China Finds Flight Recorder From Plane Crash as Rain Hinders Search

Rescuers found one of the flight recorders of the Boeing 737 plane that crashed in southern China with more than 130 people on board, officials said Wednesday, as regulators and the airline faced growing pressure to release more information about the disaster.

Search efforts have been underway since the plane plummeted into a rural mountainside on Monday. The device recovered from the China Eastern Airlines plane was believed to be the cockpit voice recorder, officials said during a brief news conference on Wednesday. More fragments of the aircraft and body parts were also recovered, they added.

No survivors have been found, and it is increasingly unlikely that anyone on board made it out alive.

The Chinese government, faced with its worst air plane disaster in more than a decade, has moved quickly to control the flow of information, using a playbook it has honed over recent years that deploys propaganda and censorship.

Its first official announcement on Monday, a two-line report from state television, came out nearly two hours after the crash, and provided only the basic details.

Official media have since said little about what could have led to such a disaster, like if there were problems with the plane, the crew or the weather. Instead, state media has been dominated by scenes of emergency crews rushing to the scene and orders from China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to officials to do their utmost to find survivors.

Government and airline officials did emerge to give a news conference a day after the crash, but they could not answer basic questions about the doomed plane, a six-year-old Boeing 737-800, or its pilots, drawing online criticism that officials were issuing “rainbow farts” — a common idiom to describe excessive praise. Censors deleted articles and social media posts that raised more detailed questions about the disaster.

Under Mr. Xi, China has further tightened sweeping controls on information. Dissent has been crushed, and the media and the internet tamed. When disasters strike, official messaging and information controls place an emphasis on “positive energy,” or uplifting messages that highlight patriotism and place the governing Communist Party in a positive light. Officials pledge to hold accountable whoever is responsible, but also quash independent calls for accountability.

When Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, died of Covid-19 in 2020, censors moved aggressively to shut down the fury that erupted online in the discussion of his case.

“Disasters that involve a huge number of casualties, whether it’s fires or accidents at sea, there’s a certain established protocol to protect the party and the government,” said Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It’s totally not surprising they want to hold onto whatever they know, particularly if this information does not reflect well on them,” he added.

Online, many mocked the performance of officials at a news conference late Tuesday, particularly Sun Shiying, the chairman of China Eastern Airlines Yunnan branch. He declined to answer questions about the maintenance history of the aircraft, the weather, the flying experience of the pilots and what they said to air traffic control during the flight. Instead, he read from a brief written statement saying that the plane was cruising when the crash occurred, and the airline was carrying out a thorough investigation.

“If this were a test, the examiner should score the China Eastern Yunnan chairman’s answer a zero,” wrote Zhang Xinnian, a Beijing-based lawyer.

Zhu Tao, the director of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, confirmed that the China Eastern Airlines plane, Flight MU5735, fell suddenly from a cruising altitude of 29,100 feet. But details of the plane’s flight path had already been revealed a day earlier by Flightradar24, a flight data service.

Hu Xijin, the retired editor in chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said Mr. Sun should not be criticized too harshly. “The chairman obviously lacked experience in news conferences, and he didn’t know how to cleverly evade questions when he couldn’t answer them,” Mr. Hu wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

As questions mounted, officials gave some more details on Wednesday. Mr. Sun of China Eastern detailed the flight crew’s experience, adding their licenses were valid and their “family conditions were stable.”

The captain was hired in 2018 and had 6,709 hours of flight experience, the first co-pilot had 31,769 hours of flight experience and the second co-pilot had 556 hours of flight experience.

Mao Yanfeng, the director of the Civil Aviation Accident Investigation Center, added that the weather had been fine on Monday and communication between the flight crew and the ground was normal before the crash.

Officials could glean more information from the device that was found on Wednesday. The part of the device that stored the voice recordings wasn’t as badly damaged as the recorder itself, Mr. Zhu said.

Chinese authorities have asked the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to help with the investigation, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said in Washington on Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration is ready to assist the safety board, he added.

Plane crash investigations around the world are plodding, meticulous work, with results often not seen for months, or years. But in recent crashes elsewhere in Asia, officials have disclosed information far more quickly.

When Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea in 2018, airline and Indonesian aviation officials revealed hours later that it had undergone repair work the day before. And when a TransAsia Airways twin turboprop crashed into a river in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, regulators offered extensive details the same day on the age and maintenance history of the plane and its engines and the experience of its pilots.

In China, control of details about the crash has been far stricter. Aside from a handful of official media, the police kept reporters far from the crash site. Family members were shielded from journalists at airports and hotels, and little has emerged about those who were on the plane.

When one Chinese magazine wrote about some of the passengers, it was denounced online as being insensitive and trying to profit off tragedy. Last year, when extreme flooding killed dozens in central China, party officials fanned criticism of foreign journalists, saying they focused on the destruction rather than praising rescue efforts.

Such positive coverage has long been a staple of state media coverage of disasters.

“The main point is to be positive and to reflect the prompt response of the party and the government, to reflect the care they show for the people in the face of disaster, and how they come to the rescue of the people,” Zhan Jiang, a former Chinese journalist and retired professor, said in an interview last year with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University.

Chinese state television has detailed the equipment and responders at the crash site, listing quantities of bread, porridge, mineral water, flashlights, shovels, tents, jackets, raincoats and folding tables. “All kinds of rescue and relief materials arrive, power supply and communication are fully guaranteed,” read one web headline.

Some stories and commentary about the crash were quickly censored by online platforms in China, and the ability to comment on or forward others were blocked, according to China Digital Times, a website that tracks censorship in China. One deleted post discussed possible causes of the crash, a topic that has not been widely examined in domestic media coverage.

“Judging from the actual contents of those censored articles, they really did not say much,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times and a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley. “So there is definitely quite tight control on the airplane crash.”

Joy Dong, Liu Yi, Claire Fu and Li You contributed research.


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