Agam's Gecko
Tuesday, May 08, 2007

etails of a revolting incident of nearly unimaginable cowardice and arrogance -- suppressed by the Chinese government and Party apparatus for more than twelve years -- have been recently made available to the Chinese public for the first time, by a television reporter who has published them on his website.

Chen Yaowen had been working on an investigative report on official negligence in the immediate aftermath of a theatre fire on December 8, 1994 in the oil-producing town of Karamay (alt: Kelamayi), in the northern part of Xinjiang province (once independent homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uighur people, now located in north-west China). He had some problems: witnesses were intimidated not to speak to him, officials had him followed around, and his report was banned from the airwaves. Now, on the internet, citizens are able to finally learn the truth of the atrocity which had come to be known a dozen years ago -- in whispers -- as the "12/8/94 Incident."

I deliberately call this an "atrocity" rather than a "tragedy." When 324 people -- 288 of them children -- are killed by the callous arrogance and criminal actions of Party officials, it's every bit as atrocious as terrorist acts such as the Beslan massacre. In fact, over a hundred more children died in the Karamay fire than died at Beslan. Chinese Communist Party officials were responsible for the deaths, and Chinese citizens are finally able to know the full story.

On that day, about 500 school children were taken to a theatre in Karamay for a special performance. They were to be honoured by the presence of senior Party leaders at the show. As the performance got underway, a fire broke out near the stage, the scenery ignited and the flames spread quickly. The Times of London's excellent Far East correspondent Michael Sheridan has the story:
The first few seconds became the most controversial of the disaster. Survivors insist that a woman official immediately stood up and shouted: “Everyone keep quiet. Don’t move. Let the leaders go first.”
Let that sink in for a minute. The auditorium is filled with children aged 7 - 14 and their teachers, many of whom are women. Yet, in what could be seen as the motto for the more than half century of CCP rule, "leaders go first."
By the time the dignitaries had filed out, it was too late. Teachers hurried the pupils out of their seats to other exits, only to find that the emergency doors were locked.


In their haste to save themselves, a Chinese court later heard, none of the officials had bothered to order the fire exits to be unlocked.

Parents and survivors alleged that Kuang took refuge in a ladies’ cloakroom that could have sheltered 30 people and barred the doors behind her.

After the fire was put out, the city’s emergency services retrieved the bodies of 288 children and 36 adults. Most of the adults were teachers who perished alongside their pupils. About 100 of the children’s corpses were heaped up outside the cloakroom.
The teachers appear to have acted heroically, going by a translation I found on this page (item 003, near the bottom). Of the 40 teachers present, only 4 survived.

The atrocity was sparsely reported within China, and barely noticed outside it. Newly available reports say that an investigation was started in secret by the Party, and legal proceedings for negligence against some of the cowardly officials took place without publicity. Several of the highest ranking officials present were convicted and sentenced to between four and five years. Kuang Li, the woman who gave the order for "leaders go first" and later locked herself in the cloakroom, got four years. All were free within two or three years, with their Party pensions intact. Kuang apparently now sells insurance.

Possibly the most remarkable aspect of this case being aired out on the internet after 12 years of suppression, is that the authorities have not shut down the online discussions. Sheridan says that many Chinese have been discussing the incident openly in recent weeks, forcing the state-controlled media to finally acknowledge it. Chen's posting of his earlier banned report to his own website opened the floodgates for families and survivors to air their suffering, prompting thousands of citizens to respond online. The case, which had been as out of bounds for public review as the June 4, 1989 Beijing massacre has been, can't be put back into the filing cabinet of the forgotten. Perhaps, sometime soon, June 4 may be discussed as openly.
The father of a dead nine-year-old, who did not disclose his name, said the Chinese people would never forget the words “let the leaders go first”
Five words which unfortunately epitomize the mind-set of the one-Party state and its officers, as the essential and pre-eminent (in their own minds) guardians of the "People's Revolution." Let the people read, hear, and consider those words and their implication -- for they are the continuing motto of the CCP to this day.
Some Chinese internet users say they were profoundly affected by Chen’s interview with Li Ping, 47, a teacher and the mother of 10-year-old Teng Teng, who died in the fire.

Like a traditional grieving parent in ancient times, she still talks to his portrait every day. “I always address my son’s photo like this,” she says. “My dear son, in this world which you have left, there is one proverbial rule for all, be they white or black, brown or yellow: when danger strikes, let women and children go first.

“It might not be in our constitution or any party document, but it’s a basic law of human behaviour. This law broke down that day in our city.”
She is right, that this unwritten rule is a basic principle in all human societies. But I disagree with her that this law broke down on that day. People broke down on that day, people who were arrogant, unfeeling cowards broke Mrs. Li's basic law of human behaviour. They believed as the party they served had taught them to believe -- that they were the most important and must go first. This is what preceded their despicable decision that day, and the ideological entity which inculcated this attitude still rules China unchallenged.

Wai to Betsy's Page for attention to Sheridan's piece -- so far the only western reporter (that I've been able to find) to cover this story.

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