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

Rescue workers cut into the hull of the overturned cruise ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei Province on Wednesday.
Rescue workers cut into the hull of the overturned cruise ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei Province on Wednesday. Associated Press

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 state broadcaster 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.

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.