Tea Leaf Nation

China, Grounded

As missing airliner continues to baffle, China confronts the limits of its power.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

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 tenth 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 Chinese journalists watching the story unfold, are running up against geographic, technological, and political realities. The Boeing 777, last reported cruising high above the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam on March 8, may have crashed somewhere in the Indian or Pacific oceans, 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 more than 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 Consular Affairs to Inquire About Developments." The article noted that on March 9, Xi had personally dialed 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 the 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.

A slightly more forgiving opinion piece published that same day in respected financial news outlet Caijing argued that Chinese media’s hands were tied because of the same power dynamics that likely bedevil Chinese authorities. The article argued that Chinese reporters’ ability to garner exclusives rested on with whom "the party in power" — in this case Malaysia — selects to share breaking news, which in turn depends on whether the recipient can share that information with the outside world. That question, the article wrote, ultimately traces back to a Catch-22: Chinese media is too closely managed to build experience with deep reportage, but the lack of such experience gives authorities yet another pretext to continue tightly managing it.

Malaysian authorities have certainly given China ample room for angst. The New York Times reported on March 16 that a series of errors, delays, and obfuscations by the Malaysian government and military has hampered the search process. Chinese social media, which provides the best available public indicator of citizen sentiment, has not shown a proclivity to forgive. An online short comic series shared over 50,000 times on Weibo depicts a haggard boss (China) defenestrating a lazy employee (Malaysia) after he gives lackadaisical answers at a meeting about MH370 also attended by well-prepped Vietnamese and U.S. avatars. (In an introduction, the artist calls the Malaysians a "pig troupe.") A phrase combining the character for Malaysia with a popular Internet curse word became a Weibo hashtag and been used more than 400,000 times.

But ire at Malaysia won’t quell the discontent also brewing against China’s own, hopelessly compromised public voices. In his March 17 article, Xu questioned why Chinese media is only parroting government quotes while "chasing behind the asses" of major U.S. and U.K. outlets like CNN, Reuters, and The New York Times. One widely circulated Weibo quote complained that rather than doing its own legwork, Chinese media has "re-tweeted a week’s worth of news." China certainly harbors ambitions to bestride the globe. But the deeply vexing case of the missing 777 helps illuminate how far it still has to go.

Bethany Allen and Xiaoran Zhang contributed reporting.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. @dwertime

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