JIANLI, China (REUTERS) - Relatives of passengers missing in the sinking of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River have accused Chinese police of beating them when they sought more information on the disaster.
Uniformed police trailed dozens of relatives who took to Shanghai's streets on Wednesday in the hope of petitioning the city government, later ushering them into a building where they were prevented from speaking to the media, the family members said.
Scuffles between police and relatives broke out, according to video footage circulated on the Internet which showed police hitting and wrestling family members. "I saw all of this unfold before my own eyes," Huang Jing, 43, who had family on the ship, told Reuters.
A woman who said her husband Qin Jianping, and father-in-law, Qin Zhengming, were on the ship said: "Why are they using taxpayers' money to bully us? Why are all these police here?" Police were not immediately available for comment.
The Eastern Star cruise ship capsized in a storm on Monday night with 456 people on board. Only 14 survivors have been found while authorities have recovered 75 dead bodies. More than 300 people are still missing and it could be the country's worst maritime disaster in nearly 70 years.
China's government often seeks to control information in the wake of high-profile disasters, concerned about challenges to its authority and hypersensitive about its image.
But the Eastern Star disaster also has coincided with the most sensitive day on China's calendar, the June 4 anniversary of the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square.
The family members have been growing increasingly impatient with the government, saying they have received few answers to questions about their loved ones on board the ship.
Some family members took matters into their own hands on Wednesday and hired a bus to take them from Nanjing city, where the cruise originated, to Jianli county in central Hubei province where the ship capsized.
When they arrived in Jianli they tried to walk to the site of rescue operations, but were stopped by police who had accompanied them from Nanjing. Authorities later said they could visit the area in organised groups but reporters and cameramen could not accompany them. "I can't rule out that even among Chinese journalists there are people who want to smear the government," Hu Shining, Nanjing's deputy police chief, told the relatives who had walked with reporters in tow to try to get to the river's edge.
Most journalists have been blocked from visiting the hospital where the survivors have been admitted, and local reporters have been told to take their cue from state-owned Xinhua news agency and China Central Television (CCTV).
While the government has arranged brief visits to see rescue efforts for select foreign and domestic media, official briefings have been restrained.
In China, such media control usually breeds suspicion that authorities may be trying to cover up bungling or shielding corrupt officials.
But authorities have promised there will be no cover up. "We will never shield mistakes and we'll absolutely not cover up (anything)," Xu Chengguang, the spokesman for the Ministry of Transport, said on Wednesday night.
However, a meeting of the Communist Party's ruling inner core on Thursday called for "strengthening public opinion work", which usually means getting the media to toe the government line.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television did not respond to a faxed request for comment on media restrictions.
Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said China had made progress since it obscured the extent of the Sars epidemic in late 2002, but that CCTV and Xinhua still maintained their monopoly on sensitive stories. "Other media cannot get access. This is a problem. You can imagine this is a result of the current system of stability maintenance," Zhan said.
But relatives of the missing said official interference may not be limited to restricting information.
A few of the relatives in Shanghai who were part of a news sharing chat group told Reuters they suspected police were pretending to be family members and were posting messages and photos, mainly about government rescue efforts. "Why would a grief-stricken family member be posting such positive messages about what a great job government officials are doing in Jianli?" said one man whose mother is missing.
The Shanghai police were not immediately available for comment after office hours.