An army officer who allegedly assaulted a flight attendant has been suspended from duty following public outrage over a local government announcement clearing him of any wrongdoing, state media reported yesterday.
Both Xinhua and the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily said on their official microblogs that Fang Daguo, a member of the party's standing committee in Guangzhou's Yuexiu district, was under investigation.
Fang, who is also a political commissar of the Yuexiu Armed Forces Department, provoked public ire after a flight attendant accused him of attacking and bullying her on a China Southern Airlines flight from Hefei in Anhui province to Guangzhou last Wednesday.
The attendant's online account of the incident, describing an assault by Fang and his wife in a conflict over carry-on bags and including pictures of bruises she sustained, went viral after she posted it on Sina's popular microblog on Wednesday night. Other internet users helped confirm Fang's identity.
But an announcement by the Yuexiu publicity office on Friday came as a surprise to many watchers. It said Fang did not assault the woman, but that his family members "pushed and shoved" her. The statement also denied Fang had called a military vehicle to the airport as a way of intimidating the flight attendant.
In an apparent attempt to quell public anger, the district government said Fang had formally apologised to the woman.
However, rather than put the incident to rest, the announcement sparked questions and criticism over the privileges enjoyed by members of the military, with Xinhua and People's Daily leading calls for the truth of the incident to be revealed.
Calling the district government's statement "Yuexiu's version of the facts", the official Xinhua microblog called for others present on the flight to give their accounts of what happened, and it found a witness at the weekend.
On Saturday, Xinhua ran a lengthy interview with a student from the Central African Republic who was on the flight. He said the Fang couple "boarded rather late and smelled of alcohol".
The student also confirmed that Fang tore the attendant's suit in the incident, and that Fang's wife tried to scratch herself so as to frame the attendant.
Xinhua even posted a recording of the interview, together with the picture of a boarding pass, as proof that the African student was on the same plane.
It went further, with a commentary questioning Yuexiu district's handling of the case. "The attack has become a public event, and should not be solved privately. Only an open and transparent investigation can prevent the abuse of power," the piece said.
The decision to suspend Fang was hailed as a victory by internet users.