Only a year ago, Shanghai police won public approbation for its competent handling of the huge crowd that gathered at the city’s waterfront area to celebrate the coming of 2014. By official estimates, more than 300,000 people came to ring in the New Year.
The centerpiece of the annual countdown celebrations was a spectacular fireworks cum 3D laser lights display. Shanghai cadres wanted the event to be a symbol of the city’s rise to global eminence, rivaling the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop in New York.
But a year later, when even more people from all over China flocked into the Bund area in high anticipation of another dazzling show on the last evening of 2014, few of them knew the event had been moved to another location.
Part of the reason, as the Southern Weekend reports, was that police had complained the crowd at the waterfront would have been too overwhelming: police and their auxiliary teams barely managed to keep everything under control a year ago.
The city’s top officials agreed to relocate and downsize the show and thus there was a smaller police presence in and around the Bund area that night — especially at Chen Yi Square which commands a panoramic view of surrounding skyscrapers and the Huangpu River.
Some 700 police officers were assigned to the area; that’s just a tenth of the size of the public order contingent deployed a year ago. Nearby subway stations were not closed, and there was barely any manpower to control street traffic.
It seemed that municipal officials thought that not so many people would turn out, and they trusted the capabilities of Shanghai’s law enforcement units in crowd control and emergency response. After all, the metropolis has hosted a series of international mega events such as the 2010 World Expo with resounding success.
The logic was sensible but the problem was that not so many of the eager spectators were told beforehand that they wouldn’t see any fireworks or laser lights from the Bund. Also, poor crowd control measures had allowed too many people to enter the narrow space in the square while tens of thousands of others were trying to climb the stairs to get to the precinct.
Chen Yi Square is an elevated open space surrounded by concrete walls on the ground floor that extend along the waterfront, and to enjoy an unobstructed view people have to climb the stairs to get to the upper deck.
A college student who witnessed the stampede at 11:30 p.m. that night told EJ Insight that he felt the situation was getting out of control when groups of tourists, mostly coming from subway station exits, began forcing their way through the crowd, although the entire Nanjing Road — a bustling pedestrian street that runs through the Bund to Chen Yi Square — was already packed. Most of those who could not get to the square chose to stay on in the street.
The situation deteriorated when some people decided to leave the square after learning that no show would be held, even as more people were trying to make their way up the stairs, thinking that the event was about to kick off, he said.
The most dangerous place turned out to be the eight-meter-wide staircase where many victims, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, were crushed to death or severely injured.
He also noted that minutes before the stampede, three policemen closed the stair entrance. However, the police cordon was easily broken by swarms of latecomers who were determined to enter. The policemen on the scene were clearly outnumbered. The student escaped the crush by jumping from the square’s viewing deck.
The Shanghai government must bear the responsibility for a tragedy that should never have happened. It splurged billions of yuan of taxpayers’ money to install sophisticated CCTV surveillance and coordination systems for such contingencies, but all that was for naught.
How municipal authorities handled the aftermath of the tragedy has only stirred up more public anger.
Chen Yi Square reopened in the morning of Jan. 1, 2015, and the entire Bund area was once again teeming with tourists. It was as if nothing had happened.
Some people were taking photos of the scene with great amazement and curiosity. When a China Central Television correspondent was reporting live from the square, people in the background jostled to get in front of the camera. Festive lights illuminated the Oriental Pearl Tower, the skyscrapers in the Lujiazui central business district as well as the historic buildings on the Bund. It was surreal.
The front page of Jiefang Daily, Shanghai’s official Communist Party mouthpiece, was filled with photos, news and features about President Xi Jinping’s New Year message, his speech at the CPPCC’s New Year party as well as his exchange of greetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. News about the stampede was at the very bottom of the page with an inconspicuous headline.
After issuing empty instructions to “save those injured at all costs”, Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, who is also a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, mayor Yang Xiong and other senior officials were nowhere to be seen in the following days.
As some observers say, people will probably soon forget the tragedy and senior officials will go about their old ways without being held accountable for the horrific loss of 36 young lives.
A similar accident happened in Hong Kong on Jan. 1, 1993. The stampede in Lan Kwai Fong claimed 21 lives.
But immediately after the tragedy, Hong Kong authorities mounted a full-scale inquest. Kemal Bokhary, the presiding judge, slammed the local police force for their negligence and recommended a slew of crowd control and contingency measures in his report.
On social media, discussions centered on what mainland cities can learn from Hong Kong. One netizen notes that the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui has a similar elevated viewing deck, but unlike in Shanghai, it is entirely closed during large events as it can be a dangerous place when overcrowded.
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