The dispute between a flight attendant and a local government official that has sparked public ire took a new twist at the weekend as the Xinhua News Agency openly challenged the results of an investigation report offered up by the local government in Guangdong.
"Have you really conducted a comprehensive and objective investigation? Is what you found really what you published in the report?" Xinhua's Guangdong bureau asked on its Sina Weibo account on Sunday, a rare move by official media.
This began after a flight attendant for China Southern Airlines posted on her Weibo saying that a couple had beaten her last Wednesday over a luggage dispute on a flight from Hefei, Anhui Province to Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. She posted pictures showing bruises on her arm and neck and of her torn uniform.
According to her Weibo posts, the conflict flared up when she asked Fang Daguo and his wife to move their luggage, which they had placed in the middle of the aisle before takeoff. Instead, the couple demanded she move flight equipment fixed in the overhead lockers to make room for their suitcase.
Following a huge public outcry targeting Fang, a political commissar for the Yuexiu District Armed Forces Department in Guangzhou, the district government promptly made a statement Friday night saying that Fang had not beaten the attendant. It added that Fang's wife had ripped the stewardess' uniform and that the two parties had reached reconciliation after the couple apologized to the attendant.
However, the public did not seem to accept concluding the public event with private settlement. Many refused to believe the official account of the incident, and demanded Fang be held responsible. Some even speculated that the unnamed flight attendant was silenced under pressure.
Xinhua joined the questioning on Saturday with a different version of the story, citing eyewitness accounts from two other passengers on the same plane.
According to Princelione Doubane, a student from the Central African Republic who sat near the couple on the flight, Fang and his wife boarded late, and smelled strongly of alcohol. Fang began shouting at the attendant after the couple refused to move their luggage. Fang then grabbed the woman's arm as she moved through the cabin, Doubane said.
Fang's wife then hurt her own arm during the conflict and intended to make it seem as if she had been attacked, Doubane told Xinhua.
Another passenger, Zhuang Shenzhi, said he heard a flight attendant cry and say she had been hit with luggage by a passenger.
Web users applauded the courage of a foreign citizen in stepping up and telling the truth, and called for more witnesses to do the same.
China Southern has remained silent since the incident and calls by the Global Times went unanswered.
A colleague of the flight attendant who insisted on anonymity told the Global Times on Sunday that negotiations are underway between China Southern and Fang, but that no result has been revealed yet.
Lu Yang, the chief steward on the flight denied on his Weibo that the attendant involved had been fired.
Zhang Xin, an associate professor specializing in public policy and management with the Renmin University of China, said the doubts over the Yuexiu government report showed a lack of trust toward some local authorities due to their often self-contradictory information.
"The authorities should be honest with the public and openly expose the reliable information required," said Zhang.