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China imposes total information controls around China Eastern crash site

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is moving to delete rumor, speculation and opinion about the China Eastern crash from the country’s tightly controlled internet, while even state-approved journalists have reported problems gaining access to the crash site.

Since officials announced on March 22 that all 132 people aboard flight MU5735, a Boeing 737 China Eastern en route between Kunming and Guangzhou that crashed in a mountainous part of Guangxi outside Wuzhou, had died, any information about the investigation into the cause of the crash has been tightly restricted by the authorities.

Chinese journalist Du Qiang recently complained on the social media platform WeChat that he and a colleague, Chen Weixi, were denied access to the crash site by police after flying there on the same day, only managing to take a few photos from a distance before being ordered to leave.

Du wrote that the roads leading to the crash site were blocked by three police checkpoints, and that fellow journalists working for Japanese broadcaster NHK met with similar treatment.

He wrote that official journalists working for state broadcaster CCTV and Xinhua news agency had once been in the habit of visiting disaster sites in the hope of netting some prized photos or footage of the area, but that this now seems impossible.

His WeChat post, which also called for better press arrangements, including wider access to official news conferences, garnered huge numbers of views and comments, but has since been deleted.

“Could the leaders of China Eastern Airlines and relevant departments come better prepared so that more questions can be raised?” Du’s post said, also calling for more interviews with rescue teams or grieving relatives. “Is it possible to seek the opinions of family members and let those who are willing to meet with the media?”

A photographer who gave only the nickname Xiao Gao told RFA he had also tried to get to the site around the same time.

“I have never come across such tight controls at a disaster site as I did this time around,” Xiao Gao said. “We tried to interview people in nearby villages … but there were obstacles at every turn.”

Hebei-based journalist Huang Tao said the authorities are keen to ensure that they control every aspect of media and social media reporting of the crash.

“This must be to prevent information from leaking out,” Huang said. “There is probably a lot of evidence at the scene indicating something that they don’t want reporters to find out about.”

Deleting ‘rumors’

China’s powerful Cyberspace Administration said on March 26 that it has deleted more than 279,000 posts containing “illegal content” relating to the crash, including 167,000 rumors and 1,295 hashtags.

It said it had also shut down 2,713 social media accounts.

Among the “rumors” deleted from social media included claims that China Eastern had already sustained losses of tens of billions of dollars, and had slashed maintenance costs in a bid to improve its financial situation.

But Huang said he believes much of what the authorities say is “rumor” is authentic information.

“You can tell which reports are true by looking at what they are deleting,” Huang said. “[So] the reports that the airline didn’t maintain [the aircraft] properly to save money … may be true; it’s looking more and more likely that it has to do with maintenance.”

An aircraft maintenance engineer surnamed Chen said the fact that parts of the aircraft’s tail were found some 10 kilometers from the crash site suggests that there may have been problems with this part.

“[If] the torque was too large, it could have gotten sheared off, which wouldn’t be surprising,” Chen said. “The crash is going to be either due to human error or a mechanical failure.”

Both black boxes, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, have been recovered and taken to Beijing for decoding, Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) official Zhu Tao told journalists on March 27.

The investigation is seeking answers to questions about why the Boeing 737 descended 6,000 meters in the space of just one minute, before burying itself 20 meters deep in a mountainside as it began its descent to Guangzhou.

Deliberate media controls

U.S.-based economist He Qinglian said the media controls are likely top-down and deliberate.

“They won’t let them report from the crash site — that’s the CCP’s dead hand controlling the media,” He said. “It’s to make sure that nobody starts making interpretations that aren’t in line with the official narrative.”

Meanwhile, the authorities have yet to publish a list of the passengers and crew who were aboard the doomed flight, with Hong Kong media reports saying the families of victims are being closely watched around the clock by Chinese officials.

An online appeal from the families of victims complained that they, too, are being kept in the dark by officials.

“Due to the pandemic, there is almost no way for family members [of victims] to communicate with other family members,” the appeal, which was no longer visible on Toutiao by Tuesday, said.

However, authorities did respond to some of the relatives’ requests by taking them up to the crash site in separate groups, to view the scene and to make offerings for their loved ones at a temporary shrine in the area.

One family member wrote: “Even if they don’t find anyone, I am hoping to go home with some soil from the crash site [in lieu of remains].”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.