Relatives of sunken China boat passengers turn anger, anguish on government officials

Huang Jing rushed to the office of the Shanghai Xiehe Tourism Agency as soon as he heard Tuesday morning about the sinking of a riverboat cruise with his brother- and father-in-law and another 456 people on board.

He demanded an official passenger list from the travel company that had arranged the cruise along China's famed Yangtze River. When the agency didn't respond, he and other relatives turned on the local government, storming city district offices and cornering officials to ask that they force the cruise company to help them. Police were called in to keep the peace.

"The government must meet its responsibility," Huang said by mobile phone from a government office where he and other relatives were being kept away from the media. "We need to learn what happened to our loved ones."

Such quick outrage mirrors the responses of victim's relatives from other recent disasters such as last year's disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which carried mostly Chinese travelers. Few of the people on the capsized cruise ship have been rescued.

In an authoritarian country where transparency and friendly public service are rare, everyday Chinese learn to assume officials are hiding something from them. But when the fates of mothers, husbands and children are at stake, tolerance for the routine breaks down, said Shi Sushi, an independent Beijing-based commentator.

"These emotions are just waiting to explode," Shi said. "And when these episodes happen, even when it's something small, all these feelings come out. The government hasn't been able to solve some basic everyday problems, and people are ready to believe the worst."

Tuesday's discontent began when grieving relatives showed up to the travel agency's office only to find a notice on the door saying the owner could not be reached. They moved onto Shanghai's Zhabei district where they tearfully demanded help from officials there.

Although an apparent boat passenger list had been circulating on social media, Huang said it only included the names and government ID numbers of passengers who had purchased travel insurance. He said his relatives and others weren't on that list.

"The government should bring us to Hubei now," said one relative, who only identified herself by her family name Li. "How can these people (at the travel agency) run away?"

Dozens of police arrived when relatives confronted city officials while shouting, "Are we asking too much? No, we just want information!"

Similar scenes followed the stampede deaths of 36 people on Shanghai's Bund riverfront on New Year's Eve, when grieving relatives demanding to learn the fate of fallen revelers blocked city streets and were whisked by officials into hidden rooms.

Malaysia Airlines relatives have been fighting their battle for more than a year as they await word about their loved ones aboard the still-missing plane. Chinese police have detained and beaten some family members after they began criticizing the Chinese government's response to the accident.

"Nothing has changed, nothing has been found," one of the relatives of the missing MH370 passengers said in a recent interview. She identified herself only by her family name, also Li. "Everyday they just lie and trick the families."

Chinese officials have tried to defuse such suspicions by blending coverage of such disasters with positive stories of government officials jumping into action.

On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV paired updates on the boat sinking with footage of Premier Li Keqiang appearing to direct the rescue effort from the river site as well as with quotes from President Xi Jinping calling for an all-out rescue effort. The relatives didn't appear on state media reports about the disaster, which instead described the rescue in extensive detail.

Huang said he still didn't know whether his relatives were alive or dead.

"Nobody has told us anything," he said. "This is something we can't accept."


Chang reported from Beijing.