Conducting a social analysis of the tragedy in Shanghai is not easy because emotions still dominate. 36 young people died on New Year’s Eve, trampled by a crazed and panicked stampede. The dynamics of the accident are still not clear, but a simple error probably triggered the tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people congregated in the Bund, along the symbolic river in Shanghai. Among the elegant, neoclassical style buildings—legacy of European and American presence in the Chinese metropolis—a series of events had been planned, poised to give Shanghai the same prestige as celebrations in New York’s Time Square. The realities of the G2 are proposed again in the race for the ephemeral. The string of deaths took place near the apartment where I lived for many years, in a square dedicated to Chen Yi, Mao’s companion in arms, minister of the People’s Republic, and mayor of Shanghai from 1949 to 1958. In a tragic twist of irony, they’re also the 3 entities being targeted: the party, the government, and the municipality of Shanghai.
In the required evaluation, objective responsibilities emerge. The police were incapable of controlling a huge but anticipated influx of people. Only a spark was necessary to explode into chaos. The rest can be blamed on unpreparedness, the delayed arrival of emergency services, and the more general sense of separation between government and governed. The finger is being pointed at the inability to manage complex situations, a combination of arrogance and incompetence. Fortunately, the most unsettling hypothesis has been denied. The launching of fake $100 bills, which would have created a mob to grab them, did not cause the crowd that trampled the victims. It would have been an even more painful symbol for the China of today.
President Xi Jin Ping ordered an investigation immediately. His detectives are interrogating the responsible parties, the families of the victims, and witnesses. The commotion was intense and social networks have been a distribution channel of accusations and dissents. The Shanghai Police have apologized and recognized their incompetence, maybe to ingratiate Beijing or to calm the rage. It shouldn’t be sufficient. It’s very likely that some heads will roll, as the political climate is oriented toward cleansing corruption, inefficiency, and indifference towards citizens. If this is a commendable operation, its application appears something of the past. In fact, a censure of the tragedy in Shanghai was imposed. Both Chinese and foreign journalists cannot ask questions, need to limit the media’s coverage, and cannot interview family members. Plainclothes agents monitor them, while the national papers only publish stories that don’t reignite resent or protests. The most explicit photographs also suffered the same fate.
A sad irony emerges: information is muted to discover who’s responsible; reticence must prevail to allow transparency. More than flushing out the truth, the Party is intent on fabricating one, sometimes more useful, others more uncomfortable. It’s one of the many contradictions in a country in transformation, a giant that finds itself impotent in front of small, unanticipated hidden dangers. Strangely, it shows that it’s easier to chase economic records than manage spontaneous gatherings wisely, like the New Year’s celebration.