There is such a thing as bad publicity.

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Shanghai's Anxieties Result in Tragedy

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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There's still no definitive explanation of what caused last night’s New Year's Eve stampede that left at least 36 dead and 47 injured. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the crowd of 300,000 lost control when someone dumped leaflets that resemble $100 bills from a nightclub. Or, more likely, there were simply too many people on the Bund, the city’s signature riverside promenade, for too few reserved spaces (some are reporting 2000 reserved spots) from which spectators could watch a free laser light show.

What is certain, however, is that such an accident was long overdue in a city that takes particular, oftentimes reckless pride, in staging large spectacles, which draw big crowds that underscore the worthiness of the expense. In part, the problem is a kind of second city syndrome, whereby Shanghai -- China’s most important commercial and financial hub -- seems determined to prove that it’s just as relevant, and even more grand, than Beijing, the country's political capital and cultural powerhouse. Big crowds for big events are a great way to make that happen -- and a great reason for an image-conscious, insecure local government to ignore safety.

As an example, I'd cite the evening of October 1, 2002. It was China’s National Day, and -- like hundreds of thousands of other Shanghai residents -- I wanted to see the promised fireworks display on the Bund. To get there, I started walking down Nanjing East Road, a roughly one mile shopping street that on a good day attracts more than a million people. During 2013’s three-day National Day holiday, it attracted 5.8 million shoppers, according to local media. On October 1, 2002, the crowd was huge, and as we proceeded to the Bund, it thickened such that it was more like a current -- if you stopped, it pushed you along forcefully, pressing toward the crowded Bund. Finally, about half the way down the road, I managed to jump out of the surging current, exhausted and terrified, and onto the steps of the Sofitel, where I watched the dangerous crowd, vowing never to return for another holiday celebration on the Bund.

That was not the lesson taken by the city of Shanghai. In fact, it has continued to hold annual holiday-themed events on the Bund (in particular, for National Day and New Years Eve) that draw even greater crowds than what I witnessed in 2002. (In part, this is due to Shanghai’s massive new subway system, which gives the city’s outlying suburbs easy access to the center of the city.) Typically, the next day’s papers include coverage of the crowds, along with proud mentions of their size.

In fairness, China has a lot of people, and it’s not hard to draw a big crowd. But drawing a crowd and drawing a crowd safely are two different things. For too long Shanghai has emphasized the former while ignoring the latter.

If this year’s tragedy accomplishes anything, it’s likely to be the end of badly managed free entertainment on the Bund and in other prominent city venues. In the hours since the stampede, Chinese media shifted from covering Xi Jinping’s politically important New Year message, to covering the stampede -- and Xi’s reminder that a “profound lesson” should be learned from it. Meanwhile, Shanghai’s longtime mayor Han Zeng demanded that the city’s districts and counties take steps to “prevent similar tragedies.” Alas, the real tragedy is that the mayor didn’t send the message a decade ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net