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Leaders first

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让领导先走 (ràng lǐngdǎo xiān zǒu): leaders first

In 1994, in Karamay (克拉玛依), Xinjiang province, a fire broke out in a theater in which 1,000 children were watching a special variety show. As the fire spread, a woman shouted, “Everyone sit down. Don’t move. Let the leaders leave first!” (大家坐下,不要动,让领导先走). The fire resulted in 325 deaths, 288 of whom were children. Twenty Party officials were said to have escaped, among them Kuang Li (况丽), who was accused of giving the famous command.

Below are excerpts of an English-language account of the event, “China aghast at 'sacrifice' of 288 pupils,” published twelve years after the incident in the Times Online:

On December 8, 1994, 500 schoolchildren were taken to a special variety performance at a theatre in Karamay, an oil-producing city in China’s northwest Xinjiang province.

Most were the best and brightest pupils in their classes, aged between seven and 14, the offspring of well educated Han Chinese engineers and physicists brought in to exploit the mostly Muslim region’s natural resources.

After they were seated, a delegation of the city’s most senior officials entered to ritual applause and took their seats. The show began.

From the accounts of survivors, it appears that lamps near the stage either short-circuited or fell. The scenery caught fire, then exploded in a conflagration that engulfed the auditorium within a minute or two.

The first few seconds became the most controversial of the disaster. Survivors insist that a woman official immediately stood up and shouted: “Everyone keep quiet. Don’t move. Let the leaders go first.”

She has since been identified in online articles as Kuang Li, who was vice-director of the state petroleum company’s local education centre, although there has been no official confirmation of this.

The teachers obeyed, telling their charges to remain seated. Children who survived recall that everyone was paralysed by fear and confusion as flames and poisonous fumes filled the air.

By the time the dignitaries had filed out, it was too late. Teachers hurried the pupils out of their seats to other exits, only to find that the emergency doors were locked.

Because of the sensitive nature of the tragedy and how it reflected on the Party, then-CCTV president Yang Weiguang admitted to stopping reporters from airing a related broadcast, and described how the Central Propaganda Department later gave orders banning coverage of the incident. Beijing-based poet and folk singer Zhou Yunpeng (周云蓬) wrote a song, “Don’t be a child of the Chinese,” about this incident.

“Let the leaders leave first,” along with other such phrases became popular online; it represents the belief that Party officials put their own interests ahead of the needs of the Chinese people. In another incident, the phrase “I only serve the leaders” went viral after a traffic cop made this statement while telling another driver he carried nothing for the safety of ordinary people.

Kuang Li, who denies ordering the students to remain seated as Party officials fled. She claims that she too was badly burned.