At 8:18 pm today, Air China’s official account (@中国国际航空) on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, made a special announcement about a threatening message its flight CA981 received. To ensure passenger safety, the account wrote, the plane, originally bound for New York, returned to Beijing International Airport roughly eight hours after taking off. The official account of Beijing International Airport (@首都机场官方微博) soon took over reporting duties on Sina Weibo, with its latest tweet stating that passengers are being well cared for at the airport while police investigate.
But on Weibo, other voices are sounding. One of the passengers, @Natalie步 , shared pictures (shown below) of the food she was offered and, more importantly, the police forces amassed within the past few hours—it was a spectacular sight. While Air China thanked its passengers for their understanding and cooperation, @Natalie步 made it clear in her earlier tweet that passengers were not forewarned of the return: “CA981 only told us to be seated and be prepared for strong turbulence in the air, but it didn’t feel like we met turbulence at all… And when I finally lifted the shield, we were already on the ground. ”
@Natalie步 is up in the air again, but netizens continue to engage in all manner of speculation. The consensus online seems to be that a government official, most likely a local party boss, possibly with corruption issues, was on the plane and attempting to flee. One netizen asked, “It took them that long to realize someone was trying to flee?”
Speculation (which remains no more than that) about an official on the run was fueled by the plane’s choice of landing spot. Some netizens asked why the plane did not land in the nearest port instead of turning around and returning to Beijing after four hours spent airborne. Others found it odd the plane had taken off at all, though it is not hard to conceive that a threat was received while the plane was in flight.
Netizens have also suggested possible terrorist attacks, but so far no clear information has emerged. Some careful observers even pointed out that planes usually have their window shields lifted when descending. Since @Natalie步’s tweet suggested otherwise, the authorities must have been taking precautions not to stir the passengers, or perhaps, to avoid alerting the mysterious official.
For now, all netizens can do is wait, and continue speculating, as investigations of the official and unofficial variety move forward. In China’s opaque information environment, it remains difficult to separate fact from fiction. So let Tea Leaf Nation take a quote from, of all places, the People’s Daily (@人民日报): “We will continue to closely follow” this matter.