In China, as few boat survivors are found, leaders focus on damage control

More than 48 hours after a tour boat capsized on the Yangtze River with more than 450 people aboard, China’s Communist Party had clamped down on information about the worst maritime disaster to hit the country since the people’s republic was founded in 1949.

But with more than 370 people still missing, signs of a rebellion of sorts are bubbling up. Relatives of missing passengers besieged the Shanghai travel agency that sold many of the tickets, requiring police to quell their protests, while China’s independent journalists are beginning to question the Communist Party’s official version of events.

CCTV, the state broadcaster, reported Thursday that 65 people have been confirmed dead. The presumption, however, is that many of those still unaccounted for have drowned, trapped in the hull of the state-owned Eastern Star tour boat when it went belly up Monday night, reportedly during a fierce storm. So far, the number of known survivors is 14.

The party has reportedly instructed local Chinese media to stay away from the site and publish information only from China’s main media organs, Xinhua and CCTV. Foreign journalists arriving near the rescue site in Hubei province say they’ve been repeatedly blocked from observing the rescue operations or interviewing anyone who may know anything about them.

“I am not surprised. In many ways, this is a routine response to controlling public opinion,” said Xiao Qiang, publisher of China Digital Times and a professor at the journalism school at University of California, Berkeley. What’s different from past disasters, he said, is that top party leaders have felt the need to do “photo ops” to deflect possible public criticism.

The official line is that the 251-foot-long boat, with 456 aboard, was hit by a tornado and quickly overturned. But with independent media unable to interview officials or verify that, the government’s claim is increasingly being called into question, and not just by foreign observers.

Part of the public skepticism surrounds reports by CCTV that the boat’s captain and chief engineer had survived the wreck and been taken into custody. There were no new details Wednesday on why police had detained them – for their own protection, as part of an official investigation, or both.

On Chinese social media, one prominent journalist, Song Zhibiao, used his WeChat account to directly challenge the official version of events. A translation of his comments was published by China Digital Times, Xiao’s website in Berkeley that monitors the Chinese Internet.

“The authorities were not alerted until five hours after the incident,” Song wrote. “The captain avoided being pulled under the water. According to his own statement, he managed to swim to shore, abandoning more than 400 passengers under the pitch-black water. At present the only testimony regarding the sinking of the ship is the captain’s, who says that they ran into a tornado. And so we find ourselves at an impasse. With only this piece of evidence, we need more to confirm whether what he says is true or false.”

Song, who got into trouble with authorities for his reporting on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, added that China’s “entire public opinion” apparatus was working to demonstrate this was a “natural disaster and not human error.”

“The relevant departments put out bans right away. No interviews allowed at the scene of accident, and recall reporters who have been dispatched,” he wrote. “You can’t keep a list of names (of victims) either. Use Xinhua wire copy and CCTV images. In short, they want to control the shape of public opinion concerning the shipwreck.”

Not all on social media or in China have doubted that a natural disaster caused the calamity. Government meteorologists said late Tuesday that they’d confirmed that a tornado, with winds of hurricane force, had been in the area at the time the ship overturned.

At a news conference Wednesday, a Ministry of Transportation spokesman, Xu Changing, said the rescue teams hadn’t given up hope of finding more survivors. “We will use all means available and utmost efforts to complete the search and rescue work,” he said.

Xinhua reported late Wednesday that rescue workers had begun cutting into the hull of the upturned ship to find survivors, giving divers better access.

Earlier, rescue teams had reportedly managed to extract three survivors from the ship, but according to Xinhua, there were concerns that cutting into the hull might cause the boat to sink, endangering anyone inside still alive.

Xiao, of China Digital Times, said he’d been struck by the number of seeming government operatives – known as the “50-cent people” – who’d gone online in China to support the rescue efforts and rebut detractors. It’s a reflection, he said, of the way the government feels an increasing need to counter netizens dubious of the official line.

“People on the Internet are more skeptical than before, and so they immediately think the government is lying,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s a big difference from five years ago.”

Xiao said he’d also noted the immediate visit to the site by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who’s since been the subject of scores of photographs in official state media. Xiao said that was a big change from 2008, when high-level officials were noticeably absent in the early response to the Sichuan earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people.

The Eastern Star had started its trip Thursday from the eastern city of Nanjing and was traveling to the southwestern city of Chongqing. It sank at about 9:30 p.m. Monday near Jingzhou in Hubei province, according to state media.

The boat’s captain and chief engineer told authorities the ship had been hit by a tornado and had sunk quickly. At least one survivor confirmed that the boat had gone down fast, according to Xinhua.

According to state media, the ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and could carry up to 534 people. It’s one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Co.