China Has Poor History of Handling Disasters Angering Relatives of MH370


It was a week ago that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared from the radar screen and it has been missing despite the massive scale of rescue efforts. Relatives of the 152 Chinese passengers on board were yelling at Chinese officials in charge of the rescue in press meetings out of extreme frustration and sadness. Their emotions can be understood completely by anyone. But the anger, frustration and distrust of the official rescue effort from relatives of missing passengers on MH370 are rooted in China’s poor handling of historic disasters.

On Nov. 21, 2004, China Eastern Airlines Flight M5210, en route from Baotou, Inter Mongolia to Shanghai, crashed into a lake just one minute after taking off. All 47 passengers, 6 crew members and 2 people on the ground were killed. The release of the manifest took weeks. The causes of the accident were wildly speculated and even included fire set by passenger with suicide plan to get insurance payout for his family.

The official report of this Baotou accident took more than 8 years. The reason was the frost formation on the airplane wings impacted the aerodynamics of the flight, causing a sudden loss of speed, and pilots failed to regain control of the airplane. China Eastern Airlines was responsible for skipping the defrost procedure during the pre flight preparation and relatives received compensation from the airline in 2012 after a long hard battle in multiple courts. This disaster is a direct comparison with MH370, and based on the China’s very poor handling on this, it is understandable relatives of MH370 feel a strong anger.

On July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided on a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Both trains were derailed and four cars fell off the viaduct. Out of 1630 passengers, 40 were killed and at least 192 were injured. The rescue effort from the officials was very short and ended with the burial of the trains. Relatives were furious as they believed the authorities started the burial without even checking the train for any survivors. Strong criticism were met with directives from the government to restrict media coverage.

The infamously hapless spokesman of the Railway Ministry not only explained it was a miracle that a two-year old girl was found alive after the rescue was concluded, but also claimed the burial of the train was to create firm ground to facilitate rescue. A design company claimed responsibility five days after the disaster and the government published an unprecedented and detailed report in December of the same year. The causes include faulty quality of equipment and management errors. As the first fatal crash of high-speed rail in China and the third deadliest in the history of high-speed rail, this accident rose serious doubt over its safety in China.

The way the officials handled the rescue and investigation in these two accidents fueled the distrust from the public to the determination, compassion and capacity of the officials. Relatives of MH370 feel all of these negativity and have all the reason to be angry considering the poor handling of historic disasters in China. In many other incidents, the story are the same. One unique response of China to men-made disasters is to immediately remove and/or punish officials who oversee the problematic operation. No matter what function of such response would have on the emotion of the public, in practice, this is hampering the investigation and rescue effort. These officials, though certainly guilty for their part in the disaster, are not only very eager to right the wrongs to minimize damages to themselves, but also are the ones who are the most familiar with the operations and processes thus can be the most helpful in facilitating the much needed work.

Opinion by Tina Zhang


The New Yorker

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