Rescuers found one of the flight recorders of the Boeing 737 plane that crashed in southern China with more than 130 people on board, officials said Wednesday, as regulators and the airline came under increasing pressure to release more information about the disaster.
Searches have been underway since the plane crashed into a rural mountainside on Monday. The recorder recovered from the China Eastern Airlines plane was badly damaged and it was unclear whether it contained flight data or voice recordings, state media reports said. No survivors were found.
The Chinese government, faced with its worst plane crash in more than a decade, has acted swiftly to control the flow of information, using a roadmap it has tightened in recent years that uses propaganda and censorship.
The first official announcement on Monday, a two-line report from state television, came out nearly two hours after the crash and contained only the basic details.
Official media have since said little about what could have led to such a disaster, for example if there were problems with the plane, crew or weather. Instead, the state media is dominated by scenes of emergency services rushing to the scene and orders from Chinese leader Xi Jinping for officials to do their utmost to find survivors.
Government and aviation officials came forward a day after the crash to give a press conference, but they were unable to answer fundamental questions about the doomed plane, a six-year-old Boeing 737-800, or its pilots, and were criticized online that officials issuing “rainbow farts” – a common idiom to describe excessive praise. Censors removed articles and social media posts raising more detailed questions about the disaster.
Under Mr Xi, China has further tightened control over information. Dissent has been crushed, and the media and the internet tamed. When disaster strikes, official messages and information checks emphasize “positive energy,” or uplifting messages that emphasize patriotism and portray the ruling Communist Party in a positive light. Officials promise to hold accountable who is responsible, but also crush independent calls to account.
When Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, died of Covid-19 in 2020, censors came out aggressively to quell the anger that erupted online as he discussed his case.
“In disasters that involve a large number of casualties, be it fires or accidents at sea, there is a certain protocol in place to protect the party and the government,” said Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. .
“It’s not at all surprising that they want to stick with what they know, especially if this information doesn’t come out right for them,” he added.
Online, many mocked the performance of officials at a news conference late Tuesday, most notably Sun Shiying, the chairman of China Eastern Airlines Yunnan branch. He declined to answer questions about the aircraft’s maintenance history, the weather, the pilots’ flying experience and what they said to air traffic control during the flight. Instead, he read from a brief written statement stating that the plane was cruising when the crash occurred and that the airline was conducting a thorough investigation.
“If this was a test, the examiner would have to give the answer of the chairman of China Eastern Yunnan a zero,” wrote Zhang Xinnian, a Beijing lawyer.
Zhu Tao, director of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, confirmed that the China Eastern Airlines plane, flight MU5735, suddenly fell from a cruising altitude of 29,100 feet. But details of the plane’s flight path had been revealed a day earlier by Flightradar24, a flight data service.
Hu Xijin, the retired editor of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said Mr. Sun should not be criticized too harshly. “The chairman clearly had no experience with press conferences and he didn’t know how to cleverly dodge questions if he couldn’t answer them,” Mr Hu wrote on Weibo, China’s social media platform.
As more questions came in, officials provided some more details on Wednesday. China Eastern’s Mr Sun spoke of the flight crew’s experience, adding that their permits were valid and their “family conditions were stable”.
The captain was hired in 2018 and had 6,709 hours of flying experience, the first co-pilot had 31,769 hours of flying experience and the second co-pilot had 556 hours of flying experience.
Mao Yanfeng, the director of the Civil Aviation Accident Investigation Center, added that the weather had been good Monday and communication between the flight crew and the ground was normal before the crash.
Investigating plane crashes around the world is painstaking, painstaking work, with results often not seen for months or years. But in recent crashes elsewhere in Asia, officials have disclosed information much more quickly.
When Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea in 2018, aviation and Indonesian aviation officials revealed hours later that it had undergone repair work the day before. And when a TransAsia Airways twin turboprop crashed into a river in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, regulators provided extensive details the same day about the age and maintenance history of the plane and its engines and the pilots’ experience.
In China, control over details about the crash has been much stricter. Aside from a handful of official media outlets, police kept reporters far from the scene of the accident. Relatives were shielded from journalists at airports and hotels and little has become known about those who were on the plane.
When a Chinese magazine wrote about some passengers, it was denounced online as being insensitive and trying to profit from tragedy. Last year, when extreme flooding left dozens dead in central China, party officials sparked criticism at foreign journalists, saying they were focusing on the destruction rather than praising the rescue efforts.
Such positive coverage has long been a staple of state media coverage of disasters.
“The most important point is to be positive and reflect the quick response of the party and the government, the concern they show for the people in disasters, and how they come to the aid of the people,” said Zhan Jiang. , a former Chinese journalist and retired professor, said in an interview with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University last year.
Chinese state television has detailed the equipment and first responders at the accident site, with quantities of bread, porridge, mineral water, flashlights, shovels, tents, jackets, raincoats and folding tables. “All types of rescue and relief supplies are arriving, power and communications are fully guaranteed,” read a webpage.
Some stories and comments about the crash were quickly censored by online platforms in China, and the ability to comment or forward others was blocked, according to China Digital Times, a website that tracks censorship in China. A deleted post discussed possible causes of the crash, a topic that has not been widely covered in domestic media coverage.
“Judging by the actual content of those censored articles, they really didn’t say much,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times and an internet freedom researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “So there’s definitely a pretty tight control on the plane crash.”
Joy Dong† Liu Yi† Claire Fu and Li You research contributed.