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China Works to Manage Narrative of Ship Disaster

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, third from right, talks with an injured woman as he visits survivors of a ship that sank at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, at a hospital in Jianli, Wuhan province, China, June 2, 2015.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, third from right, talks with an injured woman as he visits survivors of a ship that sank at the Jianli section of the Yangtze River, at a hospital in Jianli, Wuhan province, China, June 2, 2015.

The Chinese government is sparing no effort to reach survivors from a passenger ship that capsized on the Yangtze River, but it is also is working tirelessly to control the public narrative about the incident, angering relatives of those on board and limiting discussion about what might have triggered the tragedy.

The Eastern Star, carrying more than 450 people, most elderly passengers, flipped over late Monday during extreme weather, but after two full days of searching, more than 400 remain missing and the confirmed death toll is rising. China has deployed massive dredgers and nearly 200 scuba divers to help with the effort, but no additional survivors were located Wednesday.

Despite that, state media coverage has tried to remain upbeat and has largely highlighted what government officials are doing, as efforts to access compartments of the ship that may still have pockets of air proceed.

Premier Li Keqiang has personally visited with survivors who were pulled from the wreckage. He was shown on state television Wednesday paying his respects in the pelting rain as he stood in front of the corpses of some of the victims that lay beneath plastic sheets.

What the public in China may be less aware of is that propaganda officials have barred local media from traveling to the accident site and have ordered them to use nothing other than Xinhua media and images from state broadcaster CCTV.

No access to family members

Foreign journalists have been allowed to travel to the site of the accident, but getting there has not been easy for some. Authorities have kept reporters, both domestic and foreign, away from grieving and increasingly anxious family members as well.

Around two dozen family members marched toward main government offices in central Shanghai on Wednesday. Some were crying and others were shouting, “Help us!” As they wait, family members are growing increasingly frustrated with what they say is the lack of information authorities have provided them.

Comments online about the incident are being tightly sanitized. According to, the Eastern Star was the top censored topic on China’s Twitter-like social media site Weibo on Wednesday. Some postings were taken down to limit the spread of false information, such as reports early on that there were 20 survivors. So far, only 14 have made it out alive, including the ship’s captain and chief engineer.

Other removed posts focused their angst and outrage on the scope of the tragedy and the ship’s captain. The Eastern Star’s chief engineer and captain are in police custody, but little information has been given to the public about what happened on the night of the wreck, other than that they both have said a sudden tornado overturned the boat.

Tornado confirmed

Chinese officials have said there was a tornado in the area at the time, and at a news briefing Wednesday, where reporters were barred from asking questions, that position was confirmed.

Wuhan meteorological station chief Wu Cuihong said that while tornadoes in Hubei are rare, they do occur about once every five years. Most last about 17 minutes, she said.

“After metrological experts reviewed and compiled radar and other data, they confirmed that there was a tornado in the vicinity of where the accident occurred at the time it occurred,” she said. Wu said the tornado whipped up winds of more than 118 kilometers per hour and lasted for 15 to 20 minutes.

What she did not say \was whether the boat had been warned about the possible tornado. Wu said that overseas, on average, warnings are given roughly 10 minutes before a tornado strikes. She also did not say why there were no other major reports of damage from the storm.

Other possible causes

While there is no doubt that the weather was bad when the ship capsized, other possible reasons for the ship's sinking are being given less attention.

So far, state media have reported only that the captain and chief engineer said separately that a tornado caused the ship to capsize. Reports have said nothing about what they were doing at the time, or why they continued to sail during the storm.

The Eastern Star ferry was built more than 20 years ago, and according to the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, it passed inspections by authorities in Chongqing last month. But the Reuters news agency reports that according to documents on the website of the Nanjing Maritime Safety Administration, the Eastern Star was investigated in 2013 during a safety campaign.

The report did not give any details about the nature of the problems, but said that the defects were reported to Chongqing maritime officials at the time.