DIFFERENT people grieve in different ways.
For about 400 grief-stricken relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers on board missing Flight MH370, their behaviour has run the gamut from going on a hunger strike, and gatecrashing an official press briefing in Kuala Lumpur, to protesting in front of the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing and hurling insults at Malaysian government and airline officials at meetings.
They were protesting against the pace and course of investigations and demanding to know why the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) plane never made it to its intended destination, Beijing, and how it could have remained missing since March 8.
Media reports of their behaviour contrasted sharply with that of other families who also have relatives – of 13 nationalities – on the plane.
At a news briefing in Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday, one day after about 200 Chinese demanding answers marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said: “But the Chinese families must also understand that Malaysia also lost loved ones and many other nations also lost loved ones.
“I have seen images (of relatives) from Australia: very rational, understanding this is a global effort, not blaming Malaysia, because it is coordinating something unprecedented.”
Given the negative light that may have been cast on the Chinese family members’ actions, it is not just fair but also necessary to examine the factors behind their behaviour and whether most people, if in the same plight and living in the Chinese society, would have responded the same way.
A key reason has to do with the unique psyche of the Chinese people.
After living here for two years, I have come to realise just how much the Chinese people suspect their government and officials of covering up scandals or hiding the truth. Just take a look at the Chinese cyberspace, where netizens often poke holes at official pronouncements and slam government policies.
This helps explain why many relatives, until now, still believe that the Malaysian government is not coming clean on the missing plane.
Second, many Chinese here believe in taking things into their own hands and also in the law of the jungle – only the fittest, as well as the loudest, wins.
I was once standing in line at an airport check-in counter when a group of men rudely cut in. When I told them off, they started heckling me and calling me blind.
Perhaps this is why the relatives who are in Beijing have been extremely vocal in their anger and demands as shown during meetings with Malaysian officials and the embassy protest last Tuesday.
Agreeing, Beijing-based analyst Hu Xingdou said: “China is not a law-based society but one ruled and determined largely by the elite few. So the people know that they have to kick up a fuss, fight, and struggle to get their way.”
Residual hatred for catastrophic events, such as the decade-long Cultural Revolution, could also have been a trigger for the excessive anger, Prof Hu said.
The society’s focus on making money and becoming rich over the past 30 years has also diluted social values such as character- building at home or in school, leading many to act in less restrained or ungentlemanly ways, he added.
Other factors may include a sense of superiority, boosted by China’s rise as a future superpower and the nationalistic efforts under President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” slogan.
This is evident from the postings of some Chinese netizens and even celebrities regarding the MH370 saga.
Rock singer Wang Feng, on his Twitter-like Weibo site, accused Malaysia of “fooling around with a great and proud world power”.
Ultimately, the most powerful force driving the Chinese relatives’ behaviour has to be their fear of losing their loved ones, forever. Emotions running high – grief, anguish, anger, fear – cannot be assuaged easily.
It does not help that the relatives have been riding an emotional roller coaster for the past three weeks, having seen their hopes raised and then dashed by the many twists and turns in the multinational search effort – with still no end in sight.
So when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced last Monday that, based on the latest satellite analysis, the conclusion is that the flight “ended in the southern Indian Ocean”, the Chinese relatives lashed out in anger.
Sociologists say that three weeks of living together with complete strangers who are equally grief-stricken and angry could have magnified these emotions and triggered extreme behaviour.
“The MAS gathered them at hotels to provide better care, but it also caused a negative side- effect by aggravating their emotions,” said sociologist Tang Jun of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“However, I think we should be more understanding about the behaviour of these relatives. It has been a very long wait for news of their loved ones.”
Would I have acted the way they did? Probably not. But then, I’m not in their shoes.