China aghast learning anew of 'sacrifice' of 288 pupils in 1994 fire

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When the first flames flared around the theatre’s stage, many of the excited Chinese children watching must have thought it was all part of the show.

Within minutes 288 of them were dead, a tragedy that has haunted their parents for more than a decade but was forgotten by many as China began its headlong rush to prosperity.

It is not forgotten any more, thanks to a band of internet campaigners who have exposed the shameful truth: the schoolchildren perished because they were ordered to sit down in their theatre seats so that Communist party officials could leave first.

The revelations have prompted millions of Chinese to discuss the incident in recent weeks and forced the state-controlled media to acknowledge it for the first time.

The facts were suppressed for more than 12 years until Chen Yaowen, a reporter for China Central Television, posted on his website a documentary that he had made about the disaster but which the censors had banned.

Scant details of the fire, which has come to be known among Chinese as the ''12/8/94 incident'', were reported by the state news agency and by a few foreign media outlets at the time.

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