They started in buses, many clad in white t-shirts that read “Pray for MH370.” Then, when the buses wouldn’t move, they marched, more than 2.5 kilometres in the smoggy spring sun across Beijing, to the doors of the Malaysian embassy. They came in anger, hundreds of relatives of people aboard a Malaysia Airlines plane believed to have crashed after disappearing March 8.
The day after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the 239 on board had almost certainly perished, mourning families lashed out at a foreign government they accuse of botching the search and killing their family members.
Their protest marked a rare moment of government-sanctioned dissent in the country’s capital. It came as China seeks ways to divert anger from its own failures to find the aircraft wreckage, amid signs that the grieving are pointing fingers at Beijing, too. Malaysia has proven an easy target, with a government that has been slow to respond to critical information, and repeatedly issued details it has had to retract or amend.
“They just hide everything, and I don’t think that this kind of government – a liar and even a murderer – can solve anything,” said Steve Wang, one of those who has lost family. A statement posted online called the Malaysian government, military and airline “executioners” and said family members are prepared to take matters into their own hands by using “every possible means to pursue the unforgivable crimes and responsibility of all three.”
The search stalled on Tuesday, as bad weather on the south Indian Ocean kept spotter aircraft grounded.
That directed attention toward the Malaysian embassy, where hundreds of uniformed officials cleared streets and shoved away watching media, while the crowd of protesters marshalled around the embassy’s gates. They waited for the ambassador to receive a letter of protest, and see the grief on their signs.
“I bought a diamond ring. I want to put it on you,” one said.
But the ambassador didn’t arrive. Instead, the crowd waited for two hours, at one point emerging to invite foreign cameras to document their plight. After a tussle with police, the cameras were barred from entering a street blocked to everyone but families, police and military.
They then returned to the Lido Hotel, the place they have gathered in increasing frustration as the search for MH370 stretches to two-and-a-half weeks without a single firm indication of its fate. There the ambassador did arrive, to a fierce round of questions from an incensed group convinced Malaysia is hiding something key. He offered few responses, further infuriating the crowd of 400 to 500. At one point family members called on him to kneel before them in contrition, saying they were more angry with Malaysian leadership than with whoever may have killed their families.
Many believe the aircraft was stolen by a pilot who supported political opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, recently sentence to five years in prison.
“For me, I think it might be hijacking for political reasons,” Mr. Wang said.
The Chinese government, too, offered increasingly harsh criticism of Malaysia, with a statement from its foreign ministry Tuesday calling on its counterpart “to provide further evidence and all the information that leads up to” the conclusion the plane has been lost. The Malaysian ambassador acknowledged that he had come to speak to families at the behest of the Chinese government, and state media said premier Li Keqiang had called an urgent meeting to respond to the situation.
Not only have numerous lives been lost, but at least one tear-stricken relative bitterly blamed the government on Monday for a one-child policy that had left her with only one son, now gone. It was a sign the stakes are rising for Beijing.
“There’s very good reason why these people are clearly very upset. And there’s always the risk that that will turn against the government itself,” said Frank Dikotter, a historian at the University of Hong Kong who authored the book Mao’s Great Famine.
“In a one-party state, any form of public anger is always a challenge for the people in power. They have to channel it one way or another.”
It may not be an existential crisis to Chinese authority: “the plane crash is a relatively simple event” with small numbers of people involved. “This is a crisis that leadership will find easy to handle,” said Wong Yiu Chung, head of the political science department at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Still, the protest march Tuesday bore signs of substantial government planning and involvement. Public transport buses were offered to family. At least 11 Greyhound-sized buses carried hundreds of military and police troops, who cleared roads and operated a mobile command centre. A Chinese official even called on families to treat foreign media well: “without them, who else will tell the world what is happening here?” he said. It was a striking statement from a government often hostile to outside reporting.
Mr. Wang denied government was pulling strings, saying “no one organized” the march. “It’s just organized by all of us because we are angry,” he said.
But Beijing has been suspected of planning role other high-profile protests, such as one organized outside the Japanese embassy in late 2012, amid a hot-blooded outcry over the ownership of disputed islands.
China’s government has another incentive to lash out at Malaysia, too. At a time of corruption scandals and slowing growth, it’s a chance to show government lending a kind ear.
“In recent years, the Chinese government has always tried to use these occasions to show that it is behind its people, that it is defending their interests,” said Zhang Baohui, an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University. He cautioned however, that it “may backfire,” by creating a rift in an otherwise good China-Malaysia relationship.
With files from Yu Mei