How Xi Jinping could spin political gold from Shanghai’s deadly New Year’s stampede

A memorial at the site of a New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai.
A memorial at the site of a New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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Shanghai residents, still reeling from a deadly New Year’s Eve stampede that left 36 dead, are finding somewhere to channel their anger. An anti-corruption agency is investigating local officials who were enjoying an “luxurious feast” at an expensive Japanese restaurant, just meters away from the stampede, as it happened. The investigation may also be a way for the Chinese leadership to take a jab at Shanghai, the power base of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who is said to be the political rival of current leader Xi Jinping.

Earlier in the week, Chinese finance magazine Caixin published a report about the feast, which was held at an exclusive Kaiseki restaurant on the Bund, tucked between Patek Philippe and Valentino, where set menus start at 1,888 yuan (about $305). Dozens of Chinese publications repeated the news, including state-run Xinhua, which suggests the report was sanctioned by central propaganda officials, who have been carefully controlling coverage of the stampede. And state-run People’s Daily posted the news in English on Twitter, which is blocked in China.

State media have avoided blaming the police, security or even a local night club for the stampede, and officials initially ordered publications to “remove opportunities to attack the party and government,” according to a leaked propaganda directive. But that doesn’t appear to apply to Shanghai, whose government, according to state news agency Xinhua, showed a ”a lack of vigilance” and “sloppiness.”

Moreover, angry comments, links to the news reports, and photos of the Japanese restaurant where officials allegedly dined, have flowed freely (registration required) on Chinese social media. One blogger on the discussion forum Tianya wrote, “As a Shanghainese I am now numb to these kinds of things. I only beg these idiots not to harm people when they are full. It’s best if they die drunk on the dinner table.” Playing on the idea that civil servants should serve the people, one Weibo user wrote, “Nowadays, the servants are eating better than their masters, and their masters are paying for the meals.”

Jiang, a former Shanghai party boss whose circle of powerful officials and business heads is known as the “Shanghai clique,” is believed to exert great influence over the party and the Chinese military from behind the scenes. Chinese communist party watchers and insiders say that the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is trying to chip away at Jiang’s influence (paywall) by going after his allies and proteges like former security czar Zhou Yongkang, military commission vice chair Xu Caihou and former Central Politburo member Bo Xilai. After the party announced its investigation of Zhou, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection sent a team to Shanghai for two months.

Now, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be close to netting more from the gang. As one Weibo user predicted, “Someone has to take responsibility for the stampede. It looks like these officials will have bad luck.”