By Tom Bannister
The 8th of December marks the 18th anniversary of a theatre fire that killed hundreds of school children, many of them told to wait in their seats until government officials had left first. The fire took place in the small city of Karamay (克拉玛依) in China’s north-west Xinijang province. The theatre was hosting a special variety show and many of the audience were young students, chosen because they were the brightest in their class. A fire broke out during the performance and everyone stood up to leave. What occurred next is disputed but many of the survivors said that an official shouted out: “Everyone sit down. Don’t move. Let the leaders go first (学生们坐下、不要动、让领导先走)” . The children waited while the government officials filed out, but when they eventually got up to leave they found that many of the exits were locked. A total of 325 people died, the vast majority of them schoolchildren.
After the fire 14 officials were convicted and families of the victims flew to Beijing to petition the central government, only to be turned away and forced onto a plane back to Xinjiang. The phrase 让领导先走 (let the leaders go first) has become commonly used on the internet to express criticism of the state. On the anniversary of the fire a much forwarded Weibo post by prominent social commentator Li Chengpeng read:
18 years ago today, 284 children died in a Karamay theatre. The phrase “let the leaders go first” prevented them from escaping. Some people say that this is untrue but two survivors confirm that this is what an official said. Zhou Yajing, who was 9 at the time of the fire, said: ‘before our performance I laid flowers at the grave of my grandfather to give us the strength to go forward’. “Let the leaders go first” is the most despicable but also the most intrinsic benefit to be found in all aspects of Chinese officialdom. Change this “Let the leaders go first” attitude; China must not go backwards.