In the wake of the New Year’s Eve stampede along the Bund in Shanghai that resulted in the death of almost forty people, Chinese President Xi Jinping wasted no time calling for hospitals to treat the injured and for an investigation to determine responsibility for the tragedy. Yet beyond that, his response, and that of the rest of the Chinese leadership, has been tone deaf, missing an important opportunity to demonstrate real leadership through compassion and understanding.
As people throughout China have sought to express their shared grief and reach out to those who lost loved ones, Beijing has actively discouraged such generosity of spirit. Instead, the leadership has mistakenly understood this terrible disaster as a potential threat to its legitimacy. It is censoring news accounts, trying to prevent victims’ families from speaking with journalists, and placing these families under surveillance. It has expended scores of police hours searching for and interrogating people who have posted their thoughts about the tragedy online. And before one father was allowed to receive his daughter’s body to fly back to Malaysia, he was told that he had to agree to “absolve the government of any wrongdoing.”
A commentator in Shanghai explains the government’s reaction thus: “Such a major public safety incident can tug the heartstrings of the public, and the acts and words by victims’ relatives can make the public sentiments swing, making it a key task for authorities to control the families, limiting their contacts with each other or with the media….The method is brusque toward the families, preventing them from resorting to law and to the media, but—in a positive way—it can indeed alleviate the shock to the public.”
Yet the Chinese people clearly do not need to be told what matters or how to behave when confronted with tragedy. In the aftermath of the devastating July 2012 Beijing floods—the worst in six decades—that resulted in the death of seventy-seven people, for example, Chinese social commentator Li Chengpeng wrote a beautiful and profound testament to the selflessness and generosity of his fellow Beijing citizens: “the humanity is there, like a luminous pearl, normally ordinary and unremarkable like a rock, but in the key moment shining brightly…this is Chinese people’s civic awareness growing…which is to say, when you participate in community self-government and self-management, you’ll feel a strong sense of existence and security.”
Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leaders have allowed their own narrow, self-protective interests to take precedence over the broader desires and needs of the Chinese people. In so doing they have squandered an important opportunity to develop the type of citizen spirit and social unity that they so desperately seek, and deprived the Chinese people and themselves of an essential element of the Chinese dream.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org and Forbes Asia.