On Monday, March 21, 2022, China Eastern Airline Flight 5735 crashed in Guangxi, killing all 132 people on board. The Guangzhou-bound plane departed from Kunming in the early afternoon, flew normally for approximately an hour, plunged 21,000 feet in 72 seconds, briefly recovered altitude, and then crashed into a Guangxi hillside. The flight was piloted by one of China’s most experienced commercial aviators and co-piloted by a young captain following in the footsteps of his father, a former commercial pilot. Experts are flummoxed as to the cause of the nose dive.
The crash is the greatest air disaster in China in decades. The last deadly China Eastern Airlines accident occured in 2004, when a jet flying from Inner Mongolia to Shanghai crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 55 people on board. Information about the recent crash has been strictly controlled by the government. At The New York Times, Austin Ramzy reported on how the Chinese government has leveraged propaganda and censorship to control discussion of the disaster:
Government and airline officials did emerge to give a news conference a day after the crash, but they could not answer basic questions about the doomed plane, a six-year-old Boeing 737-800, or its pilots, drawing online criticism that officials were issuing “rainbow farts” — a common idiom to describe excessive praise. Censors deleted articles and social media posts that raised more detailed questions about the disaster.
[…] Online, many mocked the performance of officials at a news conference late Tuesday, particularly Sun Shiying, the chairman of China Eastern Airlines Yunnan branch. He declined to answer questions about the maintenance history of the aircraft, the weather, the flying experience of the pilots and what they said to air traffic control during the flight. Instead, he read from a brief written statement saying that the plane was cruising when the crash occurred, and the airline was carrying out a thorough investigation.
[…] “Judging from the actual contents of those censored articles, they really did not say much,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times and a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley. “So there is definitely quite tight control on the airplane crash.” [Source]
Journalists attempting to report from the scene of the crash have been denied access to the area. In a now-censored WeChat essay archived by CDT, journalist Du Qiang—famed for his 2016 long-form article “Massacre in the Pacific: A Personal Account”— wrote of the extraordinary measures journalists have taken to evade police blockades and other obstacles while attempting to access the crash zone. Du himself rode a rented motorbike more than 35 miles in a futile attempt to evade checkpoints set up to block entry to journalists and other outsiders. Police also shot down drones used by news organizations to gain access to the site. In the essay, published to his personal WeChat blog, Du lamented that Chinese citizens today demand that everyone wait for “official announcements,” whereas in years gone by, they understood the need for investigative journalism: “People believing in their own government is a good thing, but in certain situations it is extremely naive—akin to a fantasy that some abstract system of integrity exists […] When people in the media don’t play by ‘the rules,’ that’s because there is no truth within the rules set up by the responsible parties.” The public’s demands are shaped by censorship. As pointed out in The Economist, censors allow nationalist commentators to savage independent journalists deemed unpatriotic—the irony being, a veteran journalist told the magazine, that they are unaware that “what they are attacking is already dead.”
Du’s point that censorship and media constraints are, in part, a product of public demand was illustrated by the blowback China’s People magazine received after publishing intimate portraits of the disaster victims. Netizens accused the publication of “eating buns dipped in human blood.” As Fang Kecheng explained in his NewsLab newsletter, the phrase has been appropriated by Chinese netizens to accuse media outlets of capitalizing on victims’ trauma—whereas the phrase as it originally appeared in Lu Xun’s 1919 short story “Medicine” criticized the ignorance and apathy that plagued late imperial China. At China Media Project, Stella Chen documented the ensuing media firestorm and state media’s consistent efforts to reroute the conversation away from human tragedy and towards official narratives:
In using this term “public character” (公共性), the central media source [quoted in a piece critical of People] meant something akin to, but notably different from, the idea of the public interest. Generally, in China’s official news culture, under the strictures of the CCP’s view of the news, the government response is the news, period. The leadership is anxious to ensure that the initial news cycle is dominated by stories of government action and heroism – and that questions of negligence or responsibility are sidelined or buried. Frequently, once the initial period of response is finished and an official investigation underway, media are told that the time has passed for reflection. Propaganda instructions will often explicitly direct media not to “reflect back” (回顾).
[…] Another Shenzhen University professor, Peng Huaxin (彭华新), took issue with the assertion that all information about the victims and their family members should remain private. While the right to privacy involved the protection of certain private information as well as the dignity of a person, the release of certain information could also be of public concern in the event of such tragedies, he said. “Obviously, the people in this sudden tragedy are figures for whom most of the nation now feels concern and attachment, and the publication of their names is also done out of respect or a sense of grief for them,” said Peng. “There is nothing wrong with the moderate disclosure of their names, which does not include any negative information or personal insult.”
[…] The CCTV reporter’s action quickly became the story on March 23, drawing the focus away from the victims and back to one of a number of official narratives. A still image of the CCTV broadcast was shared by the network on social media, the reporter’s hand covering an ID in the dirt, with the caption: “This does not need to be featured.” [Source]
Online, many followed People’s Daily’s lead and insisted that media outlets not publish the names of victims or contact their families in the name of “journalistic ethics.” During previous disasters, the state has mandated that media outlets follow Xinhua’s line rather than pursue independent inquiry. A WeChat essay from the blog @旧闻评论 (in English, “Old News Revisited”), criticized the tropes of “eating buns dipped in human blood” and “journalistic ethics” as tools used to silence the free press:
To slander People magazine’s reporting as “eating buns dipped in human blood” is an extremely foolish concept. In fact, doing so accords with certain shrewd plans that aim to control the flow of information about disasters and manage the direction of public debate. To minimize media reports by alleging they do not conform with so-called “journalistic ethics,” to engage in grandiose discussions on “journalistic ethics” in a place without journalism, is a method [for unnamed parties] to reap the benefits of sowing confusion. [Chinese]
The strictures faced by the media were again put in stark relief during the search for MU5735’s two black boxes. The first black box was recovered quickly at the scene of the crash, while the second box remained undiscovered for a number of days. On the Friday following the crash, the state-run outlet China Civil Aviation News, in a two-word article that included 7 reporters’ bylines, reported that the second black box had been found —only to retract their report and apologize for a lack of fact checking. Major state news outlets then reported the discovery of the second black box on Sunday.
Upon the recovery of the second black box and the identification of all 132 victims’ remains, the Chinese state moved on to an officially designated mourning period. After previous tragedies, the media’s effort to “reflect back” after the official mourning ceremonies has been met with further strictures. At China Media Project, David Bandurski reported on the Catch-22 that plagues Chinese media: report too early and be accused of “eating buns dipped in human blood”; report too late and be accused of picking at old scars:
Now that fully eight days have passed, the authorities are pushing for everyone to move on from the tragedy – and from related stories and speculation. At this point, according to general practice, media will be discouraged from any further reporting on the crash, possibly through propaganda department directives.
During the first 7 days of a tragedy, the official line is typically that it is too early to “reflect back.” Personal and human stories are too painful and disrespectful while all energy should be on recovery and rescue. Once 7 days have passed, the perspective shifts. It is suddenly time for everyone to move on – because revisiting tragedy, or obsessing about its details, is too painful.
The WeChat blog 中式没品笑话百科 sarcastically highlighted the fallacy inherent in the arguments of free media’s critics: “It’s as if, if the media simply ceased to exist, horrible things would vanish, the internet would be purified, and society would take a turn for the better. Media is the root of all evil. Curse the media forever, while forever crying righteous tears.”