BEIJING — A New Year’s Eve stampede that killed 36 people and injured 49 in Shanghai has generated a political scandal that could shake the governing leadership of the city.
Pressure has been mounting from outraged residents demanding answers from the government over the past two weeks. Families of the victims, Agence France-Presse reported, recently sent city leaders a statement criticizing them for a lack of planning, poor communication and inadequately estimating the number of police officers needed that night.
Authorities have taken steps to quell the anger, concerned that it could turn into something dangerous for them or the ruling Communist Party. Chinese censors have issued rules for covering fallout from the stampede, according to the China Digital Times, which tracks government censorship instructions.
The site of the stampede has been sealed off. And a recent ceremony at nearby Chenyi Square to mourn the dead was heavily monitored by police. Some officers dragged away family members when they tried to talk to reporters.
Fueling the anger, local media outlets reported this past week that government officials from the district were spotted dining at an expensive Japanese restaurant in the area on the night dozens died. For days, lists of prices at the restaurant, which run as high as $628 per person, have been circulating on Chinese social media.
The much-feared Communist Party agency in charge of investigating corruption announced Wednesday that it is looking into the matter.
Some political analysts say the stampede could give President Xi Jinping an excuse to target and get rid of political enemies in Shanghai.
Since he took power two years ago, Xi has used a wide-ranging anticorruption campaign to make examples of key political rivals in almost every sector and faction of the Communist Party. And for decades, Shanghai has served as a power base for former president Jiang Zemin.
Xi has publicly demanded that Shanghai officials provide an explanation for the tragedy. The state-run Xinhua News Agency has published a series of articles criticizing Shanghai authorities as careless.
A recent editorial in the state-run China Daily said, “It is worth digging out whether the local government leaders, those directly in charge in particular, were aware they had the responsibility of ensuring that the assembly was well organized.”
Shanghai’s leaders at first remained silent in the face of public outrage. But sharp criticism from China’s deputy premier last week has prompted city officials to pledge that they will investigate and take responsibility for the tragedy. Shanghai’s highest-ranking official, its Communist Party chief, Han Zheng — who is closely linked to former president Jiang — called the incident “a lesson of blood.”
The stampede has been referred to in Chinese state media as an “incident,” and Shanghai authorities have emphasized that it was caused by people crowding toward the Bund — a popular tourist spot — on their own.
Such wording often signals how an investigation will be handled. Major accidents with more than 30 deaths often are investigated by the state council — a serious matter. But calling the Shanghai event an incident rather than an accident could imply that the government does not view any official as responsible for a lack of crowd control.
The stampede began just after 11:30 p.m., when hundreds of thousands of people crowded the waterfront area to view a laser and fireworks show. About 700 police officers were on hand and there was no traffic control, Chinese media reported.
The exact cause of the stampede is under investigation.
But Shanghai has already called off a lantern festival light show scheduled for March. Many cities have pared down their plans next month to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.