39 dead in container: Shock, disbelief in China, as Beijing urges UK authorities to investigate case

Police officers drive away a lorry (centre) in which 39 dead bodies were discovered, sparking a murder investigation, at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, east of London, on Oct 23, 2019.
Police officers drive away a lorry (centre) in which 39 dead bodies were discovered, sparking a murder investigation, at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, east of London, on Oct 23, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - News of 39 people, believed to be Chinese nationals, found dead in a truck container in the United Kingdom has rocked China, with many reacting in disbelief that such a case could happen to citizens whose nation is on the ascent.

On Friday (Oct 25), Beijing urged British authorities to "confirm and verify" the identity of the victims as soon as possible and "severely punish the criminals involved in the case".

Investigations in the UK are under way to verify the identities of the 31 men and eight women who had been found dead inside a refrigerated container of a truck at an industrial area just east of London.

The bodies were discovered by the truck driver who opened the refrigerated unit shortly after it arrived from Belgium, reported British media.

While Essex police have said that the victims are believed to be Chinese nationals, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said on Friday that British authorities have yet to confirm this.

She said at a regular news briefing that Beijing "attached great importance" to the case and multiple Chinese departments were working with the British, adding that Beijing has also asked Belgian authorities to carry out a comprehensive investigation.

But Ms Hua also sought to direct attention away from the domestic causes for illegal emigration, saying that the issue was a global one.

Asked why Chinese citizens would bear such risks to be smuggled illegally into the UK, Ms Hua rebuked the reporter, saying this was a "very inappropriate" question.

"Look around the world, it is not China that has serious problems with illegal migration," she said, urging greater international cooperation on the issue.

 
 
 

"Regardless what country the victims are from, this is a great tragedy, and it has attracted the attention of the international community to the issue of illegal immigration."

The nationalist Global Times went one step further, saying in a Chinese-language editorial that London should take the blame for what happened.

"Such a serious humanitarian disaster has happened under the eyes of the British and Europeans. The UK and relevant European countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people from dying in such a manner," wrote Global Times.

The incident has brought back memories of a similar fatal episode involving Chinese immigrants almost 20 years ago.

In June 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants, stealing into the UK for work, were found in a shipping container in the English port city of Dover.

Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London said China was trying to deflect blame for the incident.

"It is embarrassing to acknowledge the reality that there are desperate people in China who would resort to such an extreme way to escape poverty or lack of opportunities in China, or the effectiveness of organised crime groups in China despite the Party's very tight control over society in China," he said.

While China has made strides in improving the standard of living for its people, experts say the incident reflects how there are still Chinese living in abject poverty who would risk emigrating in such a manner.

On Friday, the incident was one of the most-mentioned topics on Chinese microblog Weibo, with many reacting in disbelief that such a case could happen.

"These people must be criminals and escaping prosecution in China," said one netizen.

Another told The Straits Times that he could not understand why something like this could happen.

"China is developing quite well, why do people have to illegally emigrate?" said Chinese physician Liu Kang, 29.