By Sharon Kwok.
An online hunt for a mysterious VIP smoker on a China Eastern Airlines flight from Shanghai to Beijing was instigated after CNN Reporter Steven Jiang posted the following on his Weibo:
“Would China Eastern Airlines tell me, who was the man allowed to break airline safety laws so blatantly? On the evening of December 2, after the MU5127 flight took off, the male passenger at 1A/B of the first class section was smoking at his seat. The crew did nothing.”
“After a passenger from the first class section took a photo of the smoker, an air marshal tried unsuccessfully to grab his/her phone and delete the photo. After the plane landed, several big guys boarded the plane. They surrounded and threatened the photographer, and forced him/her to delete the photo. The passenger was allowed to leave the plane only after the photo was deleted.”
Jiang’s post immediately went viral on Weibo, drawing more than 12,000 comments and 36,000 reposts in two days. Netizens’ opinions over the controversy seem sharply divided. Many commend Jiang for exposing corruption within the state-owned airline, and show support by calling for witnesses to step out. On the other hand, many question if Jiang made the whole incident up since the alleged flight has no first-class section, and prompt him to provide more evidence.
Facing mounting pressures, China Eastern Airlines posted an official Weibo statement on the following day denying that the incident ever happened:
“After we checked with December 2 MU5127 ‘s certain first class passengers and the airport’s concerned parties, we’ve confirmed that nobody sat at 6A/B (described as 1A/B in the original Weibo post) on that flight. The incident described didn’t happen. After the flight arrived in Beijing on 00:32, one airport ground staff followed normal handover protocols and boarded the plane. No other person boarded the plane.”
“Update #1:” After a few days of silence, Jiang decided to issue a follow-up statement on Weibo to clear the air:
“1. I have made it clear in my Sina Weibo profile that the content of my posts represent my personal views only, and should not be taken to be from CNN. However, as a verified user, from now on I will be more discreet about posting personal opinions.
2. I was not a passenger of the alleged flight, and never said I was. The person who took the photo has confirmed the details of the incident, but understandably declined to provide more information because the scandal has grown so big.
3. The flight number I gave in my original post was wrong, and I am sorry for all the frustration caused by my mistake. China Eastern Airlines contacted me soon after I posted, and have issued media statements in relation to that. I have already e-mailed the correct flight number to them, so that they can conduct further investigations.”