Tea Leaf Nation

One Day After Boat Carrying Hundreds Capsizes, China Watches and Waits

President Xi Jinping has said “profound lessons should be drawn” from the disaster. But it's still unclear just what happened.

A Chinese soldier stands guard near the unseen capsized passenger ship Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive.  AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese soldier stands guard near the unseen capsized passenger ship Dongfangzhixing or "Eastern Star" vessel which sank in the Yangtze river in Jianli, central China's Hubei province on June 2, 2015. Divers raced to find survivors on June 2 after a Chinese ship sank with more than 450 mainly elderly people in the storm-tossed Yangtze river, raising hopes more people can be found alive. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s a disaster that has transfixed China and highlighted, once again, the latent power of social media. On the evening of June 1, a Chinese cruise ship carrying 456 people capsized in the Yangtze River after it suddenly found itself in the middle of a tornado with level 12 winds, state media reports. Just over 24 hours later, “about 430” remain unaccounted for, with 14 rescued and seven declared dead, according to state agency Xinhua; many of those on board were participants in a Shanghai-based tour group for the elderly. The vessel’s captain, among those rescued, has reportedly been held for questioning, and authorities say they have dispatched 99 search and rescue ships and 55 rescue and assistance teams to the scene of the accident.

The cruise ship, a luxury-class ship called the Oriental Star, reportedly capsized at around 9:28 p.m. on June 1, China time, while passing through Jianli, a county in the landlocked province of Hubei. It had been traveling the Yangtze river on a scheduled multiday cruise starting in the southern city of Nanjing and slated to end in the inland city of Chongqing. The boat flipped after being struck, according to state media, by the sudden onset of a level 12 tornado. (The term used, longjuanfeng, can mean a storm, a hurricane, or a tornado; it appears state media are referring to the latter here. Level 12 winds, according to the Beaufort scale, are hurricane-level.) The ship is reported to be floating in water about 50 feet deep, where part of the hull remains exposed. Much of China continues to track the fates of the hundreds who remain missing. According to the Hubei Daily, rescue divers have reported knocking on the hull of the ship and hearing an answer, which “shows that people are still alive inside.”

Disasters like this are always risky for authorities in the ruling Communist Party. Any appearance of trivializing or temporizing is likely to be widely noted, and even a whiff of corruption or lax regulation behind the incident could doom careers. In the most innocent scenario, the government must choose between releasing information in real time that may not be fully correct, or proceeding more conservatively and opening itself up to allegations of a cover-up. Ever since social media users unmasked a bona fide official cover-up in the wake of a tragic July 2011 train crash in Wenzhou that killed 40 — ultimately landing then-railway minister Liu Zhijun in prison on a suspended death sentence for corruption — the party has generally favored the more transparent approach, perhaps because it feels social media leaves it no other choice.

Chinese authorities are also surely aware of the political aftermath of the shocking and tragic sinking of ferryboat Sewol off the southern coast of South Korea in April 2014, which killed over 300 people, many of whom were teenagers. Several months later, a Korean court convicted the captain of gross negligence and sentenced him to 36 years in prison. The country’s then-prime minister resigned. Some relatives of the deceased owner of Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, the firm that owned the ferry, have been jailed and sentenced.

In this case, Chinese state-run media is making what looks like a concerted effort to manage the fallout. The website of state mouthpiece People’s Daily quickly created a special section devoted to the incident with articles, maps of the boat’s location and interior, the boat’s itinerary and complete passenger manifest, and an image of Premier Li Keqiang hard at work near the scene. The latest piece of news notes that President Xi Jinping has ordered a working group dispatched to the site to assist with search and rescue. It adds that Xi believes that “profound lessons should be drawn” from the disaster and safety measures strengthened. The article notes that “the party center and state council attaches great importance” to the matter.

State media is also highlighting the story of one survivor. According to state news agency Xinhua, a 43-year-old named Zhang Hui said he waited for about 10 hours before being rescued. Before his ship capsized, Zhang said he saw a sudden mix of wind and rain, thunder, and lightning from inside his room. “The rain struck the right side of the boat, and water came into the room. Even if you closed the window, the water came through.” When the boat capsized, Zhang described it as “extremely sudden.” The Xinhua account paraphrases Zhang describing a desperate scramble for life vests. Zhang, who said he cannot swim, said he climbed through a window to escape the ship, and swallowing mouthfuls of water as “wave after wave” hit him. Later, another boat passed but did not see Zhang. “I told myself, hold on a while longer.” Zhang finally floated to a rocky shore. He said that each room came equipped with a life vest in an “obvious” location.

State press may be leading the conversation, but chatter about the boat also dominates social media. On Weibo, the country’s largest open social media platform, hashtags related to the capsizing have appeared over 360 million times. Not surprisingly, social media users are scrutinizing each piece of information released and even the press conference performance of party officials. Netizens were particularly critical of the appearance of a rescue team commander named Chen Shoumin, who summarized the status quo with four phrases — “we take it very seriously; we are moving quickly; the results are clear; the reserve [personnel] are adequate.” Online commenters declared his press conference to be a tone-deaf effort; some accused him of appearing to smile, others of declaring premature success. Observers also excoriated the performance of Minister of Transport Yang Chuantang, whom the powerful policymaking State Council had assigned to manage rescue operations, for sounding like a party-praising bureaucrat with “empty talk” and “ass talk.”

Some are also asking whether the weather was as bad as stated. One Weibo user who claims to be from Hubei wrote, “I’ve never seen [a tornado]. This is really sketchy.” Others have asked how such a serious weather event could have gone undetected in advance. But according to the weather channel of news portal Sina, experts can only predict a tornado 18 minutes before it strikes, “not enough time to prepare the report, disseminate it, and for the public to take protective measures.” (For good measure, it adds that “the United States is the ‘home of tornadoes,’” and appends an image that appears to depict an American town leveled by the phenomenon.) State media reports that after the arrival of the storm, the ship capsized within two minutes. About half an hour later, the maritime bureau of Yueyang, a city near Jianli, reportedly issued a weather warning to ships in the vicinity to “closely monitor changes in the weather” and prepare for wind, rain, and lightning.

Media outside of the state apparatus is also acting as a check. Caixin, a respected and privately owned investigative news magazine, has reported that “knowledgeable sources” say that while the ship was built to code and to withstand up to level 10 winds, subsequent renovations had been carried out by contractors who were not well-known and were not the original builders of the boat. The Caixin report also quotes unnamed sources saying the company that owns and operates the boat, Chongqing Orient Steam Company, paid and trained its workers poorly, and in 2013 had liabilities more than double its assets.

Many Chinese will likely remain skeptical of what they read until they feel enough time has passed for all facts to come to light. But all are united in wishing for the safe and speedy recovery of the hundreds still missing. Countless social media users have shared images of hands clasped in prayer. One widely circulated image shows a distressed young man tugging at the (then shut) door of Xiehe Travel Agency, which had organized the cruise, lamenting his decision to allow his mother and father to travel alone. “I was wrong to let them go,” he reportedly said. “It’s not his fault,” one wrote in response. “They left from a good spot. But natural disasters can’t be controlled.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola