The Washington Post

How T-shirts reveal China’s mixed feelings about MH370 protests

A relative of passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 yells at security personnel during a protest outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. Scores of angry relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard the flight set out on a protest march to demand more answers about the plane's fate. AFP/Getty Images

After more than two weeks with no sign of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and a response from Malaysia Airlines and the authorities in Kuala Lumpur that has appeared slow and confusing, relatives of the 150-plus Chinese citizens on board are growing angry.

These families released a tersely worded statement on Monday and protested outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday. These relatives seem to have the support of the Chinese people, with angry reactions from Chinese netizens on social media. But perhaps more surprisingly, they appear to have the support of the Chinese state, an unusual move from a government that tends to oppose demonstrations.

The Post's William Wan was at the scene in Beijing on Tuesday and noted that the protesters appeared to have an escort of Chinese government agents in plain clothes who also provided them with placards and T-shirts featuring slogans. This photograph shows some of the placards held by the crowd, which featured slogans such as "We want the truth." Wan also noted signs that read, "We await you at home with tears” and “Please come back.”

Grieving relatives of passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 protest with a placard reading "we want the truth" outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. (AFP/Getty Images)

Here you can see the slogan on the back of the shirts, featuring the message "Pray for MH370."

Relatives of passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 protest outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. (AFP/Getty Images)

The T-shirts and placards continue the Chinese government's critical line on Malaysia's handling of the incident: In the weeks since the plane disappeared, the Foreign Ministry has issued angry statements and state media have published a number of editorials that openly criticized Malaysia.

The plainclothes government agents reflect something else, too, however: A desire to control the narrative of the protests. While the protests would never have made it to the Malaysian Embassy without official approval, Wan notes, the agents also appeared to be on hand to make sure the demonstrators did not get too out of hand. “We don’t have any contradictions with the Chinese government, right?” an older man yelled into a loudspeaker at one point, waiting for the crowd to yell back "Right."

It's part of a broader pattern. For all the stern words in editorials, strict guidelines for writing about MH370 have been put in place at Chinese publications. The worry is that if the anger against Malaysia is allowed to grow unconstrained, it might spread and turn against the Chinese government.

They might well be right. The BBC's Celia Hatton was also on the scene at protests today. "We need our government to work for us," she heard one protester shout. "The Chinese and Malaysian governments are the same. They're all corrupt."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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