As most people know, 2015 started off horribly for Shanghai when a stampede happened during a New Year’s Eve gathering on the Bund. The tragedy took 36 lives and injured 47, though this latter number probably only counts the seriously injured. There were over 100,000 people packed alongside the riverside promenade and street on the Bund hoping to celebrate the New Year when suddenly a stampede broke out along a staircase near a viewing platform (and not outside a club where people inside were throwing out club coupons that looked like US dollars onto the street below). Ironically, the authorities had actually canceled the fireworks to prevent large crowds from gathering as had happened in previous year, but there were other events such as a laser light show and the people still came out in huge numbers.
This might be a bad omen for the city and China. Or it might be a sign of the state of the nation and a deadly reminder of what to improve. The tragedy and its aftermath brought to the fore several serious problems in the country. Don’t get me wrong; deadly stampedes have happened elsewhere, including in Germany and in Hong Kong. But these tragedies don’t happen by accident and lessons can always be learnt.
First, to be honest, the tragedy was not surprising to many of us who live, study, or have been to the mainland.
There were way too many people packed into the area. This is not uncommon in mainland China and neither is inefficient people and site management. I was caught up in the midst of big crowd trying to squeeze into a parking lot at Huangshan last Spring Festival, and many expats and mainlanders have had similar experiences. I would say that there’s often a lackadaisical attitude by authorities in general towards managing crowds whether it be having too little staff at ticket counters or having narrow entrances and exits.
For closeup overhead views of the stampede, check this link of photos taken by a photographer on the site.
The police admitted they underestimated the crowds because they didn’t expect so many to come out since the fireworks had been cancelled. Yet there have also been reports that many people did not know about the cancellation, which would indicate inefficiency from the authorities. The irony of the situation would be bemusing if it wasn’t so tragic.
There were turbulent scenes at hospitals as relatives had to jostle with police and hospital staff due to desperation and frustration. Again, this is not uncommon on the mainland and it shows the authorities need to put in more effort to providing aid and information to the public. Unfortunately the opposite might be happening.
Censorship and control are taking place. People who criticized the authorities online have been interrogated by the police. Relatives of the dead have also been followed and hindered from talking to the media. They have also said they have been refused permission to take back the bodies of their dead relatives. Local Chinese media have been ordered to restrict their criticism and follow rules such as using official headlines. This article describes the various ways how the authorities are monitoring, controlling and even intimidating relatives.
The authorities are also responding to the tragedy in a heavyhanded way by cancelling other public events such as . While growing crowds are a concern for many events and places in the mainland during holidays, cancelling events is not the best option. Limiting the number of visitors, improving crowd management and increasing the number of security and staff at public places would be better options.
People also need to look at their own behavior and realize there’s a lot that needs to be improved. On the mainland, there’s a lot of boorish and inconsiderate behavior in public, especially in crowded places like subways and lines. Pushing, shoving and standing in each other’s ways are common enough. For me, the subway in Beijing is a particularly sore point.
Yet, I’m not sure that things will progress much. The authorities may have been open to admit some fault, but their treatment of the relatives and interrogation of online critics shows that even such a massive tragedy will not bring on full accountability and transparency. Also, there is the issue of whether the authorities will learn from this and improve their crowd control and management skills or just resort to blanket bans of events, as some are already doing. I hope I could be proven wrong though.