Lessons from Shanghai tragedy

The New Year's Eve stampede which left 36 people dead on Shanghai's iconic waterfront, the Bund, was a tragedy that could have been prevented. Given the need for stringent crowd control measures during mass gatherings where attendance could outstrip capacity, the city's authorities should have been more alert. The precise causes of the disaster are yet to be revealed, but it is obvious that there was a grievous breakdown in public order that led to the deaths.

It is particularly problematic that the stampede occurred in Shanghai, the commercial face of a post-communist China acknowledged as a world power coming of age. If things could go wrong so easily in Shanghai, critics would be justified in wondering about the level of preparedness in the rest of China for managing teeming crowds. Pointedly, they would ask if, alongside hardware development, Chinese cities have installed the software of social management needed to prevent or deal effectively with crises.

There is a lesson here for all fast-developing countries that strive to sustain their success beyond the obvious physical markers of sleek skyscrapers and gigantic malls which announce that they have arrived economically. The challenge is not merely about being in control of events under normal circumstances, but also about being able to minimise harm when the abnormal occurs.

There is no room for complacency in this regard as accidents can occur anywhere. A human crush during a football match caused the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, England, where 96 people died. That the tragedy could have occurred in a developed country with a long sports tradition reveals the decisive importance of local factors, such as police miscalculations in letting too many people into the stadium. The incident, which was followed by thorough investigations into determining culpability, left a deep impression on British social memory. Britain matured as a society as the focus turned to prevention.

Unfortunately, the first response of the administration to the Shanghai tragedy suggests an undue emphasis on damage control. Controlling grieving on the site of the disaster and pressuring families of victims to keep quiet, as was reported, imply a desire to protect Shanghai's image and prevent the incident from gaining political momentum. Such attitudes are predictable but the authorities would gain credibility by giving a clear account of the causes of the accident. Transparency, accountability and the ability to work with all stakeholders are, in the ultimate analysis, the best way of dealing with such tragedies. The main task should be to prevent a recurrence.