China will find itself in Malaysia's position again. Source: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
China will find itself in Malaysia's position again. Source: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

In the days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, perhaps the most vocal public critic of the incompetent Malaysian response has been the Chinese government and its official media outlets. This is understandable: at least 152 of the 239 passengers and crew on the missing flight are Chinese, and the authorities are under considerable pressure from an upset public to produce answers. Chinese and their officials have reason to be upset, especially as reports suggest that the Malaysian government has withheld evidence that might have helped with the search and rescue mission.

But as China pressures Malaysia, it’s worth asking whether the Chinese government is capable of meeting the standard of transparency, openness and collaboration that it expects out of Kuala Lumpur. That standard, insofar as it exists, was outlined Thursday in an English-language commentary published by Xinhua, the state-owned news wire. The lack of a published Chinese-language original suggests that this was written for a foreign -- probably Malaysian -- audience. It’s a message that Chinese state media have assured their audience that Chinese officials have delivered privately, as well. It is not, however, the sort of message that often-opaque China is accustomed to upholding itself:

Unless transparency is ensured, the huge international search operation can never be as fruitful as we hope and expect. When faced with catastrophe, honesty is human beings' best solution to finding a chance to prevent tragedies happening again.

China hasn’t yet had to take responsibility for managing the investigation of a large-scale international tragedy such as the Flight 370 disappearance. But that’s not to suggest that it’s inexperienced in such matters, especially within its own borders. The most notable example occurred on July 23, 2011, when a high-speed train traveling from Beijing to Wenzhou, in China’s south, rear-ended another that was then idle on the tracks, killing 40 and injuring more than 190. It was the worst mass-transportation-related disaster in contemporary Chinese history.

The government’s initial response was not promising: Rather than secure the site for investigation, a Shanghai official ordered the conductor’s car, including its instrumentation, crushed and buried in a hole near the tracks. This, combined with pent-up suspicions of corruption at the heart of China’s decades long building boom, produced a remarkable social-media-driven public backlash that demanded answers. State new outlets, briefly unshackled, offered withering reports that aimed directly at the rot many presumed underlay China’s giant infrastructure boom.

But it didn’t last long. The Chinese propaganda bureaucracy, which was initially caught off guard, went into information-restriction overdrive and ordered Chinese press outlets to restrict their coverage to positive news, only. Quickly, the controversy went quiet as government investigators began work on a report that many Chinese assumed would be a whitewash.

Yet, several months later, when a final government report was finally issued, it surprised many with its candor. Blame was assigned to corruption, systemic design flaws, faulty equipment and 54 officials. It wasn’t completely credible -- the conductor’s car, it reported, was buried to help with rescue operations -- but it exceeded reasonably low expectations. Then as now, few would deny that it was a step forward for government transparency in a country that rarely has any.

Nonetheless, such disclosure remains the exception to China’s top-down rule of information dissemination, efficiently demonstrated in the wake of the brutal knife attack on passengers in Kunming two weeks ago. In that case, the government announced it knew the perpetrators and cause of the terror attack, allowed the explanation to echo in official media, and left it at that. No press conferences were held, no interviews or background leaks were offered; the official story is the story, and that’s that.

Similarly, there is the example of last week’s annual, farcical March press conference conducted by Premier Li Keqiang, the second most powerful man in China. The event is always carefully staged, with all reporter questions vetted ahead of time. Off-limit topics -- this year, they reportedly included the Kunming attack and investigations into high-level corruption -- are grounds for blacklisting. It’s a ridiculous exercise, yet it remains the one guaranteed chance each year that journalists have to question China’s top leaders. Is that transparency?

It’s a point worth contemplating as China’s international role grows, and with it the likelihood that China will one day be in the same position as Malaysia is today.

(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.