“Self-criticism” has long been a practice of China’s Communist Party, going all the way back to its earliest days under Mao. But it was still surprising to see an op-ed in China Daily on Thursday lambasting Chinese news organizations for their shoddy coverage of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance. “Chinese media outlets seem to lag behind their Western counterparts, especially when it comes to timely coverage of big global events,” wrote the commentator Zhang Zhouxiang. If the inept Malaysian government has become the villain of this tragic narrative among Chinese viewers, the unlikely heroes have been the oft-maligned western media.
The Malaysia Airlines mystery is the biggest China story of the year so far—at least 152 passengers on board were Chinese—yet the Chinese media have been snoozing. More accurately, they’ve been sedated. After the plane disappeared on March 8, the Central Propaganda Department sent out a directive to Chinese journalists and bloggers: “The media may not independently analyze or comment on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight. Related coverage must strictly accord with authoritative information issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China and with Xinhua News Agency wire copy.” The message also prohibited news media from “inciting discontented sentiment”—a challenge, given the tendency of horrifying plane disasters to incite discontented sentiment. Chinese news organizations have dutifully colored within the lines, with only the occasional exception.
Netizens have responded with ridicule. “There were 154 Chinese passengers on the plane,” wrote one Weibo user. “Why doesn’t the Chinese media have the power to report exclusive information?” People’s Daily drew mockery for its suggestion that people pray for the victims rather than doing any investigation of its own. "To our domestic media: can you do anything other than lighting candles?" wrote one message board user, according to the China Daily op-ed.
The information vacuum has spawned a whole ecosystem of rumors, from UFOs to terrorist hijackings to reports that the plane landed safely in Vietnam, which the government has moved to squash. The head of China’s joint working group investigating the incident urged civilians to be patient and refrain from speculation. Other officials are doing more than asking. One Weibo user from Hainan guessed that the airplane had entered a secret undersea vessel as part of a terrorist plot to attack the city of Sanya. He was reportedly given a ten-day jail sentence.
The government’s anti-rumor stance is nothing new. Last fall, it announced a crackdown on bloggers who spread rumors, many of which were politically damaging. The campaign included a new rule that anyone who posted a false claim that was then reposted 500 times could go to jail for three years. To show they meant business, police arrested the prominent businessman and commentator Charles Xue, who was accused of soliciting prostitutes—though never formally charged—and later apologized on national television. In the Malaysia Airlines case as in the political cases, the Party’s solution has been to punish rumor-mongerers rather than to open up pathways for reliable information to spread.
So with both domestic media and idle rumor incapacitated, readers have turned to non-Chinese media for the latest updates. "Judging from this incident, it's still the western media that are the most responsible and reliable at reporting the news," wrote one user of Sina Weibo, as quoted by AFP. "Meanwhile, Malaysia and China have only exposed their irresponsible bureaucracy, their mistake-riddled news reports, and a state-run press corps that just jumps on the bandwagon and reprints others' articles." Another web user demanded to know if Air China and Malaysia Airlines had been in contact after the plane disappeared: “Is Chinese media going to ask? Or are they going to wait for CNN to scoop them?”
Foreign media aren’t used to such kind words in China. International coverage of the 2008 antigovernment riots in Tibet was widely perceived by Chinese as biased, giving rise to the online catchphrase “Don’t be too CNN,” i.e. don’t lie. Chinese nationalists likewise argued that reports on the Beijing Olympics focused too much on human rights. More recently, netizens have complained about articles in western media about the Diaoyu Islands dispute that seem to favor the Japanese case for territoriality. After these blows to their reputation, foreign journalists should be thanking Chinese censors for the boost.
The controls on Chinese media hurt them abroad, too. News may be the one industry in which, rather than helping out domestic business, the Chinese government actively punishes it. China takes its international news efforts seriously, targeting overseas audiences with China Radio International, CCTV America, and China Daily—all key elements of the Party’s “soft power” push. But by forcing Chinese journalists to sit out a major story like MH370, they’re actively undermining their own quest for global influence.