A stewardess who was assualted by a Chinese military official and his wife got some measure of re-compense when he was suspended following outrage online fed in part by rare criticism from state-run media.
Col. Fang Daguo, a political commissar for the Armed Forces Department of Yuexiu district in the southern city of Guangzhou, was suspended from his post on Sept. 2 pending further investigation, the official People’s Daily reported Monday through its feed on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging site.
Mr. Fang and his wife were reportedly reeking of alcohol on Aug. 29 when they got into a verbal and physical conflict with a China Southern Airlines flight attendant over carry-on luggage, the official Xinhua news agency reported over the weekend, citing interviews with other passengers.
Both Mr. Fang and his wife have been unreachable for comment. The flight attendant, whose identity remains unknown, has not updated her account on Sina Weibo since Friday, when she wrote to say the couple had apologized to her.
The suspension of Mr. Fang comes amid angry suggestions from social media users – as well as from state-run media — that local authorities in Guangzhou have been trying to shield him from punishment for the attack.
At the center of the controversy is a preliminary investigation report, released Saturday by the Yuexiu Armed Forces Department, that dismissed allegations Mr. Yang had assaulted the flight attendant, saying instead that “pushing and shoving” had occurred between the flight attendant and an unspecified member of Mr. Yang’s family.
That characterization struck many as disingenuous, particularly in light of photos posted online by one of the flight attendant’s co-workers in the aftermath of the incident showing a torn flight attendant’s uniform and a woman’s scratched and bruised arm.
Many Internet users also said they found it suspicious that the only witness quoted at length in Xinhua’s first report on the incident was a student from the Central African Republic — a sign, they argued, that Chinese passengers had been intimidated into silence.
Among those casting doubt on the Guangzhou government’s handling of the case was Xinhua itself. After publishing a commentary on Saturday saying the incident shouldn’t be resolved behind closed doors, the news agency followed up on Sunday by using its Sina Weibo feed to post a list of pointed questions for the Yuexiu propaganda authorities: “First, have you done a comprehensive, objective investigation? If not, then why publish the results so hastily?” read the post. “Second, is it or is it not the case that, because your methods of investigation aren’t sufficient, you’ve been hoodwinked?”
The Yuexiu district government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Xinhua’s aggressiveness in pursuit of the story has won it rare and widespread admiration from social media users, who can typically be counted on to disparage the news agency as a tool of the country’s propaganda authorities. “Xinhua finally getting serious,” commented one approving microblogger.
Reactions to news of Mr. Fang’s suspension, on the other hand, were more mixed, with some expressing disappointment that he hadn’t been dismissed outright and others proclaiming it a sign of the growing heft of public opinion.
“Officials take notice,” proclaimed one empowered Sina Weibo user. “The power of Weibo is massive. When a servant attacks his master – you think the master will let you off?”
– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin