SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Three days after his sister and 35 others were killed in a New Year’s Eve stampede, Wang Jianhua went to Shanghai’s waterfront to take pictures and measurements of the scene, hoping to piece together for himself how the disaster unfolded.
He and other relatives of those who died celebrating the new year on the historic Bund in China’s commercial capital say they have not been getting any answers from the authorities.
Instead, families are being kept in the dark about the circumstances of the accident and had even been pressured not to air grievances, especially to international media, Wang said.
“This interview could bring me a whole lot of trouble. The pressure is immense,” Wang told Reuters.
The stampede and a heavy-handed response by authorities may tarnish the image of Shanghai as China’s most cosmopolitan and best-managed city, a glitzy home to global companies with ambitions to become a world financial centre by 2020.
Police investigations are usually conducted with little or no information made public, so it is not unusual for relatives to be poorly informed of progress.
Wang’s sister was 25 and had recently moved to Shanghai after graduating. She was out with a group of friends.
He said he just wanted straight answers from the police, health officials and government but instead he feels hounded.
“Police are checking into me and some came to my temporary residences to find me. I fear that once they’ve found me then they will threaten me and stop me talking,” he said.
Telephone calls to the Shanghai police press office went unanswered.
At a mourning ceremony on the embankment on Tuesday, sobbing relatives laid flowers and burned ceremonial paper – accompanied by government handlers and under tight security.
Police in uniform and plain clothes tried to keep reporters away from relatives who were shepherded through a labyrinth of barricades to reach a mourning area.
Even relatives who stayed away from the ceremony said they were under supervision.
“We have had people assigned to be with us the whole time and they have advised against speaking to the press,” one woman who lost a relative told Reuters by telephone. She declined to be identified.
Another complaint of the relatives is that their loved ones’ bodies have yet to be released for burial.
“We will fight to the end for our dead,” Wang said.
“We have to seek justice, understand what happened and find who is to blame. Otherwise we will have let down this group of departed spirits who have not yet been laid to rest.”
The Shanghai health department said in an emailed statement to Reuters it had been difficult to identify all victims immediately as some of the injured had been unconscious and it had contacted relatives as quickly as possible. It said bodies were being treated properly.
Several dozen relatives banded together on Sunday to go to government offices to get information, three members of the group said. But they got no answers.
“We just couldn’t bear this any more,” said Gu Yinjuan, the elder sister of one of the dead who joined the group.
“All along they haven’t told us anything, we’ve just been waiting and waiting.”
Relatives also said attempts to tell their stories were being blocked. A microblog relatives set up to share information was shut down on Monday, one said.
Another relative said domestic media outlets, many of which are state-run, were ignoring their plight while trying to put a positive spin on the accident.
“Domestic media reports are very proper, shrouding the truth so it doesn’t come out,” said the relative.
People who said they were police but did not identify themselves contacted several Reuters staff by telephone to warn against “being used” by relatives.
There have been critical reports in domestic media, including questions about the number of police on duty and their apparent inability to control the crowd.
“It was a lack of vigilance from the government, a sloppiness,” the official Xinhua news agency said.
Waterfront fireworks that attracted more than 300,000 people the previous year had been cancelled but huge numbers still came. One police officer who declined to be identified said they had not expected such a big crowd and had been under-staffed.
Most victims were in their twenties, with 25 of them female, according to a police list.
President Xi Jinping has urged the Shanghai government to get to the bottom of the city’s worst accident since 58 people were killed in an apartment building fire in 2010.