On Tuesday, a journalist friend of mine tried to fly from southern China to Shanghai. The whole process took 11 hours. My friend was told the People's Liberation Army, those lovers of late notice, had imposed airspace controls over eastern China in order to carry out a military exercise (Note to editor: I didn't learn this from Xinhua so the writing of that line does not constitute a sackable offence). The delays were substantial. Not that this information was released to the public. The airports - and of course Xinhua - were not allowed to divulge the reason for the controls by order of the Central Military Commission. Air travellers were instead fed a phrase sure to make them nod their heads in understanding, relax with an overpriced cup of Blue Mountain coffee and be happy for their plane to take as long it needed. "The controls have been imposed for unspecified reasons."
The first Xinhua report, released on Tuesday evening, went like this:
"Air controls imposed on Tuesday morning delayed at least ten flights at Baiyun airport in the southern city of Guangzhou and stranded about 1,600 passengers, sources with China Southern Airlines said..."
I once again reverted to indignant polisher mode, demanding follow-ups for every day the controls were still in place. I realised the large majority of air travellers affected would be Chinese, and therefore unlikely to be regular readers of Xinhua's English-language service, but the incident really bugged me for several reasons:
1) It reminded me of a similar occurrence at almost the same time last year. Shanghai's Pudong international airport was closed on the orders of the PLA (China's airspace is controlled by the military) but Xinhua didn't even report the closure let alone the reason because the whole palaver was a "state secret". By all accounts, the PLA had not given the airport authority any prior warning. Reuters reported a passenger flight and a cargo flight from Japan airlines had been forced to turn back to Japan. A textbook example to illustrate what can happen when the PLA is not answerable to the State. This latest incident again went some way to highlighting how much the PLA considers the people in its decision-making processes.
2) Xinhua seemed to have deemed the case closed despite the vague warning coming in the last paragraph that the airspace controls would last for days resulting in continued disruption. An awareness of an audience other than its own "leaders" has never been the agency's strong point. In addition, the initial report only referred to delays in Guangzhou yet there were hundreds of flights affected all over eastern China. There was barely any coverage in the Chinese-language press and only a nib in Shanghai Daily.
3) I am British. Therefore I have an inbuilt mechanism to express fury at even the smallest delay to travel plans. Back in July 2003, chaos reigned at London's Heathrow Airport due to staff strikes. Images of fuming holidaymakers dominated the television news for days. "Unspecified reasons" would have met with rebellion. [Full Text]