MH370 and what the anger of the Chinese families says about China

by Chris Zappone

Among the Chinese families waiting for news of MH370 one middle-aged woman said angrily.

“What we want is the truth. Don’t let them become victims of politics. No matter what political party you are, no matter how much power you have, if there isn’t life, what’s the point? Where is compassion?”

A man said: “You’re always going back and forth. I think your government knows in their heart why we want you to answer us. Because you’re always tricking us, telling us lies,” added one man.

Said another family member: “We demand that the Malaysian ambassador come and represent the government to come and answer the families’ questions and give them some information. They’re secretive, they never tell the truth.”

Mingled with justifiable grief of the families of the Chinese passengers of MH370, there is a presumption among some that information is being withheld from them – on purpose, for a political reason.

On the one hand, the emotions are understandable. But the presumption of the existence of nefarious hidden political agenda that is denying these families the truth reveals a lot about China. In a society of little political transparency, it’s no wonder that people would assume machinations by an unseen hand in the world outside China. It’s a common explanation for events within China.

For those of us watching Malaysia’s handling of this crisis from afar, Kuala Lumpur’s leadership looks troubled and the message management poor. It doesn’t follow, though, that Malaysia is purposely withholding information in order to hurt the families of Chinese passengers.

What’s worrying about the presumption by the Chinese families is how the same feeling may be applied by the Chinese to the outside world for a much wider misfortune. What if, for example, China’s economy really struggles? Or what if, despite good intentions, China becomes a middle-income economy? Or what if any big internal event undermines the successful arch of China’s development of the past three decades? How great will the temptation be for the people inside China to look outside the country for a party to be held responsible?

Because with this sort of conspiratorial thinking, bred in a culture of political opacity, there has to be an outside malefactor. Someone has to benefit from your own misfortune, goes the thinking.

For a country in which political opacity and deception is a significant function of the state, particularly one that has spent its recent history in relative isolation, this conspiratorial view of the world is a worry. If things turn down in China, there will be a tremendous appetite to identify a force from abroad that has caused China harm. And that would undoubtedly fuel the appetite for confrontation and conflict. And you get a glimpse of it in the reaction of the families are passengers of MH370 at this difficult time.