Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The leaders leave first

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Great Karamay Fire, one of the most appalling disasters in recent Chinese history. Karamay is an oil town in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. On the afternoon of December 8th, 1994, the local theatre was hosting a variety gala, staged as a special treat for 'outstanding students' from the town's junior schools. There were nearly 1,000 people inside the theatre when one of the stage curtains caught fire. Many of them couldn't get out (because all but one of the fire exits were locked). 325 people died, and more than a hundred more were seriously injured. The majority of the victims were children. 

One of my translator friends recently introduced me to an independent film-maker she knows who has been working for almost three years on a documentary about the fire and its aftermath. My friend has been writing English subtitles for the hours of interviews he has recorded with survivors of the tragedy and relatives of the victims. I rather fear this will never see the light of day, at least in China (other than at a few underground screenings in small bars and film clubs, perhaps). [Xu Xin's film, Karamay, was eventually released in 2010, and gained some favourable attention overseas; but it was - of course - banned in China.]

Many of the victims' parents are still bitter today, dissatisfied with the response of their local government. Although reaction at the time was perhaps more open than we often see - with quite a bit of media coverage, official investigations and apologies, and even a few of the local Party leaders found to be culpable and sentenced to jail terms - since then, the affair has been largely ignored or downplayed, gradually erased from official memory. During the town's 50th anniversary celebrations a few years ago, no mention was made of the fire amongst the notable events in its history. The parents' need to grieve has been thwarted by repeated refusals to allow any official commemoration. [We saw a similar attitude last year with official reluctance to memorialise all the dead schoolchildren of the Wenchuan Earthquake, because the lax construction standards found to be have been used in so many of the 'tofu schools' that collapsed was threatening to become a huge national scandal.] 

And I can't help wondering if there has really been any improvement in safety standards since then. Everywhere you go in China, you still find fire doors locked shut (often with the door handles bound together with bicycle locks). The summer I moved here, a couple of dozen youngsters died in a fire in an Internet bar because of this. The government found this incident a convenient excuse to outlaw Net bars for a year or two; but nothing, as far as I can see, was done about fire safety. 

There were a lot of local CCP bigwigs in the Karamay Theatre that day. One of the reasons for the huge loss of life is reckoned to have been that most of the audience, adults and children alike, meekly obeyed an instruction (said to have been given by a woman named Kuang Li, one of those who later went to prison for their role in the fire) to "Let the leaders leave first." (讓領導先走) This expression has come to haunt the Communist Party, growing into a huge catchphrase, particularly on the Internet, used for mocking the callous self-interest and greed of the ruling cadres. 

One of the bereaved parents in that documentary said: "288 of us lost our kids. If we had lost ten times that number, it still wouldn't matter. In China, they just wipe you out. Until everyone's gone, or silent. They can suppress this for another fifty years." Sadly, I fear that is all too true. There may have been 100 times as many children killed in last year's earthquake, but a veil of silence has now been drawn over that too. This country - or, more particularly, its leadership - really has a problem in facing up to difficult truths. How I wish, for everyone's sake, the leaders could begin to embrace a culture of honesty and openness. Instead of just making sure that they are the first ones out of the door when things go wrong.


Froog said...

It is an unhappy coincidence that we've had another such tragedy - though at least on a much lesser scale - on the very eve of this anniversary. On Monday night in Xiangxiang city in Hunan province, a dozen schoolchildren were killed in crowd-crush accident on a school staircase - hundreds of students leaving evening classes at the same time, only one narrow staircase in use, probably no kind of supervision... and I wonder if the lights were off?

The wonder, unfortunately, is that this kind of thing doesn't happen more often. I worry that it does, and just doesn't get reported. Again and again in China we find an almost complete blindness or lack of concern about the most basic notions of safety, an absence even of 'common sense'. Chinese schools are terribly overcrowded. The facilities are often not well maintained. Accidents are waiting to happen.

It's a pretty fair bet that there were other staircases in the building - perhaps even 'fire stairs' - but that they weren't in use because the doors at the bottom were locked.

One of my biggest problems with this country is that its reluctance to face its history honestly means that it is very slow to learn the lessons of its history.

stuart said...

"One of my biggest problems with this country is that its reluctance to face its history honestly means that it is very slow to learn the lessons of its history."

Absolutely agree with that.

The Karamay fire was a truly appalling tragedy. I read an account a few years back where a teacher/leader (?) promoted herself proudly as someone who knew how to survive after she locked a side door behind her, ignoring the cries of burning children desperate to escape the inferno.

Other teachers died holding doors open for children to escape.

Heroes and villains.

Froog said...

Jeez, it just defies comprehension, doesn't it? Why would anyone lock a door to a burning building?? There were so many things done wrong here, it's lucky that half the kids managed to get out.

Where did you find that story, Stuart? It wasn't Kuang Li, was it? I read that she locked herself inside a cloakroom - still inside the building, but somehow untouched by the fire. Many of the victims were found in the corridor outside, trying to get in.

stuart said...

That sounds like it, Froog. I said 'side door' because the details and names are a bit sketchy, but it was her superior and shameless attitude at having survived that sticks in the memory.

I came across the story when I was researching the Luoyang Christmas party fire of 2000, in which over 300 died. Some of my former students lost friends in that tragedy.

Froog said...

I hadn't heard of the Luoyang incident before, but it fits into the same depressing pattern - shoddy safety procedures and equipment, no effective supervision, fire doors locked. I wouldn't have thought the technology for doors that can only be opened from the inside was that complex or expensive, but it still doesn't seem to have been introduced here.

A similar pattern, too, I fear, to the handling of the story - downplayed at the time (number of casualties probably under-reported), and largely suppressed since.

I rather fear that incidents of this kind may be treated rather like accidents in the mining industry - i.e. they're so commonplace that they don't get reported at all unless the death toll is at least in the dozens.