SHANGHAI – Some wailed and some staggered with grief as relatives of the 36 people killed in Shanghai’s New Year’s Eve stampede visited the disaster site Tuesday for seventh-day death commemorations, which are a revered ritual in China.
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.
“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,” said Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based independent commentator. “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 authorities’ grip over such sentiments comes at the expense of the victims’ families, Zhao said. “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.”
The victims’ relatives laid bouquets of white and yellow chrysanthemums and bowed deeply to the statue of the city’s first communist mayor, which overlooks the 17 concrete steps on Shanghai’s famed riverfront known as the Bund, where the stampede took place.
Three dozen people, including a 12-year-old boy, were trampled and asphyxiated amid a crowd of hundreds of thousands of New Year’s revelers.
Late Tuesday night, Chinese state media reported that national authorities as well as the local governments in Shanghai and Beijing planned to tighten crowd controls during holiday events and other mass gatherings. The reports in the official Xinhua News Agency didn’t specify what additional measures would be taken other than canceling events if they violated safety rules and enforcing existing regulations on sales and promotions.
The Beijing Morning Post reported Wednesday that a popular lantern exhibition in Shanghai had been canceled out of concern that attendance would surpass capacity.
Accompanied by government workers, the families Tuesday were kept in vans waiting for their turns to mourn on the seventh day after death, when the deceased person’s soul is believed to return to the earthly world after disappearing. Some relatives brought photos and offered fruits and burned fake money.
Journalists were corralled nearby.
“Why are your media shooting there? Dare you publish what you have shot?” a young man called out to the journalists as he was led away from the mourning site. “It’s been a week. The government does not care about us. The government does not talk to us.”
A middle-aged woman in the same group broke down earlier. “I want to die. I want to die,” she cried out. “My child just came to see the great city of Shanghai. My child did not come back.”
A close friend of a victim said Tuesday that the families have been kept apart and in the company of government minders so they could not conduct media interviews. She said that many relatives believe their phones are being monitored and that they have come under pressure to cooperate with authorities. She requested anonymity for fear of government reprisal. Other family members refused to be interviewed when contacted over the phone.
Tan Ching Hin, father of a 21-year-old Malaysian victim, Tan Wei, said he was never told directly not to criticize the authorities, but he understood that to be the expectation. “We were under constant surveillance, so we could not be in touch with the outside, such as journalists,” Tan said. “We were watched every step.”
Nevertheless, he said he did not hold back at a memorial for his daughter before her body was flown back to Malaysia. “I said this was a major incident caused by human error. It could have been prevented. It was caused by negligence on the part of the government,” Tan said.
Chinese parents have questioned whether authorities adequately notified the public of the cancellation of the popular riverfront light show, whether the city government took proper emergency measures when hundreds of thousands of people still swarmed to the Bund, and whether police and medics responded effectively following the disaster.
Tan said he was initially told to sign a death certificate and agree to absolve the government of any wrongdoing in his daughter’s death before her body would be returned to him.
“That was unacceptable,” said the father, who said he managed to retrieve his daughter’s body without agreeing to that condition. “The city government must be held accountable for this. It can never shirk its responsibility.”
Like Chinese parents, Tan recalled his anxiety when there was no word for more than 10 hours about his daughter’s fate the day after the stampede, even though authorities had long confirmed at least 35 deaths.
“The doctors were extremely mean to us, and they did not provide any comforting word at all,” Tan said.
He said he was upset he could not see his daughter’s body at the hospital — only at a funeral home.
Other family members also complained that they were kept inside hospitals with no word of the victims’ conditions until late into the following night, when they were taken to the funeral home to identify bodies. By then, the throngs of reporters had already dissipated, and relatives found themselves fuming but with little audience.
The delay, Zhao said, was by design so that authorities could better control the situation.
“Faced with pressures from the public, authorities needed time,” he said. “They needed to edit the story. They had to control the rhythm of the development and shape its direction so they don’t lose control.”