlined “Xi Jinping Makes Late-Night Phone Call to Consulate to Inquire About Developments.” The article noted that Xi had personally made a March 9 call to the Chinese foreign ministry to “understand the latest developments” and to “urge an all-out search effort.” For his part, Li averred in a March 14 article in the same publication that authorities would “never give up” so long as there was “a thread of hope” that the passengers were alive. And a March 16 article in Xinhua, China’s largest state-run news agency, insisted that “China is pushing Malaysia to try harder in its search.”
Although China’s state-controlled media has kicked into high gear – there’s been no dearth of headlines and official tweets about the missing plane – the grinding sounds are audible. By the admission of some of its practitioners, Chinese press has seemed unable to do more than pass on official accounts of events, some of which Malaysian authorities have later been forced to retract. On March 8, the evening the plane was discovered missing, members of the Chinese media could not even agree whether it was ethically responsible to interview families of the missing passengers, who were gathered in the Lidu hotel in Beijing. State-run China Central Television helplessly wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, that “the Chinese side hopes the Malaysian side raises the degree of transparency of information disclosure.” Meanwhile, almost all of the breaking news –- including the fact that data shows the plane was in air for hours after its last reported position and its flight path veered far off course – has come via Western sources.
Chinese outlets are asking themselves, and each other, why they haven’t been able to do more. In a March 17 opinion piece on the Sina news portal titled “Why Chinese Media Lost the Malaysian Airliner News War,” Chinese reporter Xu Jingbo mocked China’s state-controlled media for being a “pampered princess” instead of a “hustling street vendor” with the necessary tenacity, technical expertise, and connections to break serious news. Xu wrote that Chinese media neglected the possibility the plane’s disappearance was a terrorist act, either because “they couldn’t do it” or because “they didn’t dare to,” as writing about it would have required approval from government authorities.
Bethany Allen and Xiaoran Zhang contributed reporting.