Having no firsthand knowledge of China whatsoever, but good reasons to understand it better, I find Chinese reactions to the MH370 disaster very interesting indeed.
It scarcely needs rehearsing that MH370 is a tragedy and, who knows, potentially as nefarious as Pan Am 103. Relatives of the Lockerbie victims have plugged away in resolute and dignified fashion for 25 years to get closer to what actually happened, without definitive success. Mysteries like this make the underlying calamity the more difficult to bear: and arguably, right now before any wreckage is found, MH370 is in some ways even more unsettling. Common humanity dictates compassion for all concerned.
That said, what are we to make of the fairly unrestrained public outpourings of quite a number of Chinese families? In Japan (which I do know something about) it wouldn't happen like that. Private grief and bewilderment would doubtless be as great, but powerful cultural forces would ensure that dignity was maintained: the wider families of the heart-broken would embrace and comfort them, and at the same time enforce the stoic decorum which is central to the way of life. Japanese society as a whole wouldn't, couldn't countenance people losing it in public. (This isn't some sort of 10,000 mile-distant stereotyping: we know it from their responses to the tsunami.) We all saw the dignity, nay resolute cheerfulness, with which Filipinos bore their own disasters last year. And Radio 4 has been interviewing an American relative of an MH370 victim whose composure, dignity and Christian equanimity in his evident distress has been a model the stoics of old would have commended, and that we might all hope to emulate should such a thing befall us.
As for the Chinese, I am left puzzling over the strands. Doesn't 'face' count for something in China, as we are always led to believe? Does the Chinese government think it strengthens their global image to have the world watching their distraught citizens behave thus? Shows them to be a people of heartfelt feeling? Gives them some kind of upper hand against Malaysia in disputes over the South China Sea? Deflects Chinese opinion from wondering why China itself has looked so impotent over the whole affair (as everything is once again left to the Anglo-Saxons to clear up)? I'd be surprised.
Would Chinese people dare to behave thus if a future disaster is entirely of Chinese making? Do they in fact behave exactly thus (and there are many, many such Chinese disasters all the time) but the authorities make sure we never get to see it? Would these suppositions have been true in the past, but now the internet makes suppression more difficult and 2014 marks some kind of turning-point? Or is it a release for pent-up frustration against their own government, which they feel at liberty to express provided they direct it at the nasty foreign Malays? (Even a shot across the bows of the Chinese government? This is how we really feel when these man-made disasters happen and no-one tells us anything - watch out the next time one of those home-grown catastrophes occurs.)
The nearest anyone has got to giving me an explanation is that the Chinese are accustomed to a very 'orderly' public world in which nothing goes wrong without it being authoritatively (if mendaciously) explained by the Party in ways that brook no doubt or dissent. Thus, they are totally lost in a situation of unstructured uncertainty, at which point anything can happen. That makes sense as a contributory factor.
Maybe more and better explanations will come our way. I hope these poor people get whatever it takes to comfort them soon.
In the meantime I am left with the clear impression the whole episode shows that the global standing of China is a lot poorer than heir-apparent-imminent to World Leadership.