Thirteen Chinese officials boarded a plane bound for Malaysia on Monday morning. Their mission: to help investigate the deepening mystery surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished in the early hours of March 8 while winging its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The majority of the jetliner’s passengers — 153 of 227 — held passports from mainland China. And now the Chinese want answers — even if the Malaysians hadn’t quite formally invited them.
The team of representatives from the Foreign Ministry and Public Security Ministry, as well as aviation experts, “will urge the Malaysian side to intensify search and rescue efforts, to find out the fact of the incident as soon as possible, to timely release the accurate information and to well serve the family members of the passengers to Malaysia at the same time,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The delegation was to begin work “immediately” upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur.
A few hours after the Chinese officials took off, some 150 distraught family and friends of those on the lost plane gathered in the grand ballroom complex of a Beijing hotel, where they had been cloistered by Malaysia Airlines. With them was another set of Chinese bureaucrats. It was, the relatives said, the first time that Chinese government representatives had met with them. During the question-and-answer session, frustrations simmered as the answers seemed to elicit nothing beyond the officials’ initial statement. Shouting ensued. After less than half-an-hour, the meeting was terminated, despite efforts by some family members to stop the bureaucrats from exiting the room.
Dissatisfaction hasn’t only been directed at the Chinese government. Much ire has been reserved for Malaysia Airlines for failing to adequately update family members on the investigation into MH370’s disappearance. Of course, it’s hard to provide updates when so little is known about a jetliner that disappeared without a trace or even a distress signal. Nevertheless, anger has snowballed as families feel that information about their loved ones is being kept from them. On Monday afternoon, Malaysia Airlines employees briefed family at the Beijing hotel. They were pelted with water bottles.
Outside the grand ballroom’s wooden doors, a throng of media waited. Small clusters of passengers’ families walked past, often holding hands with elderly relatives. Police vehicles patrolled the neighborhood around the hotel. Inside, family members debated whether or not they would take Malaysia Airlines up on an offer to fly them to Kuala Lumpur. The first flight is scheduled to leave just after midnight on Tuesday. Some of the families have armed themselves with lawyers.
A massive nine-nation search for the missing carrier continues off the coast of Vietnam and other expanses on the plane’s planned flight path. Governments that in recent months had been skirmishing over disputed territorial waters have joined together. But so far the multinational effort has yielded no evidence of the Boeing 777’s whereabouts; initial hope from oil slicks discovered off the coast was dashed Monday when officials said they weren’t from the plane.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sounded almost reproachful when discussing Malaysia’s crisis management on Sunday. “The Chinese side requires the Malaysian side to keep trying every effort in the search-and-rescue work and informing the Chinese side every progress,” Wang said. “We will never give up and will keep trying as long as there is any glimpse of hope.”
The airline mystery has dominated social media and news portals in China. But for the Chinese state’s propaganda machine, the balance is tricky. The anxious wait for news of the missing plane has overshadowed the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature currently taking place in Beijing. The opening of the congress was eclipsed by other tragic news, that of a massacre by knife-wielding attackers in the southwestern city of Kunming that claimed 29 lives. The government quickly blamed the rampage on jihadi-bent separatists from Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China that is home to the Uighur ethnic minority.
On March 10, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, declined to run a front-page story about the vanished jetliner. A censorship directive leaked online and posted in English by China Digital Times, which operates out of the University of California, Berkeley, indicated that Chinese media were not allowed to “independently analyze or comment on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight.” The directive continued: “All media must refrain from interviewing family members without permission, and must not incite any discontented sentiment. All media continue to give increased publicity to the [parliament meeting in Beijing].”
Meanwhile, emotional outpourings proliferated online. He Jiong, a Chinese TV host, wrote on his Weibo microblogging account: “Let’s pray for the miracle to happen.” By Monday afternoon, the post had been shared more than 46,000 times. Others speculated about whether the plane’s disappearance was due to a problem with the plane or some nefarious human intervention. The fact that only a week separated the Kunming terrorist attack and the vanished plane led others — without evidence — to try to connect the two tragedies.
Fears of terrorism have been fanned by revelations that at least two of the passengers had boarded the ill-fated flight with stolen passports. But there is no proof that this immigration anomaly has anything to do with the plane’s disappearance; forged documents are used for everything from illegal immigration to drug trafficking. Few countries adequately plumb a vast Interpol database on stolen passports.
On Sunday, Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the two men who used the sham passports were of Asian origin, according to Malaysian state news agency Bernama. But on Monday evening, Malaysia’s top civil-aviation official, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, described the pair, who boarded MH370 with stolen Austrian and Italian passports, using a surprising reference. They resembled, he said, Mario Balotelli, the Italian footballer whose birth parents emigrated from Ghana.
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing