Rewind, Review and Re-Rate: ‘Karamay’: Communist Officials Saved Themselves as Children Died


13+ | 5h 56min | Documentary | March 28, 2010

Even before the Uyghur genocide currently underway, Xinjiang was the site of terrible human suffering. On Dec. 8, 1994, 323 people died when fire broke out in the crowded Friendship Hall, where school children were entertaining visiting officials.

The city’s Communist Party cadres escaped with only minimal injuries, but 288 children died. In contrast to recent Party crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, roughly 80 percent of those victims were Mandarin-speaking Han.

Since then, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has heavily censored news of the incident and vigorously cracked down on protests. However, Xu Xin fully documented the tragic events and the Party’s efforts to whitewash the resulting suffering, in his nearly six-hour documentary “Karamay.”

The city of Karamay in Xinjiang was founded to service the nearby oil fields. Ever since, the local Party officials often hold dual positions in the city government and in the state petroleum company. As a result, they were doubly privileged.

The Friendship Hall (ironically, built with money from the USSR, before the Sino-Soviet split) had recently been renovated, naturally by contractors closely linked to the Party. Groups of model students had been assembled there to perform for the city cadres and a group of visiting regional officials, but the assembly started two hours late, when the visibly drunken dignitaries finally arrived.

A parent featured in the documentary "Karamay," which is about the disastrous fire that killed 288 children in China. (dGenerate Films)
A parent featured in the documentary "Karamay," which is about the disastrous fire that killed 288 children in China. (dGenerate Films)

A Preventable Tragedy

By that time, the heat of the stage lights ignited the highly combustible drop curtains. As the fire spread to the substandard ceiling material, the local cadres were ushered out, while the principal at the podium instructed the children to remain seated.

What followed was a horror story of preventable errors. The steel-shuttered doors to the hall were all closed and locked, except for one, which became unpassable as the panic ensued. Firefighters arrived without adequate material to mount any rescue operations, so they had to return to their station to resupply.

Kuang Li, the deputy secretary of Karamay, locked herself in the fireproof ladies’ room and Zhang Huatang, the vice chair of the Karamay Party Conference, did likewise in the men’s facilities, where both refused to open up for anyone else.

In the aftermath, the Karamay cadres strong-armed parents to consent to funerals two days after the tragedy. They moved quickly to demolish the Friendship Hall, keeping only the façade for posterity. In subsequent weeks, whenever news reports mentioned the fire, it was only to admonish parents to be compliant and not make trouble.

An Indictment of the CCP

That all sounds bad, but the full ramifications were even worse, as Xu patiently reveals through extended interviews with the surviving parents. In long, unedited takes, he gets their testimony regarding the pain of losing a child and the CCP’s unkept promises.
Parents who lost their children were living in the age of China's one-child policy. (dGenerate Films)
Parents who lost their children were living in the age of China's one-child policy. (dGenerate Films)

It is important to remember that this occurred while China’s one-child policy was still in full effect. Although the Karamay parents were granted special dispensation for a “replacement” child, many were too old to conceive again by that time.

Regardless, their testimony is absolutely damning and painful to witness. These are not sound bites. Xu immerses the audience in their homes, letting them pour out their raw emotions in clearly unscripted monologues. He also incorporates all of the immediate news coverage and amateur film shot on the scene, much of which confirms the parents’ accounts.

The archival video is sometimes horrifying, but it is the plain-spoken indictments of the grief-stricken parents (and one survivor, who remains permanently scarred by her burns) that make “Karamay” such a threat to the CCP. The oral history that Xu assembles is just too consistent and too anguished to dismiss on any remotely reasonable pretext.

Arguably, “Karamay” is one of the most important documentaries ever produced. It directly compares with Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary “Shoah” in terms of length, scope, authority, and meticulousness. Yet, Lanzmann was documenting crimes that are now accepted by all people of good conscience, whereas Xu exposed an incident that the CCP is still actively covering up.

Many of the parents Xu interviewed in 2007 were indeed CCP members. Consequently, they often took pains to narrow their criticism very specifically to the local cadres. Nevertheless, when parents make statements like “Without question, we have no legal tradition, just imperial orders” and “Only cadres can commit gross negligence or dereliction of duty,” it is easy to see why the film is considered metaphorically radioactive in the People’s Republic of China.

Admittedly, Xu’s documentary is an exhausting viewing experience because it is so quietly devastating. Streamers might need a few sittings to work through it, but it is worth the time commitment. It is a courageous exposé of the CCP’s moral rot and a heartfelt elegy to the victims of the Dec. 8 fire.

Very highly recommended, “Karamay” starts streaming on Sept. 26 on
A poster for "Karamay" about the disastrous fire that killed hundreds of children in China. (dGenerate Films)
A poster for "Karamay" about the disastrous fire that killed hundreds of children in China. (dGenerate Films)
‘Karamay’ Documentary Director: Xu Xin Amazon: 13+ Running Time: 5 hours, 56 minutes Release Date: March 28, 2010 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit
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