Shanghai authorities came under heavy criticism after a stampede killed thirty-six people on New Year’s Eve. Family members of the deceased slammed the government for skimping on security at an event that attracts thousands of people. But now these family members claim the Chinese government is censoring and monitoring their moves.
“The accident caused hundreds of policemen to work extra hours,” said one officer, who asked the South China Morning Post (SCMP) not to name him. “It was understood that negative comments or false information online couldn’t be entirely eradicated, but the interrogations were deemed as a warning to those unfriendly internet users.”
SCMP attempted to interview the family members but were stopped “by people accompanying them who identified themselves as volunteers at the Shanghai No 1 People’s Hospital.” Authorities told Chinese media outlets to only report what they receive from major new outlets “and avoid using material from commercial Web sites.” This includes social media and foreign media outlets. Publications cannot publish any “tragic and bloody images.” However, the evidence forced state-run agency Xinhua to admit officials must be held accountable.
“It was a lack of vigilance from the government, a sloppiness,” said Xinhua. “The disaster, which happened in China’s financial hub of Shanghai, served as a wake-up call that the world’s second-largest economy is still a developing country which has fragile social management.”
Authorities admitted they did not send enough security to the Bund, which is a top tourist attraction in Shanghai. Only 700 cops were on hand to deal with over 300,000 people to bring in the new year. The government canceled the annual midnight light show due to “worries about overcrowding,” but it did not alert the public; thus, media advertised the show long after it had been canceled. Once everyone showed up, officials called in backup, but it was too late.
“It’s been a tradition to see the lights on the Bund on New Year’s Eve. Shanghai people know it, and the whole country knows it,” said Zhao Chu, a local resident. “The government should have foreseen the crowds on that night. Such incidents could have been avoided.”
No one knows for sure what caused the stampede. Many witnesses claim fake $100 bills with the logo of club M18 on them riled up people, who did not realize the money was fake until it was too late. Others said attendees began to fight over the best position to view the “light show.” Yahoo reports:
At around 11:20 p.m., as huge crowds gathered, authorities reminded them that the annual light show on the riverfront had been canceled. Ten minutes later, surveillance video showed a massive jam of people on the steps at the end of a public square featuring a statue of the city’s first Communist mayor, Chen Yi. Those steps lead to the best vantage point to view the Huangpu River and the skyscrapers across the water.
Authorities responded by dispatching 500 more police, but at around 11:35 p.m., people fell row by row on the steps under the crush of the crowd, which was trying to move both up and down the steps, survivors and eyewitnesses said.
The Chinese government even exerted strict security at the memorial to prevent loved ones from showing too much emotion. According to CBS News:
But each family was allowed to stay only about five minutes in the tightly managed visits, and government workers roughly dragged away one middle-aged woman when she began crying out emotionally.
The government’s strict arrangements reflect efforts to keep tight controls over the disaster’s aftermath and prevent distraught relatives from coalescing into a critical group that would draw sympathy and galvanize public calls for greater accountability.
Chu explained why the government controlled the memorial:
Such a major public safety incident can tug the heartstrings of the public, and the acts and words by victims’ relatives can make the public sentiments swing, making it a key task for authorities to control the families, limiting their contacts with each other or with the media. Struck by the same tragedy, the relatives can easily resonate with each other, and it’s only natural they want to band together to take collective actions and make collective appeals to the public, and that could mean the authorities losing control over the social sentiments. The method is brusque toward the families, preventing them from resorting to law and to the media, but – in a positive way – it can indeed alleviate the shock to the public.