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The true measure of society is how it treats its more vulnerable members.

One of
the biggest ironies of old style Communism was that a political philosophy founded
on equal distribution of wealth and privileges, where all ‘comrades’ were
presumably at par; practiced the worst form of discrimination - not based on
caste or race, but on one’s position in the ruling political hierarchy.

On December 8, 1994, 500 children were taken to a spe¬cial performance at a

theatre in Karamay, a city in China's northwest Xinjiang province. After they were
seated, a delegation of the city's most senior officials entered; the children
dutifully stood up, applauded and the bigwigs took their seats. A few minutes
after the show began; some lamps near the stage either short-cir¬cuited or fell.
The scenery caught fire, and then exploded in a conflagration that engulfed the
auditorium. The children clapped, believing it to be part of the show; but the
officials realized the danger immediately. In most civilized societies, their
first thought should have been to quickly evacuate the children and their
teachers. What actually happened was truly and awfully shameful.

A woman official immediately stood up and shouted: "Everyone keep quiet. Don't
move. Let the leaders go first." The teachers obeyed, telling their charges to
remain seated. The consequence of this outrageous callousness was that 288
children perished in the fire. As was the practice in those days, unpleasant and
inconvenient news was quietly buried. In 1995, 300 families of the dead and
in¬jured sent representa¬tives to the National People's Congress in Beijing,
supposedly the venue for Chinese citizens to seek jus¬tice and a fair hearing.
They were put on a flight to back to Xinjiang.

Not surprisingly, the horrific event received no mention in the official media –
unpleasant news rarely did in Communist China. The facts were sup¬pressed for more
than 12 years until, Chen Yaowen, a reporter for China Central Television, posted
on his web¬site a documentary that he had made about the disaster but which the
censors had banned. The revelations have prompted mil¬lions of Chinese to dis¬cuss
the incident in re¬cent weeks and forced the state-controlled media to acknowledge
it for the first time- a rare occurrence where the power of the internet was
utilized for the public good.

Not that the offending officials got off scot free – though, I suspect, the Party
bosses were more furious with them for potentially embarrassing the Party, than
any genuine desire for justice. The Communist party was dealing out its own
justice. A court convicted 14 people, four of them senior officials, of
ne¬glecting their duty and im¬posed prison sentences of up to five years. Public
access to the court was tightly restrict¬ed. All 14 were freed within two or three
years. Apparently, that was what 288 tender, innocent lives were worth.

Sunday Times