China treads carefully amid the anger and grief of MH370 relatives

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Story highlights

  • Relatives of Chinese passengers on MH370 have been holed up in Beijing hotel
  • Many have taken their anger to Malaysian embassy amid lack of information
  • Street protests largely banned in China amid fears of social unrest
  • China also keen not to alienate itself from Malaysia, an ASEAN partner

Over the past few days, the families of the 154 Chinese passengers who were aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have been oscillating between grief and visceral anger as the search for the plane carrying their loved ones continues.

In emotional scenes at a Beijing hotel where many of them have been staying for more than two weeks, some distraught relatives collapsed and had to be taken to hospital.

Other relatives angrily defied police admonishments and marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing earlier this week. Wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with "Pray for MH370," they shouted their demand for "evidence" the airliner ended its journey in the southern Indian Ocean, and called the Malaysians "liars," accusing the authorities in Kuala Lumpur of withholding information.

Rare demonstration

The protest, rare in a country that bans unsanctioned mass gatherings, seemed spontaneous, according to one official, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the media. "The police were told to block them but to let them through if they breached the police line," he said. "They were told to show restraint."

So did the Chinese government encourage the protest?

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"Tolerated, yes, but not encouraged," the source said. "There are many malcontents in China and they may join the angry families and shift the target from Malaysia to the government. The aim is to let them express anger while keeping them restrained."

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    But there was little restraint among China's legions of netizens.

    In the past few days, everyone from celebrities to leading bloggers have posted angry comments aimed at Malaysia, with some even calling for a boycott of all things Malaysian.

    Zhang Ziyi, an actress known for her starring roles in Hollywood hits such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," took to Weibo, China's Twitter-like micro-blogging service, to berate Malaysia. "Malaysian government, you are wrong not to revere life. You are wrong not to respect the universal quest for truth," she wrote.

    Chen Kun, a popular actor who has 72 million Weibo followers, appealed for decisive action. "For the clownish prevarication and lies of the Malaysian government and the MAS (Malaysia Airlines), and your disrespect of our people, please let me, coming from my heart, boycott all Malaysia-related commercial products and tours related. Not just for the brief moment when the missing plane is in the heat of attention, but indefinitely."

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    In less than a day, his posting was shared more than 70,000 times.

    Not all agreed with Chen Kun.

    One Weibo user retorted: "Malaysia is nice -- I stayed there for a week in 2007 and had pleasant memory of the place. To boycott the airline because of the incident is like stop eating after choking on food. To boycott the whole country because of the unreliability of the Malaysian government is also a personal loss for you. It's not the Chinese government is that reliable."

    Pressure on Beijing

    The emotional public reaction, analysts said, has added pressure on the Chinese government.

    President Xi Jinping has dispatched a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, who promptly met with the Malaysian prime minister and other top officials to discuss the crisis. A day earlier, Chinese government spokesman Hong Lei used calibrated but strong language in a statement, saying China "demanded" that Malaysia disclose information.

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    "The Chinese government has closely cooperated with the Malaysian government from the very beginning," Victor Zhikai Gao, a leading China commentator, told CNN. "However, it is clear that the Chinese government is increasingly asking the Malaysian government to come up with all the relevant data and information."

    Gao said it's "understandable" this tragic incident "may have caught the Malaysian government unprepared, and the magnitude of the incident may have overwhelmed them."

    Full disclosure

    But he cautioned against anything but full disclosure when it comes to disseminating information about the investigation.

    "It is an increasing concern ... that the Malaysian side may not have been most upfront and transparent from the very beginning," Gao said. "The contradictions in the information they have disclosed bit by bit, piece by piece, may have the result of intentional withholding of information, or even lack of transparency and complete disclosure."

    Such a perception, he said, may be changing the attitude of many people towards the way the Malaysian government has handled this incident.

    Yet China is caught between a rock and a hard place.

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    Chinese officials need to show the Chinese families and public at large that they're doing their best, and using everything at China's disposal to help the loved ones of passengers. It cannot afford to publicly look callous, inept or weak.

    At the same time, and for geopolitical reasons, China needs to carefully manage relations with Malaysia, an important partner in the ASEAN bloc.

    Beijing's relations with Malaysia have generally been more cordial than with other neighbors in the region, even though they have conflicting territorial claims over a group islands in South China Sea. "China cannot afford to alienate Malaysia," said another Chinese source who asked not to be named. "It needs Malaysia as a counter-weight to countries like the Philippines and Singapore in its diplomatic strategy in the region, especially in Southeast Asia."

    Time will tell if the Malaysian side could have done much better in handling this tragic incident, said Gao. "For the moment, let's urge the Malaysian side to fully disclose all data and information in their possession."

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