Dozens crushed to death in a tragic stampede at a place where people
congregated to enjoy themselves, not to die. Police blamed for failures
in crowd control. Emergency services pilloried for a slow and chaotic response which led to needless deaths.
Sound like the New Year’s Eve disaster at the Shanghai Bund, in which 36
people died and dozens more were injured? It’s not: it’s a description
of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy in Sheffield, England, in which
96 people died and hundreds were injured in a similar human pile-up. My
point? China has no corner on the market for unruly crowds, incompetent police and unnecessary disasters. But you’d never know that, from the way many mainlanders reacted to the carnage.
When news of the Bund bloodbath surfaced on a frigid bright
New Year’s morning in Shanghai, the first reaction of many locals was
to blame the Chinese. Only hours after dozens of young people had suffocated to death at the very same spot, Chinese bystanders
at the scene of the stampede repeatedly told me versions of the same
thing: “Chinese are like that”, or sometimes “young Chinese are like
that, they like to push and shove”, or occasionally “Chinese from
outside Shanghai are like that, they don’t know how to behave in a
China is a proud nation that can boast the world’s oldest continuous
civilisation, but beneath that strain of arrogance runs something that
often feels like a national inferiority complex. Ordinary Chinese are always the first to point out shared character flaws (although usually they impute them to compatriots
other than themselves). And what better chance to do that, than when 36
people have needlessly lost their lives in the country’s most modern,
best run and arguably most civilised city.
Shanghai has pretensions to be the 21st century’s new New York, a green,
rationally planned, ultra-modern city. For such a place to lose 36
young people in such an old, old way, is a massive loss of face. It
feels like — though it is not — the kind of thing that only third world
Maybe that’s why so many people were willing to believe one of the first
stories that surfaced to explain the crush (later denied by police):
that revellers in a building above tossed coupons into the crowd that looked like US dollars.
Many Chinese were quick to accept this as the cause — a sign of how worried they are about excessive greed in mainland society. Somehow the whole story tapped into a narrative of national angst.
In the days that followed, blame was distributed much more widely: the city government was criticised for failing to give adequate publicity to the cancellation of the evening’s main event; police failed to shutter the closest metro
stop to control numbers, and did not send enough officers until it was
too late; ambulances were slow to arrive; hospitals were slow to kick into gear; relatives were prevented from getting to their loved ones.
Failure all around, fault all around — much of it deserved. But still, four days after the tragedy, at a spot overlooking the impromptu Bund memorial to the dead, bystanders
were still blaming the victims, and in some strange way, their
Chineseness. Young tourist Wei Ting, recently arrived from Guangdong in
southern China, explained in careful English that pushing and shoving on
New Year’s Eve is what Chinese people “usually do”.
But the fact is, the Bund bloodbath is not a verdict on the flaws
of modern China. People get crushed to death in developed countries too
(including a hideously unlucky Walmart employee trampled by a crowd of
US Black Friday bargain hunters in 2008).