Chinese hubris, Malaysian pride
The world knows about China’s arrogance, which stems from its economic power, toward its neighbors. So the spectacle of Malaysia bearing the brunt of Chinese anger over its missing airliner is not surprising. Having once lived in Kuala Lumpur, I know about Malaysians’ nationalistic pride. But because the country is a democracy tinged with authoritarianism, it’s been in a quandary since March 8 upon becoming the focus of the world’s media. Malaysia may be considered of “Second World” status, one boasting of its multiculturalism, but its top government officials are often Malay bumiputra (“sons of the soil”), with minority ethnic Chinese and Indians handling lesser roles. The official lately tasked with facing the media has been a Malay burdened by the restrictions of his country’s media, someone not totally adept at considering different countries’ sensibilities.
One aspect of the Chinese nationals’ rage over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may have been forgotten as the weeks of agonized waiting dragged on. That has to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian one-child policy for couples. Those defying that constraint risk being banished to China’s hinterlands, with the extra children denied benefits and proper education.
The fury of the relatives of the lost Chinese passengers clearly showed them as parents of single children, or related to those who are. To have one’s precious descendants disappear into thin air, as it were, made the outbursts understandable. One mother shown on TV screamed in a paroxysm of rage because she had lost her only son, his wife, and her only grandson. Obviously, many of the lost Chinese passengers were in the same boat—or, more appropriately, plane. The males, who are seen as “little emperors,” are China’s valued assets (the sons of Party leaders are known as “princelings”). The females (those not aborted in their mothers’ wombs) are beloved offspring who produce the princelings that play major roles in China’s politics and economy today. President Xi Jinping is one such princeling.
Those who have disappeared may amount to only a tiny fraction of China’s population of 1.4 billion (the largest on the planet), but China sees their disappearance as a tragedy of catastrophic proportions and has no qualms about displaying its wrath. Not only have the Malaysian authorities been attacked verbally, the vitriol is likewise aimed at Boeing, the airline manufacturer, as threats of lawsuits are aired.
There were no volcanic flare-ups from the relatives of the other nationalities on board Flight 370. Most were somber as they expressed hope that their relatives were still alive, or impatience at the slow and confusing data released by the Malaysians. Prayer vigils and words of solace were shared, and though some were pointedly critical of the Malaysians, none descended to hysterics.
What’s ironic in all this is that although China has a number of ships and planes engaged in the search over the southern Indian Ocean, it’s been Australia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand expending more time, great effort, and much funding in the search. Even smaller countries like the Philippines have offered assistance in a display of fellowship, despite its territorial differences with China.
It may take years to find the Malaysian plane. It took two years after June 1, 2009, for an Air France plane to be brought up from the ocean floor, following its crash that was believed caused by pilot error. Or Flight 370 may never be found, like American aviatrix Amelia Earhart who disappeared in 1937.
With much speculation raging on the cause of Flight 370’s crash, the most plausible one comes from Canadian veteran pilot Chris Goodfellow. He calculates that a catastrophic malfunction occurred suddenly, obliterating the plane’s communications equipment. As the pilots sought to land quickly, they veered away from the northbound Kuala Lumpur-Beijing path toward the closest airports, on the Malaysian islands of Langkawi or Penang, hence the turn to the west over the Malay Peninsula. He posits that a fire broke out, with toxic smoke quickly overcoming the flight crew. That left the aircraft cruising on auto-pilot for hours over the Indian Ocean.
The harrowing thought is if, with the crew incapacitated, passengers were left in an imponderable situation. If they, too, were knocked out by the fumes before the plane finally plunged into the sea, that would be a merciful scenario. It would have spared them hours of agonizing horror.
Compared to the other conspiracy theories, Mr. Goodfellow’s theory makes the most sense. There was no terrorist hijacking (as sometimes happens) or pilot suicide mission (as in the 1999 EgyptAir crash), but a horrific mechanical accident that took the lives of 239 people. What’s left is the hope that the wreckage will be found one day, so the victims’ relatives can finally have some peace.
Isabel T. Escoda is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.
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