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Shanghai's wrong way of learning a right lesson

Updated: 2015-01-09 09:55
By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

The New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai in which 36 people died and 49 were injured was heartbreaking not only because most of the victims were young, many in their 20s, but also because it happened in China's most modern metropolis.

The city authorities, especially the police department, should take the blame for poor crowd management and control, or inadequate preparation for the event. They had assigned only about 1,200 police officers to manage a crowd of about 300,000.

The Bund, or the waterfront along the Huangpu River where the stampede took place, was probably the most watched area on surveillance cameras in Shanghai on that fateful night, so it would be futile to cite lack of knowledge about the growing crowd there as an excuse.

As an investigation into the tragedy gets under way, many people are anxious to know who should be held responsible for the tragedy.

Does the Shanghai government lack the ability to handle such a large crowd? Experience of light shows in previous years proves otherwise.

This year, it seems the city authorities simply let their guard down for the year's largest gathering despite announcing earlier that the event could be cancelled because of the expected massive crowd.

The Shanghai authorities' response to the tragedy is even more troubling. They have announced the cancellation of the Lantern Festival light show at Guyi Garden, a well-known Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) estate in suburban Shanghai. Also, they are considering canceling the annual Lantern Festival show at Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai.

Such a response to the Bund tragedy suggests that the Shanghai authorities no longer believe they have the capability to manage and control crowds during festival-celebrating events such as the one at Yuyuan Garden, which have been held for decades. Such lack of confidence calls into question the authorities' ability to manage a world-class metropolis.

The Lantern Festival show offers the Shanghai authorities a good chance to prove they can effectively control and manage crowds. Canceling the show is not the right answer to safety concerns, better planning and better preparation are. Yet responses like the one in Shanghai is nothing new in Chinese cities. People are often advised to stay home and avoid visiting public places after a public tragedy, be it a stampede or the killing of innocent people by criminals or terrorists.

While Shanghai residents like their city to be compared with New York City, the Big Apple's response to a tragedy or crisis is often starkly different from Shanghai's. Following an abortive attempt by extremists to trigger a car-bomb explosion in Times Square in May 2010, the then mayor Michael Bloomberg urged people to go about their business in normal fashion to show that New Yorkers can't be defeated by terrorists. Of course, the New York Police Department and even the National Guard were deployed in subway and over-ground train stations and other major public spots to protect the people.

The Big Apple's New Year's countdown, which has been held in Times Square since 1907, is the best example of crowd management. The event was not cancelled even on Dec 31, 2001, although the US had suffered the worst attack on its mainland just two and half months ago.

For several years, I have been observing first-hand how NYPD manages and controls the crowd right from the first arrivals at Times Square in early afternoon. Of course, the about 1 million people who gather at the square are orderly and pretty well behaved, making police officers' job relatively easy.

Shanghai officials, especially top police officers, should visit New York City to see how it handles such large crowds and why it remains the top international city. And they must remember that canceling the Lantern Festival shows is not a good way of demonstrating that Shanghai has learnt a lesson from the bloody tragedy on the Bund.

The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.

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