The Jiaozhou Road Procession

In my near decade-long association with China I have never witnessed something so remarkable or so moving as what I witnessed today, on the evening of the traditional seventh day of mourning, in the aftermath of the fatal Jiaozhou Road fire in Shanghai. My readers in Shanghai, and China, are already familiar with this event; for those outside of China, and not following the event and its aftermath: on Monday, a 28-story high-rise burned, and at least fifty-six people died as a result. Video here, a live blog here, and an excellent New York Times piece examining questions raised by the fire here. And finally, and best-written of all, a blogged dispatch, “Don’t Cry, Shanghai” by my friend Marta Cooper.

Around 2:00 this afternoon I was with two friends when one received a call notifying us that thousands of people were converging on the site of the fire with flowers. I hesitated to follow, but only for a moment: I’ve lived in this city, and among its people, for years, and I consider it and them as much home as anywhere I’ve ever been. I decided to go, but as a mourner for what happened in my home, and with flowers. When we arrived we came upon a line that stretched for blocks. Below, a photo taken while looking back, after having turned a second corner:

What this photo doesn’t show, because of the vantage point, are the bouquets of flowers carried by all of those mourners. I think it’s no exaggeration to suggest that at least half of these people were carrying carnations. As for those who weren’t, they were reverent and quiet. I did not sense gawkers, rubber-neckers, or the Sunday curious.

What I did sense, what I will not forget, was the rhythm to this procession. For the last long block, as the procession slowed, we began this odd stutter-step: we would walk five or six steps, and then we’d come to a dead stop, pause for ten seconds or so, and then start the cycle against, five, six steps. Nobody said anything, nobody was pushing ahead – rather, the crowd seemed to accept this odd, almost reverential step. As we moved slowly along, it took on a life of its own, almost like a mourning dance. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I wish i could explain it. But, when we reached the intersection beneath the burnt-out building, there was nothing and nobody directing this movement – we just flowed into what felt like a sacred space, with a brief admonition – quite right – that I should remove my hat before proceeding further. I laid my flowers atop a pile of thousands of bouquets, extending in two directions, for two blocks:

After the page jump, a brief note on the security and how one news organization covered it badly …

I think it no exaggeration to suggest that there were easily hundreds of thousands of mourners at the site this afternoon. While I was there, at least, they were reverent and low-key, interested in little more than showing respect for those who perished. Understandably, police were deployed throughout the neighborhood to help control the flow of the crowds, and they did an excellent low-key job. Below, a police set up to prevent people from flowing directly to the building, but rather around it, in the aforementioned procession.

During my time at the event, the police were low-key, helpful, and non-confrontational. They were also quite obviously scared by the large, emotional crowd, and dis-inclined to do anything that would upset it. This was a group of mourners, but it was quite clear that any effort by the police to interfere with their grief would result in push-back and, quite likely, worse. So it comes as quite a surprise to read the AP’s account of today’s events – especially the second graf:

I’ll be blunt: the incident described in the AP story was either made up, or isolated. ANY effort by the police to strong-arm at Jiaozhou Road would have set off a riot, no question. The police clearly knew this, and thus, wisely, allowed civilian volunteers to handle the mourner traffic in front the burnt-out building itself. For images of the peaceful interaction between the civilian volunteers, see this image via Christine Tan’s twitter feed. No blue uniforms; shame on the AP. [UPDATE: Rebecca MacKinnon, nobody’s softie when it comes to heavy-handed Chinese police action, had a non-eventful visit, minus flowers, too] And, while we’re distributing shame, shame on whoever (…) is preventing people in China from seeing online video and commentary about the fire. It’s theirs; they have a right.

[UPDATE 11/22: In comment #5, below, my friend Duncan Hewitt of Newsweek takes issue with my characterization of the AP story as “shameful.”]

15 thoughts on “The Jiaozhou Road Procession

  1. This is such a beautiful moving account that I hate to see you mar it by finishing it off with a baseball bat to the APs face.

  2. Thanks for bearing witness Adam – it will be interesting to see what reportage surfaces back here in NA.

  3. Hi Adam, yes it was a very moving, unique and remarkable occasion yesterday, and your description is very evocative. But you’re right, what people write matters – and I found it strange that you give credence in print (even if only fleetingly) to the idea that the AP description of police pulling people out of the crowd might have been made up. Elaine Kurtenbach is a serious and (to use a Chinese expression) responsible journalist with long experience in China. I didn’t see such incidents when I was there either (though I did see police dispersing one small crowd gathered around a white poster on the sidewalk on Yuyao Lu) but my first reaction was that something must have happened earlier in the day. So I asked Elaine and she said that when she was there she saw a number of people being pulled out of the crowd, some by their collars, others by other parts of their clothing or anatomy. Maybe in the course of the whole day this was indeed “isolated”, maybe the police realised that this approach was counterproductive, and stopped doing it – but it clearly happened. One can debate how high up in the story this information should go, sure – but I don’t see that it’s “shameful” to mention it: it was apparently a part of what was, as you imply, quite a tense scene. (I also heard of one group who planned a silent protest at the scene but were unable to carry it through because of the crowd control and the efforts to stop people lingering too long in front of the building). The feeling I got from your comments was that you saw the AP report as another example of anti-China bias in the western media. Such bias clearly does exist in some western writing about China – but there are plenty of serious journalists out there trying to report real information in as accurate, honest and relevant a way as they can. Clearly they don’t always get the balance right, not least because of the hugeness of the subject – but I think that blanket assumptions of bias don’t really help, in the same way that simplistic coverage of China is not helpful either. Best wishes, Duncan

  4. Duncan –

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. As you well know, I deeply respect your opinions, and I’m pleased any time you stop by my blog.

    My concern is not anti-China bias in the Western media. Rather, it’s sensationalism. And the AP story, by featuring isolated incidents of police aggression in the SECOND sentence, engaged in a nasty bit of sensationalism. Anyone reading that story, by virtue of that sentence’s placement, would automatically assume that the procession was marred by police brutality. And it simply wasn’t.

    No doubt, the situation was tense, neighbors and visitors were engaging in sometimes emotional discussion, but there was nothing like the systematic brutality that Elains’s second sentence suggests. Now, a sober and accurate story about the protest would have led with the fact that it was tense, but peaceful, and then dropped the mention of people being grabbed by the collar to the end. A sensationalistic story would – well, you get my point.

    I am quite aware that there’s a bit of an unwritten “thou shall not question another China correspondent’s work” rule out there. And believe me, I understand why. But I don’t see any harm in pointing out when somebody royally screws up a story – which is the case with this AP piece. For goodness sake, it’s going out all over the world, Duncan, with the message that the Jiaozhou Road procession was violent. That may make for more interesting copy, but the problem is that it wasn’t violent. It simply wasn’t. And it’s sensationalistic, bad journalism, and shameful to suggest otherwise.

    In any event, thank you for being willing to post your objections to my blog – others aren’t so open. You are always welcome and respected around here.

  5. Sensationalistic is better than shameful but what’s the difference really? The AP absolutely mis-reported the story and there’s no reason to bring up anti-China bias or anything of that. One need only have a look at how the AP story was quoted at China Digital Times to see how that second sentence became the lede:

    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/11/tens-of-thousands-mourn-china-high-rise-fire-dead/

    It is worthy of a correction if the AP ran corrections.

  6. From my reading AP offered the only coverage that suggested police brutality. If somebody found it covered elsewhere on a blog or otherwise I’d appreciate a link. Maybe AP were the only ones who saw it? Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but it also doesn’t help the APs reputation for accurate reporting if it goes to the top of their story.

  7. I completely agree with what Duncan wrote. The only misreporting in the AP story was to parrot the official numbers, which are massively off. There were only several tens of thousands of people there at any given time, yes, because of how the government herded everyone through and out – but over the course of an entire day at least a hundred thousand people coursed through.

    Just because what Elaine saw differ from what you saw doesn’t make her inventive, shameful or biased – any more than you are, Adam, because your observations differ also from mine. Elaine never reported “police brutality” or “violence” or “riots”, as you suggest, she just observed some standard manhandling – which I am sure went on plenty yesterday.

    I don’t think there is rule against criticizing other correspondents, and often it is required; but accusations of “screwing up royally” for observing and experiencing something differently than you is another matter..

    I skipped out of the herded scrum to watch the procession for about an hour, 2 to 3, then skipped out to grab a bite and walk around, then returned at 4 and, after an getting stuck in the line that was now two blocks long, with twice as many people and four times the original cops, including much more fiercer special ops glaring and marching in formation with batons, I watched until 5pm. When I left, the influx had not subsided.

    I did not see anyone get manhandled, but especially by late afternoon the police were very aggressive about keeping people moving, and were constantly and severely berating anyone who paused too long to ponder or mourn (or photograph). They menaced anyone who tried to get into the police queue without walking to its entrance two blocks away, even when there was no one in it; a friend of mine was harassed trying to get in, and gave up and left. I would fairly venture that plenty of manhandling took place, but not excessively rough or excessively frequently. What one saw, and the police mood, really varied based on when you were there, and where. Police were a lot mellower early in the afternoon, I felt. There were also certainly growing clusters of residents having intense discussions in Shanghainese about the problems of corruption, construction, safety, and property rights that the fire set off.

    It was an amazing outpouring, indeed, and I have seen nothing like it. At the same time, what was supposed to be a massive vigil turned into a giant, fast-moving queue, as the police used their Expo-training to herd and diffuse everyone efficiently along the cattle chutes. That the event happened at all is remarkable, and yes the government showed a wise restraint, but it was not handled that well, just “managed” inoffensively: a D+ is hardly an A.

  8. Lisa – My only response is to point out, once again, where that sentence was placed in the story. It was, for all intents and purposes, the lead (as someone noted above, it WAS the lead at China Digital Times), and was thus highly, highly misleading if not prejudicial. AP 101: don’t place a sideshow in the lead, place the story itself.

    In any case, I challenge you to find me another story that treats these incidents as worthy of a lead, if any mention at all. I’ve yet to find one. That’s not to say that they didn’t happen, but rather that they clearly weren’t as common or as important as the AP story suggests.

    And that’s the extent of what I’ll say on this subject.

  9. I agree with Adam on this: the AP article sounds a bit of ‘sensationalism’ by putting that key sentence–leading one to think more than it was. The article could describe the tense situation, including the incidents mentioned with some qualifier, like, around 9:30am, so that reader can judge for himself.

  10. Nice, I guess. I live half a block from where the fire occurred, and witnessed the entire thing from its inception (ran out of my building in the early afternoon when I noticed smoke wafting from the north).

    What would be truly touching is seeing responsibility laid where it is deserved – on incompetent management that hired out unlicensed welders, and above that, Shanghai municipal government, who is criminally negligent in its disregard for safety.

    Of course, this will never happen. The blame has been passed, all good now.

  11. Everyone in China knows why so large crowd has been come out: This is not an accident but an outcome of corruption. They want those responsible to be held accoutable.

  12. Hi Adam, great piece. I agree with Movius that it was a misplaced sentence, one which lead to a misleading story.Also there is also the fact that headline like “10,000 (or whatever was the actual figure was) came out to mourn fire victims” doesn’t sell papers. I also agree with Paul that it was more than just mourning that was being expressed. . .

  13. The AP story reminds me of how CNN covered the 1994 Northridge earthquake in L.A., showing the same collapsed building over and over so that people outside the area all thought we were living in rubble. It wasn’t untrue, strictly speaking, but it was seriously misleading.

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