Wary of unrest, China’s leaders call for ‘serious’ probe of boat disaster

Three days after a state-owned tour boat capsized on the Yangtze River, likely killing hundreds of people, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Communist Party leaders on Thursday “demanded serious investigation into the cause of the incident,” state media reported.

Xi previously had called for an investigation, but the strong tone of Thursday’s statement suggests the party is increasingly concerned about public reaction to the sinking of the Eastern Star tour boat in central China’s Hubei province. It also comes a day before crews are slated to upright the overturned vessel, the first step to extracting what could be more than 300 bodies.

The official line is that a freak tornado upended the 251-foot-long boat, trapping most of its 456 passengers and crew inside. Xinhua news service on Thursday sought to bolster that claim by citing a Foreign Policy article on Wednesday that quoted U.S. experts as saying a tornado may well have caused the disaster.

Yet relatives of the boat’s passengers and online bloggers question if other factors contributed to the accident, including the decision by the boat’s captain to continue moving upriver amid a worsening storm. Official weather alerts late Monday had warned of strong winds and waves, but it is not immediately clear if the boat’s captain, Zhang Shunwen, was aware of those alerts.

The boat also made a sharp turn moments before capsizing, and some experts quoted by Chinese media say that could have contributed to the capsize.

Zhang and the boat’s chief engineer managed to escape the vessel and survive – two of just 14 on the boat known to have done so. Bloggers have questioned how both men managed to survive, while hundreds more may have perished. State media reported that police quickly took both men into custody, and their actions may become a focus of any official investigation.

According to an English-language report by Xinhua, Xi made a speech Thursday morning to members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, who met to discuss “the rescue and aftermath handling of the incident.”

According to a longer Chinese-language article on the meeting, China’s top leaders issued a five-point statement on the next steps, including the need for a serious probe.

“Experts from different fields should be organized to deeply investigate and analyze, they should insist on using facts as evidence, not let any doubtful points slip, and thoroughly ascertain the cause of the incident,” the statement said, according to Xinhua.

The Eastern Star is one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Co. It reportedly could safely carry 534 passengers, so it was not overloaded when it capsized. The accident occurred Monday at roughly 9:30 p.m., a time when meteorologists say there was a tornado in the area.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.