April 15 is tax day for most Americans. It is the deadline for Americans – rich or poor – to file and pay their taxes. But this year, it appears, it is also smear China day. You may think with so much things going on in the world, things to do, that perhaps for this one day, China might be spared unnecessary smearing. But it is not to be so.
Last week, on April 15, both New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran two underhanded articles on China, assigning the blem for the unfruitful search for missing Malaysian airline MH370 squarely on China. Both papers reported that China was in big on the search for MH370 not necessarily because a majority of the victims were Chinese citizens, but really because Chinese leaders wanted to show off their new technology wares – to grab the International spotlight to to show off. Unfortunately, the Chinese bumbling not only made China look bad, but may have actually stymied the search.
In an article titled “China’s Actions in Hunt for Jet Are Seen as Hurting as Much as Helping,” the New York Times reported:
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When a Chinese government vessel took the world by surprise this month with its announcement that it had detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, China suddenly looked like the hero of the multinational search effort.
Within days, however, the Chinese claims were discounted, and attention shifted to another set of signals recorded by American personnel aboard an Australian ship hundreds of miles away.
Still, the Chinese claims have exasperated some officials from the United States and other participating countries. The announcement was only one in a series of moves by China that might have been intended to project competence, according to officials and analysts, but only served to distract and delay the search effort.
“Everybody wants to find the plane,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear overly critical of the Chinese. But, he continued, “false leads slow down the investigation.”
The mission has clearly been a prime opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate its determination and technological abilities to its domestic audience, and to improve on its response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year, which was widely criticized as late and tepid.
“This is a chance for China to regain some of its lost prestige and show the world what it’s capable of,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “There’s a lot of prestige on the line here.”
In the first week of the search, China released satellite photographs purportedly showing wreckage in the South China Sea. The objects, however, turned out to be unrelated debris. The claim eventually elicited a rebuke from Malaysian officials that China had wasted the time of other nations looking for the missing Boeing 777-200.
On April 5, Chinese state-run news media reported that Haixun 01, a Chinese government search vessel apparently operating outside the zone designated that day by the search coordinators, had twice detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing plane’s flight recorders.
Photographs published by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, showed crewmen using a hand-held hydrophone intended for use in shallow water, casting doubt on the value of the claims.
Still, search officials sent H.M.S. Echo, a British vessel equipped with highly sophisticated listening technology, to verify Haixun 01’s report. Several days later, Echo was quietly pulled from the area of the Chinese ship and sent to assist Ocean Shield, an Australian vessel also equipped with high-tech listening equipment that had detected four signals that search coordinators believed came from the plane’s flight recorders.
The delay in deploying Echo to join Ocean Shield may have cost searchers the opportunity to record more signals and narrow the underwater search area, officials say.
In an interview, a high-level official in the Malaysian government stiffened when Chinese involvement in the search arose. “Really helpful, aren’t they?” he said sarcastically.
Several analysts said that Beijing was under intense pressure to show its domestic audience that it was not only in the forefront of the search effort but also the most productive.
“The question is, Who delivered first?” said Carl Thayer, professor of politics at University of New South Wales in Australia.
The international response to China’s missteps might not have been so negative had China been less critical of Malaysia’s handling of the investigation, analysts said. For weeks, the Chinese authorities and the state-run Chinese news media hectored the Malaysian government and demanded more transparency and information sharing.
In an article titled “Jet Search Tests Beijing’s Crisis Playbook,” Wall Street Journal reports:
China’s strategy during the search for Flight 370 provides a rare peek at how Asia’s emerging superpower interacts with its neighbors during a crisis. It also hints at Beijing’s eagerness to project a softer side to its expanding military machine that has rattled nerves across the region.
Since the plane disappeared nearly 40 days ago, people involved in the search say China proved a determined and forceful first responder, if sometimes overconfident, disorganized and incorrect. As an outsider to deep political and military alliances built over decades by Washington, China has demanded an inside track to information but has shown less appetite to partner with the broader 26-nation coalition.
Chinese diplomats—ordered by President Xi Jinping the day the plane went missing to involve themselves in the process—pressed senior leaders in capitals across Asia, at times souring an atmosphere already thick with difficulties for families and officials, the people involved in the search said.
“International efforts in the search operation clearly show this region has the capacity to face challenges,” said Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry. “Since the plane went missing the Malaysian side has coordinated international search efforts and put in enormous resources. We would like to continue our cooperation with the relevant parties.”
The disappearance of a U.S.-made jetliner carrying mostly Chinese passengers also highlights contrasting styles of rival powers, each with an interest in the investigation.
“If you were a country torn between the two, which country would you turn to in a time of crisis?” asked a person close to the investigation in Malaysia. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board “have all made substantial contributions to finding out what happened,” the official said, adding that the U.S. has also had “meaningful and direct impact” by supplying critical equipment like a black-box location device, a Bluefin-21 submersible and P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft.
“On the Chinese side, we’ve had some satellite images released by mistake, questionable underwater search techniques, and a drumbeat of criticism of Malaysia,” the person said, in a reference to Chinese satellite images early in the search that mistakenly put the wreckage in the South China Sea.
Friction between Malaysian and Chinese officials emerged from the earliest days of the operation, prompting criticism from both countries the other had mishandled the search.
Tension eased after the search shifted southward, closer to Australia; that nation welcomed Chinese planes to one of its air bases and coordinated with the crew of a Chinese icebreaker it had built a partnership with months earlier during a rescue near Antarctica.
“We were effectively in an honest broker’s role. We have reasonably good relations with most of the players,” said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, or ATSB.
Yet, in early April, when China’s team reported hearing undersea pulses possibly from the jetliner’s equipment, what initially seemed like a breakthrough also highlighted the kind of frustration that officials in other countries say China’s processes have repeatedly caused.
According to a Western military official close to the search, after the pings were heard by a detector towed from China’s Haixun 01 patrol ship, Chinese investigators relayed the findings thousands of miles north to Beijing, rather than alert ships and planes already nearby in the southern Indian Ocean.
That reporting system, reflecting China’s centralized command structure, unnecessarily delayed the information flow and frustrated other searchers, according to the military official.
It’s not known how long it took China to share its findings with other investigating teams. Xinhua published news of the detected pulses on the evening of April 5, more than a day after pulses were first detected. When reporters asked search officials in Australia and Malaysia about the findings, their comments suggested all they knew was what Xinhua reported in its three-sentence dispatch.
Over the next few days, and as fears were growing that black-box batteries were nearing expiration, Australian officials using a U.S.-supplied device also detected pings in what turned out to be some of the most important leads yet in the investigation.
Ultimately, the Chinese pings were dismissed as a false lead by both the search teams on the British HMS Echo and the ATSB. The Chinese pings appear to have been based on hydrophone equipment with such short range that the ATSB, which owns similar devices, decided not to send it along with its search crew on the navy vessel Ocean Shield because it is typically only used by scuba divers in shallow waters.
I have a few short observations:
First, on the point of “false leads”: this search, unfortunately, has been punctuated again and again by “false leads.” Debris have been reported by various nations – such as Vietnam and Australia, not just China – have all turned out to not be related to the missing jet. On the issue of satellite images, it’s not just the Chinese – but the French, Australians, and the Thais – who have also reported debris that later turned out to be unrelated to the plane. Most recently, oil slick spotted where Australian search ships heard several “pings” later were found not to be jet fuel.
Given the nature of search, with no good leads at all, all leads need to be followed up. (Is there any other way?) To pinpoint the Chinese “false leads” as ones that have stymied the search is insincere and immature.
Second, on the issue of the ping heard by Haixun 01: several reports in the West have been critical of the “ping” heard by Haixun 01. When Xinhua reported the pings first on April 5, it was the first ping by any search vessel, and the Chinese looked to be heroes. However, when it could not pick up the signal again, and when videos showing crews on board the Haixun 01 using what appears to be a commercial under-water microphone (hydrophone) designed to listen to short-range surface sound, reports began criticizing and ridiculing the Chinese searchers.
The NYT and WSJ articles both intoned that the misleading data resulted from Chinese searchers overzealous for attention and resulted in misdirection of resources and critical delays. This is hog-wash. Sometimes low tech equipment can lead to breakthroughs. The Chinese were methodical and open in their search – and operated under the command of Malaysians and later the Australians. They were not mavericks out to search for gold. If there were glitches in communication (and there were plenty of glitches on the part of everyone, not just the Chinese), they were just that – glitches – not the result of grand design.
The video of searchers deploying the hydrophone was posted publicly as early as April 5. I would assume that when the British Echo was dispatched, it was with full knowledge of what the Chinese detected (length of signal, frequency of signal, location of signal, type of equipment, methodologies used, etc.). The Chinese were always cautious about the signal (or reports of debris, etc.) and never thumped their chest, jumping to conclusions. If the Echo was sent, it was because that represented the best lead then. To blame the Chinese lead for what may turn out to be a false lead is play the game of hindsight 20-20.
Lest people forget, the search area around April 5 was huge. After the Haixun 01 detected a signal, Australians ships were able to detect signals a few hundred miles away. Even if many experts doubt the Haixun 01 and the Australians could have heard the same signal source, the point is still that given the size of the overall search area, Haixun actually did help to narrow, not broaden the search area. Had Haixun not detected anything, would the Australians have picked up their signals? Hard to say…
It is really bone-headed for NYT and WSJ to pronounce how bad the Chinese data was especially when even today, after the Australians – with American equipment – have found nothing after they have allegedly “pinpointed” the black box location. Within a week, if we don’t find anything, should we blame the Americans and Australians for holding up the search also? Already there are reports that American equipment are not as hot as cracked out to be.
Third, on the issue of Chinese rebuke of Malaysia’s handling of the MH370: many Western outlets have made it seem as if China and Malaysia are antagonist nations. China never rebuked (what a strange term) Malaysia. China however did at many times demanded more information that was not forthcoming and called for closer collaboration in an investigation that was “chaotic” at best. But it was not just China that noticed the many glaring inconsistencies, many others – including Malaysian citizens, noticed it. Even the NYT and WSJ also noticed it. Also, many others – including the Americans – and not just China called for closer collaborations. For NYT and WSJ to turn around and single out the Chinese dissatisfaction as some sort of unique bellicose reaction from China, that can only happen in America where irresponsible journalism is worshiped as the hallmark of free speech.
Fourth, on the issue of those rowdy outbursts from families of missing Chinese passengers: Western media seem to focus incessantly on reactions from families of those missing in MH370 as reflective unhelpful Chinese outburst. What a shame! These are people who are grief stricken. When that ferry sank off the S. Korean Coast, families also expressed outrage. Thus, the Guardian reported for example:
On Saturday angry relatives of missing passengers expressed outrage at officials who were holding a briefing on the disaster in a gymnasium on Jindo island, where hundreds of family members are waiting for word about their loved ones. A few dozen relatives surged toward the stage, hurling questions at the officials. One man tried to choke a coastguard lieutenant and punch a maritime policeman.
Should we make a big deal of this? I wouldn’t. Give the grieving some space!
A couple of days after NYT and WSJ ran their stories, L.A. Times decided also to join the fray, but this time with the added twist that China’s inability to provide for equipment may actually have stymied the search.
In a article titled “Malaysia airliner search points up China’s technology gap,” the L.A. Times reported:
BEIJING — In June 2012, China reveled in a major scientific achievement: The nation’s first manned deep-sea submersible, the Jiaolong, had dived more than 4.3 miles into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The feat, state-run media said, put China among the elite ranks of such deep-sea-faring countries as the U.S., France and Japan.
Equipped with sonar equipment and two mechanical arms that can lift as much as 220 pounds, the submersible is just the kind of vehicle that might prove useful in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which investigators now believe is resting 2.8 miles beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. Of the jet’s 239 passengers and crew members, 153 were Chinese.
But while China has launched itself into the search effort with gusto — it focused its satellites to search for debris, scrambled ships and dispatched airplanes — the effort has thrown an awkward light on the gap between the country’s high-tech aspirations and its limitations.
China hasn’t offered the Jiaolong and the Australia-based search team hasn’t asked, leaving the lead role to a U.S.-built robot sub, the Bluefin-21.
“We are frustrated that we have this great vehicle and it’s not being deployed on this important mission,” said Cui Weicheng, who helped design the Jiaolong and was aboard the vessel on several missions.
Then again, Cui acknowledged, Chinese officials might be worried about getting the submersible to the search area. Its mother ship, the Facing the Red Sun No. 9, built in 1978, has had engine problems and is unreliable.
“On its last mission, from June to September 2013, the mother ship broke down many times,” Cui said. “It needed many repairs…. I think that’s why the Chinese government may be hesitating to send it.”
Forty days into the quest to locate the Boeing 777, it’s been American, Australian and British equipment and vessels that have turned up what investigators have called the most promising leads. Meanwhile, officials in other countries have chafed about China getting out over its skis, rushing to release technical findings that proved to be false leads.
“We cannot deny that the United States has much more advanced technology in this regard,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer who is a consultant with the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Assn. “The U.S. satellite system is much better, as is their ability to analyze very complicated data. These are things that we have to learn from the United States.”
For China, it’s truly Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t!
Political bikering / chest thumping
I find it irksome that American media would abuse a human catastrophe for political bickering / chest thumping. I agree with Xinhua. In the wake of MH370’s disappearance every nation in the area – most especially China – should pitch in to help.
The NYT article compared China’s response to that of the Haiyan in the Philippines. The comparison is most inapt for the key reason that in the search for MH370, time mattered. Every second counts. Every extra ship, plane mattered – the lack of fruitful search notwithstanding.
In the case of Haiyan, the rush to for foreign nations to announce millions upon millions of dollars of donations meant little in reality because (as everyone knew) little can be done on the ground until the government clears the road and get things under control. As we have observed, the rush to announce mega donations was more about political bragging rights than anything else. That is substantiated when one digs deeper and finds that the high amount of donations inevitably reflected more the high charges the donor nations charge for their overly priced consultants, aid workers, and equipment 1 rather than actual help that reached the people. A recent report shows that only some 2% of foreign (Western) aid given for Haiyan can be accounted for. I would not be surprised if the vast of portion (some 98%) of those aid one hears trumpeted by Western media and governments goes the way of Haiti – that is, either went to buy off influence (within the Philippines government) … or to pay off incestuous contractors.
Like Haiyan, the likes of NYT, WSJ, and L.A. Times would like to leverage the MH370 disaster for more political chest thumping. But if Haiyan is any guideline, we should give such institutions our Collective Finger in playing fire on the backs of people’s misery and emotions…
- see e.g. reports on Haiti titled “Four years after the Haiti earthquake, what have billions in US aid bought?” and “Haiti’s earthquake generated a $9bn response – where did the money go?” ↩