Tea Leaf Nation

A Second, Painful Aftermath to Shanghai New Year Stampede

Reaction to the deadly incident has exposed divisions between native city dwellers and urban migrants.

A man prays for people killed in a New Year's Eve crush at the site of the stampede in Shanghai on January 3, 2015. Dozens of deaths from a crush in Shanghai highlight China's enduring vulnerabilities even as the country races ahead economically, commentators say, with authorities' management outpaced by new buildings and advanced transport. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Fallout from a horrific New Year’s Eve tragedy in China’s largest and richest city has exposed longstanding tensions between Shanghai natives and those who move there in search of work. On Dec. 31, hundreds of thousands of revelers reportedly turned out to take part in New Year celebrations held along the Huangpu River at the Bund, downtown Shanghai’s iconic riverfront. At 11:35 p.m., a sudden rush of people on a stairwell leading from Chenyi Square in the Bund area to an elevated pedestrian walkway became a stampede that overwhelmed local police and left 36 dead and 49 wounded. Graphic images of the aftermath quickly circulated on the Internet, followed by an extended debate on who was to blame.

Of Shanghai’s population of about 23 million, an astonishing 9.5 million are migrants, according to state-run China Daily, which calls that group a “floating population.” As news about the stampede’s death toll settled in, self-professed Shanghai residents took to Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging platform, to vent anger at the city’s migrant workers, faulting them not only for the stampede but for what they saw as a general decline in the character of the city. “Control the influx of outsiders!” went one common refrain. One Shanghai-based user complained on Jan. 6 that outsiders “overwhelm” the city and “loot the resources” of local residents; in preventing another stampede, “controlling outsiders coming in is solid logic,” she claimed. Another user in Shanghai wrote that improvements in crowd control would only “treat the symptoms, not the root cause — the population of outsiders is too high.” Such sentiments are long-standing. In an online poll conducted last year on Chinese Internet giant Tencent’s news site, 38 percent of the 85,400 survey participants agreed that the population of large cities had to be strictly controlled.

Shanghai has the highest number of migrants of any Chinese city, but its situation is not unique. China itself is in the throes of the largest internal migration in human history, with a total of over 268 million Chinese having moved into cities to work by the end of 2013, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. (Official numbers for 2014 are not yet available.) By 2025, Chinese authorities plan for another 250 million to make the same move. Hailing from China’s underdeveloped interior, these wai di ren, or “outsiders” as they are commonly called, usually come to China’s major cities from underdeveloped or impoverished regions to work in menial, underpaid professions with the hope of building brighter futures for themselves. Yet many locals in China’s richer, so-called “first tier” cities, view migrant workers as uncouth and more prone to criminal behavior than locals.

Many in China are unsympathetic with some urban dwellers’ disdain for new arrivals. After the stampede, many web users outside of Shanghai were critical of the city and its longstanding reputation as inhospitable to migrants from other areas of China. “Can controlling the population of outsiders resolve [this problem]?” asked one netizen, adding, “Shanghai’s development depends on the sweat of outsiders; don’t use [them] as an excuse.” One Weibo user referred derisively to Shanghaiers as a self-anointed “aristocratic race,” writing, “a tragedy like this occurs and their first response isn’t to pray for the deceased, but to blame outsiders.” Similar complaints had emerged earlier in Beijing, another large, rich city with the second-largest migrant population in China, at 7.7 million. In the aftermath of deadly floods that inundated Beijing in July 2012, local officials denied rumors that non-locals were being denied access to emergency relief supplies on the basis of their outsider status.

Chinese netizens also pushed back against what they saw as other manifestations of elitism in the stampede’s aftermath. This included discriminatory treatment of rural migrants who lack a college education. In one Weibo post deleted by Internet censors, a user claimed firsthand knowledge that local authorities provided only cheap lodging and boxed lunches to the family members of rural victims who had come to Shanghai to identify their loved ones, while families of urban victims were treated to a higher standard of housing and food. Regardless of its veracity, the account struck a chord; in a response later deleted, one comment read, “Equality was always a lie.” Netizens were also quick to disparage state media’s choice to highlight the deaths of local university students like Du Yijun, a 22-year-old student at Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, whose photograph has accompanied many media reports. Weibo users expressed anger in response to a post on the Weibo account of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily that specifically mentioned the names of university students who had perished in the stampede. One demanded, “What is it about students from elite schools? Do other lives not count?”

Directives supposedly issued by the Shanghai Propaganda Department to Chinese media on how to report the incident circulated online before being deleted by censors. According to the directives, media outlets were ordered to avoid leading with the story, and to delete any comments that “took advantage of the opportunity to attack the [communist] party, the government, or China’s socialist system.” Such orders frequently follow major public disasters in China, and Internet users were quick to dismiss them with characteristic snark: “Since we’re not allowed to criticize the Shanghai government,” sneered one user, “then we might as well praise them!” Another expressed disbelief that media control could be given higher priority than compassionate reporting, writing, “In the face of such a tragedy, [they are] still talking about politics and stability?”

The Dec. 31 stampede and its aftermath didn’t just shock observers; they exposed painful fault lines in modern Shanghai society. “It’s at times like this when the real character of a people manifests itself most vividly,” one Weibo user wrote. “One side blames the masses, others place the blame on the low character of outsiders. Looking at what people say almost hurts more than the tragedy itself.”

AFP/Getty Images

Emile Dirks is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto researching local community responses to Chinese hydroelectric projects in Burma and Indonesia.