The death of Chinese female J-10 fighter pilot Yu Xu in training on Saturday came after the People's Liberation Army (PLA) lowered qualifying standards to ensure the presence of women in prominent combat roles, sources told RFA on Monday.
Capt. Yu's death during a training session of the prestigious Bayi aerobatic team, was largely reported in the tightly controlled official media as that of a heroine, with parallels drawn with the legendary woman soldier Hua Mulan.
But there was scant coverage of the cause of the incident, during which Yu ejected from the cockpit, only to be hit in mid-air by another aircraft.
Some online comments called for more answers, questioning whether Yu had had enough training.
The PLA has recently styled itself a "pioneer" in training women stunt fliers, citing what it said is a lack of precedent in other countries. In fact, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels featured it first female pilot in 2015, while the U.S., Russia and other countries have had female aerobatic pilots competing internationally for decades.
"China is a pioneer in training female aerobatic pilots," the Global Times, sister paper to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily, quoted aviation expert Wang Yanan as saying.
"When the program started, there was no foreign experience to borrow from or statistics to rely on from other countries," Wang said.
"From this perspective, Yu Xu and other female aerobatic pilots have taken greater risks, which deserve more of our respect."
The PLA Air Force issued a statement mourning Yu's death, and vowing to "continue to adhere to the strict training, faithful fulfillment of the responsibility of the mission."
Details of accident a military secret
An informed source told RFA on Monday that the details of the accident are classified as confidential, and that further official disclosures are unlikely.
"The media has been reporting her death as that of a hero, the specifics are regarded as a military secret," the source said.
"Her family will receive military compensation, but generally, her superior officers won't be held accountable."
But a second source familiar with the situation said the PLA had deliberately lowered the bar for entry for female fighter jet pilots and other high-profile roles, so as to boost its public image.
"The general flight hours requirement for men is at least 1,000 hours, whereas it was reduced to 750 hours [for women], while the J-10-specific flight time requirement was lowered ... for entry to the Bayi aerobatic team," the source said.
"This shows that the Chinese government has artificially lowered the training requirements in order to send the message that women can be pilots too," he said.
"[Female fighter pilots] already run risks [inherent to the job], but if their learning curve is steeper in training, then it's just a matter of time before there's an accident," the source said.
"China never used to train women fighter pilots, and there are only four women flying J-10s right now, but now they have relaxed the requirements in order to fulfill a propaganda goal," he said.
The PLA has similarly reduced entry requirements for women in other high-profile, front-line roles including missile teams, special forces and other types of piloting roles, the source said.
"There's an all-female missile launch team in the No. 2 Artillery Corps, as well as an all-female company in special forces," the source said.
"These are all political decisions. The United States does care about equality for women, but it doesn't reduce its standards; they have to achieve the same standards [as men] ... it's not about the image."
Outpouring of online grief
Yu's death prompted an outpouring of online grief on Chinese social media, with tens of millions of people reading the news and paying their respects, official media reported.
Sichuan-born Yu joined the PLA Air Force Aviation University, graduating in 2009, becoming one of the first 16 Chinese women pilots capable of flying fighter jets.
Women pilots had previously been limited to flying transport aircraft, the China Daily reported.
Yu was among those who flew JL-8 trainer jets above a lavish military parade on Beijing's Tiananmen Square marking the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2009.
She was one of only four women qualified to fly the third-generation J-10, the paper said.
The Chinese Communist Party has promoted gender equality, at least in theory, since it came to power in 1949.
But campaigners say the reality is very different on the ground, and that discrimination still presents major obstacles for Chinese women, who face habitual workplace discrimination, harassment and domestic violence.
When Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women 20 years ago, the conference laid down a long-term program of improvements to the rights and opportunities offered to women and girls around the world, with requirements for governments to report back to the United Nations on the changes.
The Beijing Declaration pledged to "ensure equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all women and girls."
But in March 2015, police detained five women's rights activists as they planned a public campaign against sexual harassment, holding them for 37 days before releasing them on conditional "bail" without dropping the public order charges against them.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lee Lai for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.