TIME

No News Here, Folks: China’s Premier Li Conducts Yearly Boring Press Briefing

China's Premier Li Keqiang takes questions during a news conference, after the closing ceremony of the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing March 13, 2014 Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters

At the triumphal end of China’s annual legislative session, the elephant in the room that is Zhou Yongkang remains tightly under wraps

It was the one question the Chinese public (not to mention the Beijing press corps) was awaiting. The scene was the annual press conference with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Actually, the words “press conference” make the session that closes the National People’s Congress sound like a spontaneous event. Rest assured that the Q&A with the Chinese Premier is a meticulously scripted affair.

The journalists chosen to ask questions on the morning of March 13 were contacted beforehand. There’s negotiation — at least from some foreign reporters — about exactly how the queries will be phrased. But there are to be no surprises at the triumphal end of China’s annual legislative session. This pre-screening ensures that the Premier somehow has all the right facts and figures available to respond in great detail. There are even ringers brought in who are instructed to raise their hands with great enthusiasm. As Li slogged through his answers, journalists took bets on how long it would take for the news-making moment to arrive.

Li uttered disquisitions on the mystery surrounding Malaysia Airline Flight 370, which disappeared without a trace on March 8 with 153 Chinese passengers on board (Li: “families and friends [of passengers] are burning with anxiety” and “as long as there is a glimmer of hope,” China will not halt its search for the missing airliner) and the greatest challenge for China last year (Li: “increased downward pressure on China’s economic growth”). He vowed that “we need to loosen the straightjacket on businesses” and mentioned the hot term “rule of law” a couple times. Li acknowledged the severity of China’s air pollution problem, guaranteeing “a war on our own inefficient and unsustainable model of growth and way of life” and noting that the first thing many Chinese do upon waking is to check pollution-index aps on their cellphones.

But the question in question never came. For months now, a dragnet has appeared to tighten around Zhou Yongkang, who oversaw China’s massive surveillance state until his retirement in late 2012. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li, China has launched an anti-corruption crackdown that has netted hundreds of wayward officials. President Xi has promised to nab both lowly “flies” and high-ranking “tigers.” If Zhou, he of the Mafioso slicked-back hair and steely gaze, is indeed probed, he would be the mightiest tiger to be felled in decades. After all, he was a member of China’s elite ruling circle: the then nine (now seven) men of the party’s Standing Committee who determine the course of the People’s Republic.

Over the past year, a slew of officials high and low who worked under Zhou in three main spheres — the state-owned oil industry, the populous province of Sichuan and the Public Security Ministry — have been detained. His son and top aides have been implicated in nefarious financial dealings. Zhou himself may be under house arrest. All of which led some China-watchers to expect that Premier Li would use a pre-approved question at his press conference to at least indirectly refer to the state’s possible case against Zhou.

Li did not. In an annual press conference remarkably devoid of actual news, the Premier did take on a question about corruption; it was the third one asked of him and was lobbed Li’s way by a reporter from the online arm of People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Li’s voice took on a stern tone as he swore “zero tolerance” for corrupt cadres. He vowed that no matter “how senior his position is [corrupt officials] will be severely dealt with and punished to the full extent of the law.” Li promised that “everyone is equal before the law.” But, despite the People’s Daily reporter asking specifically whether there was anything systemic that could be changed, Li declined to tout an easy tool to combat corruption among party ranks: asset disclosure. Granted, releasing such financial information is a rather touchy subject in a political culture where profiting from power is almost expected.

More importantly, no names — certainly not Zhou’s — were named. Two years ago, at the final press conference by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, he launched a not-so-oblique attack on Bo Xilai, the former party chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing and an aspirant to the Standing Committee. One day after Wen’s press conference, the Bo purge began. It was a dramatic downfall that involved a poisoned British businessman, a murderous wife and a cache of absconded public funds. Bo’s case turned into China’s biggest political scandal in decades. (Zhou was considered to have been Bo’s political patron.)

As the minutes ticked by in Li’s presser, expectations rose. After all, former Premier Wen had dispatched his tirade aimed at Bo toward the end of his press conference. Before answering his penultimate question, Li noted that it was time for lunch. Journalists must be hungry. A question followed on China’s trading relations with Europe — specifically to do with high-speed rails, nuclear power and solar panels. Then came the last question, the subject of which I’ve frankly forgotten. Suffice it to say it was not about Mr. Zhou. Reporters were dismissed for lunch.

On Weibo, China’s lively although occasionally censored microblogging service, people digested the press conference. One popular strain of commentary wondered why no mention had been made of Zhou. Wrote one Weibo user: “I’m very puzzled, why did the journalists, especially the foreign journalists, not cherish their opportunity to ask questions? Don’t they know Master Kang is the most delicious one?” (Zhou’s name is blocked on Weibo searches so Chinese online use creative nicknames like Master Kang to evade the state censors.) Apparently the Weibo commenters were not aware of the scripted ritual. In fact, in a meeting with a senior Chinese official some weeks back, some of us in the foreign press community had already been warned that a question on Zhou was verboten.

Meanwhile, the day before Li’s press conference began, a bloodied man was found dead in the stairwell of a securities’ firm off Beijing’s Financial Street, one of the Chinese capital’s business areas. Police said the man had ended his own life with a knife. His will was discovered. The dead man, according to Chinese media reports, is related to a former secretary to a senior leader currently under investigation. The Chinese press did not name the disgraced politician but he appears to be none other than Zhou Yongkang.

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

TIME Aviation

The Missing Malaysian Plane: 5 Conspiracy Theories

Women are silhouetted as they watch a Malaysia Airlines jet taxi on the tarmac at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Women are silhouetted as they watch a Malaysia Airlines jet taxi on the tarmac at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, March 11, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia. Wong Maye-E—AP

The tragic disappearance of flight MH370 has spawned an unlikely assortment of conspiracy theories -- from supernatural intervention to the influence of the illuminati.

The reason why a Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 people disappeared on Saturday is still as mysterious as when the plane first lost radar contact. While fears of terrorism began to fade when it was revealed Tuesday that one of the infamous stolen passports was held by a 19-year-old Iranian asylum seeker with no terrorist ties, search teams now have even fewer explanations for what might have happened. When asked where the plane could be, air traffic controller Izhar Bahari at Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation told TIME, “We’ve made no progress, we don’t have a clue.”

In the absence of any definitive answer, conspiracy theorists have emerged with explanations of their own, however implausible. While there’s no credible evidence to support these theories, here are the ones getting the most attention:

1. Eerie cell phones rings could mean passengers’ phones are still on—or inhabited by ghosts. Relatives and friends of the plane’s passengers said they were able to find their loved ones on a Chinese instant messenger service called QQ, reports the Washington Post. Others tried calling the vanished passengers’ phones and heard ringtones even though the calls were not picked up. Many thought the phones might still be on, and more than 100 of them signed a petition to the Malaysian government to hurriedly investigate.

That led more suspicious observers to fire off rounds of irrational theories. Did the mysterious ringing indicate the passengers had been kidnapped and are still alive somewhere? Or was it the supernatural at work?

2. An otherworldly portal could have sucked up the flight.“If we never find the debris, it means some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force is at work on our planet which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence,” said one blogger. Was it an alien abduction? others ask.

3. The flight’s disappearance was predetermined and perhaps written into the very fabric of the universe. Reddit is rife with commenters fixated on the numerical coincidences of the flight’s disappearance. “Interesting numerology,” said one Reddit user, RedditB. “Flight 370 disappears on 3/7 while reportedly traveling 3,700 km. Flight 370 flew at an altitude of 37,000 feet when it was last reported using flight tracking software. Luigi Maraldi, age 37, was one of the individuals whose passport was stolen. Malaysia Airlines is one of Asia’s largest, flying nearly 37,000 passengers daily. As of today, we are beginning the 37th month since the Fukushima tragedy, which is located on the 37th degree and initially caused 37 injuries at the plant.”

4. The North Koreans hijacked the jet. Others have argued the jet was hijacked by North Koreans and flown to Pyongyang. One Reddit user, Nickryane, claims the plane had enough fuel to fly to North Korea and remain within cell phone range. The dictatorship hijacked a jet in 1969, so Kim Jong-un would be pulling an old card out of the deck.

5. The Illuminati did it. One guess points to the supposed vortex energy points on the earth’s surface that Illuminati “and/or ancient aliens” who can control the energy grid. Commenters and bloggers emerged to point to occultists and nefarious shadowy figures who helped down the plane.

While the absence of a distress signal has helped such conspiracy theories abound, it does not rule out the very real possibility that the jet exploded at a high altitude and disintegrated. It’s a terrifying prospect because it would mean no trace of the jet will be found, and that the search for the plane is in vain.

“The fact that there was no distress signal is very disturbing,” Ross Aimer, an aviation consultant, told Al-Jazeera. “It’s almost unprecedented.”

TIME Iran

‘I’m Safe': Last Status Update of Teenager on Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight

Pouria Nourmohammadi, a 19-year-old Iranian aboard Flight MH370 with a stolen passport who was planning to reach Germany, wrote "I'm Safe" on Facebook hours before the plane vanished over the weekend

The last status update Pouria Nourmohammadi posted on his Facebook page indicated he was “feeling excited.” The 19-year-old Iranian had good reason to be: he was embarking on the first leg of a flight that would ultimately take him to Germany where his mother was waiting to help him begin a new life.

But his journey was tragically interrupted. His flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday morning with all 239 people on board. Nearly four days later, no trace has been found of the Boeing 777 in spite of a massive search operation conducted by at least nine countries.

Nourmohammadi had earlier hinted he would be going on a long, life-changing trip. “Because of some problems I will deactivate my account. Friends, seriously, if I’ve done any of you a bad turn, forgive me because maybe …” he posted on his Facebook page on Feb. 24.

It was only when he started posting pictures of himself in Malaysia at popular Kuala Lumpur landmarks like the Petronas Towers that some of his friends realized he had left Iran.

“So you’ve gone as well?” wrote one on March 4. “Will you ever return?”

“No,” replied Nourmohammadi.

The revelation that two Iranians had boarded the Malaysian jetliner with stolen passports raised suspicions of hijacking or terrorism. However this was played down by authorities on Tuesday. Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol, said at a press conference that Nourmohammadi and 29-year-old Seyed Hamid Reza Delavar were “probably not terrorists.”

The head of the Malaysian police force, Khalid Abu Bakar, also said on Tuesday that after having been in touch with Nourmohammadi’s mother in Frankfurt, he believed the teenager had been trying to reach Europe as an asylum seeker. Because of dire economic circumstances as well as restrictions on social freedoms at home, some Iranian youth opt to make such risky trips. Many of them must use illegal methods, usually involving human-trafficking rings. Nourmohammadi had left Iran with his official passport, but apparently used a stolen Austrian passport when he arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

Until a few weeks ago, Nourmohammadi’s Facebook page seemed much like that of any other 19-year-old. It has posts on cars, girls and video clips of youth poking fun at those in authority. But as he approaches his departure from Iran, his posts turn more cryptic, the youthful cheerfulness dims. Nourmohammadi knew he was taking a big risk: he asked friends to pray for him the night before he left. After he went through Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s passport control, he posted: “Thanks to all of those who prayed for me, I’m safe.”

When news broke that he was on Flight 370, the comments started pouring in on his Facebook page.

“If only he would post exactly the same message again,” said Tannaz Nasr yesterday, commenting on his “I’m safe” post.

“I’m waiting for a miracle,” commented Shaqayeq GT today.

“I don’t know you, but I wish from the bottom of my heart that you will return to your family,” said Vahid Ajami.

Some of those who commented made clear they saw Nourmohammadi as a victim. “If you are no longer in this world then you are at last free my son … damn those who forced you to flee your home,” wrote commenter Mojgan Shahnazi on Nourmohammadi’s picture in front of the Petronas Towers.

TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Crowd-Sourcing Campaign Launched to Find Missing Jet

AP

U.S. satellite company calls on Internet users to assist in poring over images of Gulf of Thailand in search for lost flight

As an international swarm of boats and aircraft canvass the Gulf of Thailand and west coast of the Malay Peninsula looking for any sign of Flight MH370, an American satellite imaging firm is calling on netizens to help assist in their crowd-sourced search for the missing plane.

According to a press release published by DigitalGlobe on Monday, volunteers can aid the mission by signing up at the group’s Tomnod platform, where they can begin “combing through satellite imagery for clues that may help locate the missing aircraft.”

A representative from the Colorado-based firm said cameras from five of its orbiting satellites had been set on the Gulf of Thailand where the lost plane is believed to have crashed, according to ABC.

The company has already published an estimated 3,200 sq-kms of imagery online that volunteers can begin poring over immediately, and have promised to update their cache of images as more become available.

“[On Monday], the Malaysian government updated the search area to reflect new information, and DigitalGlobe revised its tasking plan to collect imagery further north in the Gulf of Thailand,” read a statement published by the company online. Additional images are set to be released on Tuesday morning.

DigitalGlobe launched a similar campaign in the wake of deadly Typhoon Haiyan, which swept across the Philippines last November, during which time thousands of volunteers flagged over 60,000 objects.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on Saturday morning with 239 people aboard. There was no distress call and no trace of the aircraft has been spotted. Investigators have not so far ruled out any possibilities for what may have cause its disappearance.

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