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Anger Boils Over For Families Of Flight 370 Passengers


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. It's not often that an airline accident triggers street protests, but that's exactly what happened in the Chinese capital this week. On Monday, Malaysia announced that the flight MH370 was lost at sea with no survivors. The passengers' families say that there's no evidence of this and many are convinced of a conspiracy.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing on the families' reactions and what it says about Chinese society.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Three weeks after the Malaysia Airlines flight vanished, passengers' family members continue to come to the Lido Hotel to pepper airline representatives with questions about the missing flight. One man who would only give his family name, Wang(ph), says his brother was onboard the plane. He points out that for about a week, Malaysian authorities directed search efforts to the South China Sea, even though Malaysian military radar had detected the plane flying in the opposite direction.

WANG: (Through interpreter) All these signs suggest that they're hiding something. If there's no conspiracy, then they should be releasing information in whatever way is most helpful to search for the plane. So in my judgment, there is a conspiracy going on. But who's behind it is not clear.

KUHN: Mr. Wang says he holds out hope that his brother is still alive somewhere. Hu Yong(ph) is a media expert at Beijing University. He argues that in China, conspiracy theories are a form of social protest against the lack of transparency in politics. They're people's way of saying they don't buy what the government is telling them. Hu points to last year's corruption case against senior politician, Bo Xilai. In that case, conspiracy theories that the government dismissed as rumors turned out to be true.

HU YONG: (Through interpreter) These incidents cultivate people's unique way of understanding rumors. People feel that in China, rumors may be more credible than the government's lies.

KUHN: Some family members have already begun preparations to sue Malaysia Airlines. Hao Jung Boa(ph) is a Beijing-based lawyer who specializes in airline accidents. He says the lawsuits are also a form of protest.

HAO JUNG BOA: (Through interpreter) Even if the airline offers reasonable compensation, it is highly likely that the relatives will not only refuse it but also sue the airlines. Often, people file these group lawsuits not just to seek more reasonable compensation but also to vent their fury.

KUHN: On Tuesday, scores of family members marched to the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. Give us back our relatives, they shouted. They briefly scuffled with police who tried to stop them. Steve Wang(ph) is a member of a recently formed committee of passengers' relatives. He says relatives were expecting Malaysia's ambassador to China to explain the government's conclusion that the plane was lost at sea.

STEVE WANG: (Through interpreter) We were already in great pain at hearing the news that the plane had crashed but the ambassador didn't come out to offer us an explanation, so we became very angry and went to the Malaysian embassy to look for him.

KUHN: Media expert Hu Yong says that the few protests that the authorities tolerate are usually directed at foreign governments, but he warns that the protesters anger can easily shift to a long list of domestic grievances. The Chinese government is very wary of this.

YONG: (Through interpreter) As soon as people take to the street in protest, many people will try to use this opportunity to raise other demands. This is because most of the time, people are not allowed to demonstrate in public.

KUHN: Passengers' relatives were allowed to present a protest letter to the Malaysian embassy. Shortly after that, though, they were put onto buses and driven away. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.