Brian's Blogs

Common sense just ain't that common

One of the most depressing things about life in China is the very low regard that the average man in the street has for anything remotely to do with health and safety. Hardly a week seems to go by when there isn't one story after another about accidents in mines, on public transport, on construction sites, on roads and anywhere else where, as the old saying goes: common sense is anything but common.

The news of a fire in a nightclub in southern Brazil this week, killing over 230 people and injuring many more, should act as a strong warning across the world of what can happen when exits are blocked or, worse still, locked, contrary to existing fire regulations.

But, judging from my experiences in Beijing, I doubt if anyone will pay the slightest bit of attention here.

Take this last weekend, for instance. I had gone out to dinner to a restaurant on the top floor of the Shimao Department Store in the popular Sanlitun district. All five restaurants on that floor were full to bursting, with the crowds only thinning as the time headed towards 10pm.

Amazingly, when we tried to leave, we – and countless other people – found all the escalators were traveling upwards; not one was set to take people downstairs.

Those who had finished their dinner headed for the lifts, but all the lifts were stationary on the ground floor and everyone waited in vain. A number of people, including myself, then decided to walk down the four flights of stairs to the ground floor – only to find when we got there that the exit door was chained and locked closed. We even tried going further down to the garage exit, but that too was locked shut.

We then walked up to the next floor and the next and the next, only to find that the exit doors to these floors had also been locked and chained. When we eventually arrived back where we started, these doors too were locked, effectively barring our exit back the way we had come.

People were still trying to call for a lift; and we were shouting out for someone in security to unpadlock this door and let us out. A security man eventually came, but it took him 22 minutes to get the only man with a key to return. As we finally made our escape from another exit there were still countless people coming out of the store.

Now, this all raises a number of questions. Firstly, what on earth did the management of the Shimao Department Store think it was doing locking all the available exits when they cannot have failed to have known that there were still many hundreds of people inside the building? Given that some of the restaurants were still serving their customers after 10pm, how would those self same customers have known that the store itself closed at that time? Why did the only man with a key start by grounding all the lifts, and then locking the doors from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, as common sense would surely have suggested he do. And why, when he MUST have known there were people tramping down the stairs, did he not call out to stop them going any further and get them back to where they had started, rather than just locking the door behind them? Come to think of it, why did they turn off all the lights while the guests were still trying to leave the building? It all just added insult to injury!

On this day, as I am sure on countless others, a number of people were greatly inconvenienced, but no risk to life or limb occurred. But that is not the point. In China's mines, on its rail systems, on its roads and in its construction sites "a number of accidents waiting to happen" never do actually happen … until, that is, they do occur; at which point there is a widespread ringing of hands and some hapless manager is picked on to be made a scapegoat to cover the sins of the many.

The restaurant was an excellent one; but I will make a point of never again visiting the Shimao Department Store – and I will tell all my friends too about my experience there. Only if people vote with their feet and protest loudly enough, not just about the abysmal way this store treats its customers but about the very real risk they put them to, will anything ever change.

I only hope I never have to turn round in the future and say "I told you so".

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