News of 39 people, believed to be Chinese nationals, found dead in a refrigerated truck container in an industrial area east of London has many in China reacting in disbelief that such a case could happen to citizens whose nation is on the ascent.
Beijing yesterday urged the British authorities to "confirm and verify" the identity of the 31 men and eight women as soon as possible, and "severely punish the criminals involved in the case".
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 yesterday that the 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. She added that Beijing has also asked the Belgian authorities to carry out a comprehensive investigation.
But Ms Hua also sought to direct attention away from the domestic causes for illegal emigration.
Asked why Chinese citizens would bear such risks to be smuggled illegally into the United Kingdom, Ms Hua rebuked the reporter.
"Look around the world, it is not China that has serious problems with illegal immigration," she said, urging greater international cooperation on the issue.
"Regardless of 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," she added.
The nationalist Global Times went one step further, writing: "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."
The incident has brought back memories of a similar fatal episode in June 2000, when the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants, stealing into Britain for work, were found in a tomato truck 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 said the incident reflects how there are still Chinese living in abject poverty who would risk emigrating in such a manner.
The incident was one of the most-mentioned topics on Chinese microblog Weibo yesterday, where speculation on the reasons for sneaking into Britain was rife.
"China is developing quite well, why do people have to illegally emigrate?" Chinese physician Liu Kang, 29, told The Straits Times.