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Story Shifts From Tragedy to Heroism as Yangtze Rescue Enters Second Day

As hope fades for those aboard the capsized ship and only 14 survivors have been found, politicians and state media are attempting to move the narrative, according to a Chinese political expert.

by Scott Mitchell
Jun 3 2015, 11:40am

Photo par Wu Hong/EPA

As hope fades for finding more survivors of the Yangtze River cruise ship disaster, Chinese state-run media and political leaders are rushing to turn the tragedy into a story of heroism, according to commentators.

The ship, which was carrying more than 400 holidaymakers mostly aged between 50 and 80, capsized after entering a severe storm in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Most remain missing in what is set to become China's worst maritime disaster in 70 years. 

So far 18 people have been confirmed dead. Fourteen have survived, some by swimming to shore, while others were pulled from the boat by rescue teams.

The government has mobilized a mass rescue effort of more than 1,000 armed forces, while maintaining strict control over media coverage.

CCTV said rescuers were deciding Wednesday whether to cut into the overturned hull of the ship, meaning survivors could perhaps still be found in air pockets, or to pull the ship back into an upright position.

Transport Ministry spokesman Xu Chengguang said divers would continue to search the ship for as long as possible. "Until all hope is lost and more accurate information becomes available, we will not give up on our final efforts, although I know that our colleagues at the scene are facing a great many difficulties," Xu said.

The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — China's number two political leader — has traveled to the site of the disaster, with media reporting this was in order to personally oversee and direct the rescue operation.

"He instructed rescue forces to continue their work throughout the night, adding that divers should repeatedly go under water and comb the shipwreck in a bid to find more survivors," said CCTV television network.

Related: Hundreds Missing After Cruise Ship Capsizes on China's Yangtze River

One such diver is the 24-year-old rescuer Guan Dong who Li praised on Wednesday. Guan has become a hero of the rescue efforts, with praise flooding the Chinese social media network Weibo.

"It is marvelous to give hope to others while facing danger himself," said Li.

Guan freed several survivors who were trapped within the ship's hull. Describing his rescue of 21-year-old Chen Shuhan, Guan reportedly said, "The bottom of the ship had a layer of air cushion, which was 1.5 to 2m thick. The victim was sitting on a water pipe in the upside down ship bottom."

Guan was was reportedly 30 meters below the water's surface, when he gave his diving equipment to the 21-year-old and used auxiliary dive gear meant for use in shallow water to ascend back up to safety. He reportedly emerged with a badly bleeding nose and ringing ears from the ascent.

He had earlier saved a 65-year-old woman, Zhu Hongmei, who was trapped in a similar air-pocket within the ship.

Related: Beijing Tries to Stub Out Smoking With Hand Signals and Snitches

In China it is critically important for national leaders like the premier to appear as though they're personally involved during a disaster, according to Chongyi Feng, an professor of China studies at University of Technology Sydney and Nankai University in Tianjin. He told VICE News it served the interests of government to focus the story on heroism and success.

"The government in China doesn't earn legitimacy from the people through an election, they earn their legitimacy from their ongoing performance," he explained. "So they are trying to show, 'We are here, we care, we can protect you, we will be able to fix it.'"

"You will see the focus from state media go on to the leaders and how great their sympathy and understanding is," Feng said. He added that this was "to obscure the suffering and that the red bureaucracy is so bad that the victims may not get much support."

Tragedies can often expose gaps in safety precautions, corporate compliance, and government regulation in China. This happened during the sinking of a tugboat on the Yangtze last January, as well as this year's New Years Eve stampede in Shanghai.

Feng said it was evident the media was attempting to quickly spin the Yangtze tragedy "into a glorious story."

Related: Scores of People Trampled to Death During Shanghai New Year's Eve Celebration

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

cruise ship
Li Keqiang
china armed forces
shanghai stampede