China Controls Info, Isolates Boat Victims' Relatives

By Christopher Bodeen 5 June 2015

JIANLI, China — Two men with earpieces stand outside the Colorful Days Hotel in downtown Jianli, the city closest to China’s worst boat disaster in recent history. At the approach of a journalist, one steps forward, arm extended in an unmistakable sign to come no further.

The hotel is one of dozens in Jianli where relatives of the victims of Monday’s cruise ship tragedy are being held, part of the ruling Communist Party’s standard response to major disasters.

Closing off the disaster scene, isolating victims’ families and restricting or barring media access are all too common in such cases. The actions appear rooted in the party’s fear that grief and anger could morph into broader criticisms. They worry that other people with similar grievances or political causes might coalesce around such tragedies to form an even bigger challenge.

The government has tightly controlled information about the disaster, which is feared to have killed more than 400 people, though only 75 bodies have been recovered so far. It has focused on the heroism of rescuers, including navy diver Guan Dong, who pulled two people to safety. A day after the disaster, state television began running highlight reels of rescued victims and valiant divers, with a stirring musical soundtrack.

Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, said that since smartphones and social media allow virtually anyone to broadly transmit images, the party must keep strict control over disaster sites to “maintain its monopoly on the truth and the narrative.”

“Once you have an alternative narrative of any sort that departs from the narrative that all Chinese media are required to follow, then questions will be asked as to what actually happened, who were to blame, did the government handle it properly,” Tsang said. “All this could potentially raise questions about the legitimacy of the party to govern.”

Since taking power in 1949, the Communist Party has sought to monopolize the news and control the narrative, no less so than in the case of disasters—both man-made and natural. News of the cataclysmic famine of the Great Leap Forward, in which around 30 million died—was kept from the public for decades. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed a quarter-million went unreported as the slow and vastly inadequate response rumbled into action. Even an event as recent as the bloody military suppression of the 1989 student-led, pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square remains a taboo subject.

On Thursday afternoon, official cars carried small groups of relatives to the Colorful Days Hotel, a few kilometers (miles) from where rescuers were cutting into the Eastern Star, which capsized in the Yangtze River in stormy weather. Most carried small amounts of luggage and were accompanied by escorts.

Authorities booked out many hotels in Jianli to keep family members isolated from journalists or other visitors—and to ensure a sufficient supply of rooms in the relatively underdeveloped community. As of Thursday afternoon, about 1,200 relatives of 279 of the passengers—just over half—had arrived in Jianli.

Plainclothes officers stood guard outside designated hotels and notices were issued ordering all government departments and hotels in Jianli to post duty officers on watch around the clock.

Despite the close supervision, one pair of relatives, a brother and sister, went Thursday to Jianli’s Rongcheng Crematorium, where they were directed to a reception tent.

Wailing and shouting could be heard from inside as they talked with police officers and government officials, although they were relatively calm when they emerged. They were able to speak briefly to reporters before being bundled into a minivan and driven off.

“Mom was a wonderful person. She didn’t deserve to die like this,” said the daughter, who gave only her surname, Zhang, and said she was from the northern city of Tianjin.

She said her 60-year-old mother was retired and had been aboard the cruise with six work friends. “We came here because we just wanted to see her face for the last time.”

Zhang, who was sobbing, said the authorities had brought them to Jianli and would arrange a visit to the disaster scene later. Civil Affairs Ministry officials said visits now to the accident site could hamper rescue work.

If victims’ families do not comply with government demands, it can affect the compensation and treatment they receive. Dissenters can face harassment or worse. In one of the most egregious cases, parents of children killed in poorly built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake were detained after demanding a thorough investigation into why the buildings collapsed while government offices survived.

In Shanghai, where many of the passengers had booked the cruise, relatives have scuffled with police as they demanded help from authorities. At least two relatives have expressed fears that their phone conversations were being monitored.

Another relative, Qin Meiping, whose 73-year-old father and 49-year-old brother were on the boat, said sadly that they had asked authorities to take them to the site, but that she still didn’t know when this would happen.