HONG KONG — It was a humid summer day in Jingzhou, a city in central China, and Xiang Liujuan, a 31-year-old mother, had gone to the mall to relax.
Ms. Xiang never cared much for fancy clothes or high-end makeup, her relatives said, and on Sunday, as on most days, her attention was focused elsewhere: on her 2-year-old son, who was running around a mall playground in a T-shirt and blue shorts.
But after Ms. Xiang and her son had left the playground and stepped onto an escalator, frantic shouts broke out. A floor panel at the top of the escalator was loose. Ms. Xiang tried to avoid the resulting trap door, but she fell in. As the machinery swallowed her, she spent her final moments pushing her son to safety.
Ms. Xiang’s death, caught on mall security cameras, has provoked a furious response in China. Social media users have accused the mall of murder, and People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, called on Tuesday for a top-to-bottom investigation.
The incident underscored the growing power of Chinese citizens to use the spotlight of social media to bring attention to injustices, skirting official channels. And in a country of 1.3 billion people, Ms. Xiang’s death has left some questioning whether leaders in business and government adequately care for the lives of ordinary people.
“Those responsible must be severely punished, so everybody in the industry can learn a lesson,” Yang Anqing, 31, a pharmaceutical salesman in Beijing, said during a lunch break on Tuesday. “We could be killed by any reckless mechanic! If we can’t trust the safety of everyday things like escalators and food, what can we trust?”
It was Ms. Xiang’s family that first brought her death to the attention of the public. As the news media struggled to gain access to Anliang Department Store in Jingzhou, near where the escalator is located, Ms. Xiang’s relatives posted pleas for help on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. They aimed their messages at high-profile commentators in China, hoping the story would quickly catch fire.
“I hoped righteous journalism could stand out to warn everybody,” a cousin who gave only her surname, Ke, wrote in a blog post.
Soon, smartphones buzzed with reports of a “man-eating escalator” in Hubei Province. A copy of the mall surveillance video emerged, showing the death in its entirety, and it garnered millions of views.
Celebrity bloggers soon weighed in. “The mall owner and manufacturer of the escalator should be fined to their bankruptcy,” Shi Liqin, a well-known Shanghai businessman, wrote on Weibo.
While the Communist Party strictly controls the flow of information in China, officials have seemed more tolerant of stories involving transgressions committed by local leaders.
“The media frenzy and the demands of the relatives are pointed at the company rather than the government, so the authorities are more open,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “This is of course progress in China.”
The party continues to routinely censor information it deems a threat to social stability, and it carefully guards its own image.
In June, for instance, when a cruise ship capsized in the Yangtze River, killing several hundred people, it blocked journalists from going to some areas and instructed them to rely on official reports. Earlier this month, officials censored a widely viewed sex video made inside a Uniqlo fitting room in Beijing.
After Ms. Xiang’s death, official news outlets joined the chorus of condemnation.
“For the public, questioning and accountability must take place after such an accident,” said an editorial in People’s Daily.
On social media sites, the accident has led to questions about whether the Chinese people, particularly those in positions of power, show enough compassion toward one another, a perennial topic of debate.
“We’re all focused on how we can stop this from happening to us,” wrote a user named Chen Li on WeChat, a popular messaging application. “But what can we do for this woman?”
Much of the vitriol was directed at the mall, and critics asked why the escalator had not been shut down when the problem became apparent. According to local reports, mall employees said that Ms. Xiang was warned, halfway through her ascent, that the escalator was faulty.
During a news conference on Monday night, Chen Guanxin, a Jingzhou government official, said that the initial investigation suggested the mall had acted irresponsibly. Mr. Chen said the mall’s employees had noticed the loose panel five minutes before the accident but had failed to shut down the escalator before Ms. Xiang and her son boarded.