It has been six months today since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared along with 227 passengers, 154 of them from China. Relatives of all of those onboard continue to be tormented by the lack of concrete information about what happened to the plane. But the Chinese families of victims are being targeted by their own government for expressing their grief and outrage—including being beaten and detained by police.
Things did not start this way. In the days after the disappearance of the plane, Chinese family members staged a rare public protest in Beijing that ended in front of the Malaysian Embassy, chanting “Liars, tell us the truth.” The fact that the protest continued unmolested through the streets of China’s capital city was widely interpreted as a sign that it had government backing.
But in the months since, the Chinese government has changed tactics. Police detained a group that went to Malaysia Airline’s office in Beijing demanding to see footage of passengers boarding a flight. They also beat at least two people who lost children on the flight, Reuters reported yesterday, putting one woman in the hospital for three days. “In the beginning, Beijing police were protecting us, but their attitude has completely changed,” one woman whose husband was on the flight told Reuters.
After gathering outside the Malaysia Airlines office in Beijing, “I was strangled by a tall officer and almost got choked,” a family member told the Guardian last week. “I tried to escape from him but about six or seven policemen came up and beat me.”
Making matters worse, the heavily patrolled official support center for victim’s families is located hours outside of Beijing. It is difficult for anyone with a full time job or who lives far outside of Beijing to visit. After a family of farmers who were relatives of victims sold their land and traveled to the center, they were arrested for trying to sleep there, witnesses told the Telegraph.
While beating and arresting the upset family members of victims of an airline tragedy sounds inexplicably cruel, it fits into the Communist Party’s mantra to silence all non-government organized dissent, as a recent study proved. Researchers with Harvard University, who set up fake social media accounts in China and published hundreds of comments and posts in 2013, found that China’s censors are less concerned about criticism of the government then they are about any posts that might lead to mass outrage and protests or other actions:
Criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are routinely published, whereas posts with collective action potential are much more likely to be censored—regardless of whether they are for or against the state…Chinese people can write the most vitriolic blog posts about even the top Chinese leaders without fear of censorship, but if they write in support of or opposition to an ongoing protest—or even about a rally in favor of a popular policy or leader—they will be censored.
That attitude also helps to explain the Chinese government’s crackdown on “direct sales companies” that sometimes organize hundreds or thousands of enthusiastic salespeople under one roof, and crackdowns on activists who have similar goals to the government, like reducing pollution.
Not surprisingly, China’s state-run media has not reported on the poor treatment Chinese families of the victims of flight MH370 have suffered at the hands of police. And today’s six month anniversary is likely to pass in China without any ceremony to mark the occasion. Family members who were trying to organize one said they couldn’t get any hotel to take their reservation.