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In Malaysia Airlines Disappearance, Terrorism Fears Fly in China

In Malaysia Airlines Disappearance, Terrorism Fears Fly in China

Anguish, grief, and frustration have gripped China after the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) en route from Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to the Chinese capital of Beijing. There were 153 Chinese nationals among the 239 passengers and crew on board the plane when it vanished from radar screens in the early hours of March 8. At least two passengers on MH370 traveled on stolen passports, raising the possibility of foul play. Chatter and speculation about the flight have gripped Chinese social media — as of this article’s publication, seven of the 10 most-searched terms on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, relate to the flight — even as the country’s state media remains relatively quiet.

The news of the plane’s disappearance has struck a China already on high alert for terrorism. Only a week earlier on March 1, a gruesome knife attack in the train station of provincial capital Kunming in southern Yunnan province left at least 29 dead and more than 140 injured. Chinese authorities have deemed the carnage in Kunming a terrorist attack carried out by separatists from Xinjiang, a region in northwest China heavily populated by Uighur Muslims. On Chinese social media, a particularly anxious place after the Kunming horror, some speculation about the cause of MH370’s disappearance has linked it to terrorism or sabotage. On March 10, well-known television host Yang Lan wrote to her 34 million followers on Weibo that "more and more signs are pointing to a terrorist attack." Huang Sheng, a professional investor and author, compared MH370’s disappearance to the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 in 1988. Ran Xiongfei, a sports commentator, also wrote, "Everything is unknown, but signs of terrorism are becoming more noticeable."

By contrast, Chinese state-owned media have been very cautious not to draw conclusions about MH370’s disappearance. While some state-owned media have translated international reports about possible probes into terrorism, People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV), two of the Communist Party’s flagship media outlets, have not explicitly associated the plane’s disappearance with terrorism. Although many readers would likely prefer those outlets to engage the question directly, state media’s hands are tied. According to the U.S.-based China Digital Times, China’s Central Propaganda Department has issued instructions prohibiting "independent analysis or commentary" of the incident. (The department frequently issues directives instructing Chinese media on what to say, or what not to.)

In response to conflicting demands from readers and the party, some media have resorted to back-channel measures to satisfy both, resulting in an echo chamber in which information seems to come simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere. The current digital front page of People’s Daily links to a Weibo post being passed around by other media outlets that purports to "inventory" from other sources some "eight possible reasons" for the disappearance and ask a Chinese aviation expert for his "conjecture" — the first topic discussed is terrorism. The popular list — also circulated by state-run news service Xinhua — allegedly hails from liberal outlet Beijing News, but a search of the latter’s website fails to call it up.

Chinese-language reports from outside the country have also quickly found their way into China’s eager cyberspace. According to an anonymous pilot interviewed by The Chinese Weekly, a U.K.-based Chinese-language magazine, "terrorism is the most likely explanation" because weather on the flight’s route was good and MH370’s experienced pilots sent no distress signals. Taiwan’s National Security Bureau also reportedly received warnings of potential attacks against Beijing’s airport and subway a few days before MH370’s disappearance.

There are several possible reasons for Chinese state media’s strict approach to this story. First and foremost, no clear facts explaining the plane’s disappearance have emerged, and a degree of journalistic restraint from major outlets is laudable. In addition, with Beijing focused on the Two Meetings, the annual session of two of its most important political bodies, it’s putting security front and center — that includes keeping state media on an even tighter leash than usual. Finally, Chinese authorities are almost certainly wary of causing mass panic or worsening ethnic tensions in the wake of the Kunming attack. Beijing is known for a hard stance on what it calls Xinjiang’s separatists, but widespread ethnic hatred would not serve its stated objective of social stability. If anything, it would demonstrate that the government’s policy of encouraging waves of majority Han Chinese to settle in the Western region, one dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic minority, has not worked.

Frantic efforts by several countries to locate the plane’s wreckage in the expansive waters between Vietnam and Malaysia have proven unsuccessful so far. Malaysian police have reportedly identified one of the stolen passport holders. While Inspector General Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar did not share details about the passenger’s nationality, he was quoted as claiming that the man is not from Xinjiang. The Financial Times reported on March 10 that the two passengers obtained their tickets through an Iranian contact.* (Some experts have floated the possibility of a sudden attack onboard, but the evidence cited is circumstantial at best and the cause of the disappearance is still under investigation.)

The schism between Chinese mainstream and social media depictions of the flight’s fate has caused consternation among some social media users. In a post that was later deleted by censors, one Weibo user fumed, "Vietnam is still searching; Malaysia Airlines is still denying; Chinese navy ships are still on their way." Meanwhile, "The People’s Daily is still sensationalizing; CCTV is still reporting on the two meetings; Weibo is still deleting; reporters are still at the Lidu Hotel" in Beijing, where families of the missing Chinese passengers await further word of their whereabouts. China, he concluded, is "still worrying."

*Correction, March 11, 2014: The Financial Times reported on March 10 that two passengers on MH370 obtained their tickets through an Iranian contact. This article originally stated they obtained their false identity documents from an Iranian contact. (Return to reading.)