Plane Crash in China Raises Puzzling Questions
The country has not had a serious flight accident since 2010, but officials aren’t sharing many details.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: A passenger plane crash raises questions because of China’s excellent flight safety record, rising COVID-19 cases prompt a new lockdown strategy, and the United States issues another round of sanctions on Chinese officials over abuses in Xinjiang.
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Unanswered Questions in Guangxi Plane Crash
The crash of China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 in southwest China with 132 passengers and crew onboard has raised puzzling questions in China, which last saw a serious flight accident in 2010. The flight, headed from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed in Guangxi region on Monday within an hour of takeoff. Unverified footage appears to show a sudden and unexplained nosedive. It is very unlikely there are any survivors.
The plane involved—a Boeing 737-800—has an excellent safety record, as does Chinese aviation in the last decade. In the 1990s, accidents were common despite a smaller number of flights; Air China, then the main carrier in the country, had a reputation for undertrained pilots and poorly maintained aircraft. By some measures, it was the deadliest airline in the world.
But in the 2000s, China began a massive program of airport expansion, going from 139 airports in 2000 to 241 in 2020—the same year that it became the largest airline market in the world, overtaking the United States. Flying became a normal middle-class activity in China, replacing rail travel. The number of passengers grew from 72 million in 2000 to 418 million in 2020.
The industry growth was accompanied by a serious and successful safety program—a rarity in China, where industrial accidents remain common. (Rail safety is also traditionally a strong area, however.) The airline safety program, spearheaded by official Yang Yuanyuan, involved significant cooperation with foreign standards during a period when such work was politically acceptable and sometimes encouraged.
Yang was both a connected politician and professionally trained and skilled pilot: During his tenure, China slashed its accident rate by 80 percent even as it nearly tripled its fleet. The military’s dominance of the skies limited available airspace and often delayed Chinese commercial flights, but they were safe.
This history makes Monday’s crash more puzzling and tragic. Experts say they are mystified. Unfortunately, one theory circulating on social media is that Boeing somehow caused the crash to discredit Chinese airlines—inspired by the belief that the West is conspiring against China. This theory became so widespread that Chinese state media debunked it. Such theories have increased during the Ukraine war, due to the largely pro-Russian stance of the Chinese media and public.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has appointed one of its officials to investigate the crash, since the plane was U.S.-made; that may stir more paranoia within China. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has used the crash to accuse the United States of being “callous” in its criticism of China’s human rights abuses.
Finally, the plane crash has stirred memories of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in 2014 carrying mostly Chinese passengers. Experts had numerous theories—of varying degrees of plausibility—about Flight 370’s disappearance, including William Langewiesche’s controversial suggestion of pilot suicide. But because Chinese authorities are uncomfortable with images of grieving or angry relatives, there was also heavy censorship even of a disaster that had nothing to do with the Chinese government.
Unless investigators discover a clear reason for this week’s crash, the same pattern is likely to repeat. On Wednesday, rescuers located the plane’s flight recorder, but officials have released few details about pilots or the potential cause of the crash.
What We’re Following
Omicron outbreak grows. The number of new COVID-19 cases in mainland China continues to climb, with more than 5,000 reported on Tuesday. China hasn’t yet experienced the type of massive surge seen elsewhere from the omicron variant, but for the first time since early 2020, it seems like there could be a discrepancy between the official numbers and anecdotal reports. This could reflect a delay in reporting or public paranoia, but officials tasked with maintaining zero COVID-19 cases for two years are unlikely to want to report big increases.
China continues to say packages from abroad are leading to cases of surface transmission, a phenomenon scientists elsewhere long ago dismissed. China’s claims of long-distance transmission, including through frozen food, are likely related to the false claim that COVID-19 originated in the United States. It may also be a convenient excuse for local authorities when the contact-tracing process hits a break in the known chain of transmission.
In general, China increasingly appears to be using targeted lockdowns, in which residential compounds are locked down one by one rather than a lockdown for the entire area. It seems unlikely that the measures can completely stop this outbreak, but they may be able to significantly slow it down and allow a new vaccination push targeted at the elderly.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the city government has expressed its gratitude to mainland China for providing a steady supply of coffins as deaths continue at record-high rates. Early data suggests that a disproportionate number of those who have died from COVID-19 in Hong Kong received Chinese-made vaccines, rather than mRNA vaccines. (The government challenged that data.)
U.S. sanctions Chinese officials. The United States has issued another round of sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prompting the usual retorts from Beijing. Keeping with its predecessor, the Biden administration has upheld sanctions and maintained the declaration of genocide in Xinjiang, which has alienated Chinese officials who hoped for a reset without any change in policy.
The United States planned the latest sanctions before the war in Ukraine began, but China may see them as another attempt to pressure it away from full-throated support of Russia.
Tech and Business
Ukraine watch. China’s position on the war in Ukraine continues to be defined as not so much pro-Russian as virulently anti-American, with state media and social media alike full of attacks against NATO and conspiracy theories about biolabs. In a meeting at the Hoover Institution with a group of China experts on Tuesday, I saw almost no agreement on whether Beijing would provide actual military aid to Moscow, limit itself to possible financial support, or simply use the opportunity to snatch up energy bargains.
As Tracy Wen Liu writes in Foreign Policy, Chinese propaganda instructions now allow state media to show civilian suffering in Ukraine—but without attributing blame to one side. Social media remains largely pro-Putin, with Russian losses dismissed as propaganda or attributed to Western meddling.
Chinese banks remain averse to Russian deals, owing to fear of secondary sanctions. Even development banks have so far shied away from Russia. But as economist Darrell Duffie suggested to me, if it wanted to support Russia, the Chinese government could set up so-called burner banks, using smaller banks to provide aid and letting them take the hit from sanctions.
TikTok censorship. An investigation by German TV news program Tagesschau found that the German version of TikTok blocked numerous terms related to LGBTQ+ issues or Chinese politics, including around the case of tennis player Peng Shuai. TikTok claims to be politically independent from its Chinese parent company ByteDance; a pattern of censorship on behalf of Beijing around the world has emerged, which the company attributes to mistakes.
The collapse of the Trump administration’s efforts to ban the firm or force a sale has taken some of the heat off the U.S. part of the firm, with the Biden administration reaching out to TikTok influencers to promote its approach to Ukraine, for example. That could change as relations with Beijing get even colder.
Real estate stumbles. China’s real estate sector briefly resurged last week after the news that the central government had indefinitely delayed implementing a property tax. But a painful liquidity crunch continues, and February’s numbers saw a 50 percent drop in sales from most firms compared to the previous year. Zhenro, a prominent Shanghai-based firm, is on the brink of default, and a range of companies have announced they will indefinitely delay board meetings or releasing financial results.
The contagion seems to be spreading to Hong Kong, where a friend described the real estate market as “almost as cheerful as our COVID outlook.” Meanwhile, China Evergrande Group—in a state of perpetual collapse—had $2.1 billion of its cash deposits seized by debtor banks after it announced it wouldn’t meet the deadline for publishing audited results for 2021.
Correction, March 23, 2022: China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 was en route to Guangzhou when it crashed. A previous version of this newsletter mistakenly said it was headed for Beijing.
Correction, March 24, 2022: This article has been updated to correct an error in the name of the main carrier in China in the 1990s; it was Air China.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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