Zhang Ziyi, ready for her close-up. Photographer: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images
Zhang Ziyi, ready for her close-up. Photographer: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese anger at the Malaysian government’s incompetent and evasive response to the Flight 370 disappearance found an unlikely, angry ally this week: the Chinese edition of Harper’s Bazaar. In what could well be a first for the nearly 150-year-old fashion publication, its Chinese edition -- via its account on the Sina Weibo service -- rallied a viral mob:

Malaysian Airlines must give the truth not just promises! It must respect the dignity of life! It must be accountable to the families of the victims! Chinese people, stand up for your compatriots and the dignity of life, and Malaysia will reply!!!

The message has been re-posted more than 87,000 times by angry Chinese, and has been complemented by a campaign of angry tweets and calls for boycotts of Malaysian goods and travel from celebrities, including actress Zhang Ziyi and singer-actor Chen Kun. (The Bazaar message even had a hashtag that translates roughly as: “One hundred stars and celebrities cry out for the dignity of life.")

Needless to say, none of this outcry would be tolerated if the missing aircraft belonged to a state-owned Chinese airline, rather than a Malaysian one. But the Chinese government has long tolerated enmity directed at foreign governments -- even those, such as Malaysia’s, which have nominally friendly relations with the country.

Sometimes that enmity runs out of control, as it did in 2012 during anti-Japanese protests that turned violent in several Chinese cities. And sometimes, such as on Tuesday, when plainclothes police officers accompanied the families of Chinese Flight 370 passengers on a march to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, it remains very controlled. William Wan, reporting for the Washington Post, noted that those plainclothes police provided protesters with T-shirts, placards and a call-and-response that went a little something like this:

“We don’t have any contradictions with the Chinese government, right?”

“Right!”

That settled, the state-organized protesters could get on with the business of throwing bottles at the Malaysian embassy and demanding justice.

To be sure, the Chinese families at the protests have every reason to be aggrieved and, in a free society, would have the right to protest at the Malaysian Embassy any time they liked without being stage-directed by the Chinese police. The fact that they had to be supervised speaks not only to the depths of their grief, but also to the lengths others might go to manipulate it, as well as to the Chinese government’s fear the anger could turn elsewhere. Indeed, leaked directives from China’s Ministry of Propaganda specifically warn news media outlets that in covering the still-missing plane they are “not to incite any discontented sentiment.”

As pitiable as such guidelines might be, it’s worth acknowledging that the Chinese public’s well-channeled anger, accompanied by intense official pressure on the Malaysian government, has resulted in an investigation that’s been increasingly transparent, international and responsive. That’s a productive, if ironic, outcome for China’s authoritarian government.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Maria LaMagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net.