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Beijing police hold hospital chief, construction contractor over deadly fire

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
April 21, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese police are holding senior hospital executives in criminal detention in connection with a fatal blaze at a Beijing hospital that left 29 people dead amid public anger over footage of people escaping the burning building using bed sheets.

The tragedy has put the country’s abysmal public safety record once more under the spotlight.

Video clips posted during Tuesday’s fire showed people lowering themselves down the walls of the building using bed sheets tied together as ropes, with black smoke billowing out from different parts of the white-tiled low-rise building, while others appeared to have reached relative safety on a nearby roof.

One clip sent to RFA Cantonese captured the panic-stricken shouts and screams of people still in the building, as smoke spewed out from around broken and burned-out windows.

Police are currently holding the president of Beijing Changfeng Hospital, Wang Xiaoling, several members of the hospital’s senior management team as well as two construction contractors blamed for starting the blaze, state news agency Xinhua reported.

“The above-mentioned persons have been criminally detained by police in accordance with the law, and the case is under further investigation,” it quoted Beijing municipal police department’s chief detective Sun Haitao as saying.

“The police will work with relevant departments to further an in-depth investigation, gather evidence [at the scene] and crack down according to the law,” Sun said.

In 2010, authorities in Shanghai detained eight people after a fatal fire in an apartment block in Jing’an district was blamed on sparks caused by “unlicensed welders” hired by a state-owned construction company. 

Citywide investigation promised

Yin Li, Communist Party secretary for the Beijing municipal government, made a public apology for the blaze and promised a citywide investigation into “hidden dangers” in public facilities.

The fire, which affected mostly elderly and highly vulnerable patients, had “caused huge loss of life and damage to property,” Yin told a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday.

A report on the apology posted to the Beijing News official Weibo account garnered more than 1,000 comments, but “selected comments” mode was turned on, suggesting that many more had been filtered out from public view.

The Beijing Fire Brigade told a news conference that that fire was started by “sparks generated during the internal renovation and construction of the hospital’s inpatient department, which ignited the volatile organic compounds in the flammable paint on the site,” but said its investigation is still ongoing.

A Beijing resident who gave only the surname Wang for fear of reprisals, said many were shocked by the scale of the tragedy.

“The hospital was full of elderly people, patients in hospital,” Wang said, adding that she believes “many people” are likely responsible for the blaze. “There were probably hidden dangers in this hospital — some of which were likely accidental, and others inevitable.”

A Beijing resident who gave the surname Yang said officials were likely more concerned with gaining the approval of their superiors rather than answering to the general public.

“If the information isn’t made public, there will be injustice in the way this is handled from start to finish,” he said.

Delay in reporting?

Some reports said state media had remained silent on the blaze for hours after it began.

“All the big reports about the incident only were released eight hours after the fire started, suggesting that local authorities wanted to make sure the fire was under control and that there was enough information on the incident – and how to communicate it to family members and the general audience – before further news was released and went viral on social media,” Manya Koetse, founder of the social media monitoring site What’s on Weibo.

A brief survey by Radio Free Asia found that state-backed media outlet China News Agency was the first to publish a report on the fire at around 9.00 p.m. on Wednesday, some eight hours after the fire started, although a number of posts were made to social media earlier in the day.

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper carried a similar report, titled “Online Short Videos Crazily Deleted; Official Announcement Made Eight Hours After Incident.” Government censors had “continuously” removed videos and photos of the blaze from social media platforms, it said.

“It wasn’t until about eight hours after the incident that the government issued a press release of more than 100 words on the incident,” the paper said.

“Meanwhile, videos, screenshots, and photos of people climbing from hospital beds to flee the scene were continuously deleted from Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms,” the report said.

Suppressing keyword searches

One comment seen by Radio Free Asia on Weibo said “Weibo is over, and the flow of breaking news is totally restricted,” while another said: “Their suppression of trending keywords and information is world-class.”

Another complained: “The media have all become copier machines for [official] press releases.”

An article taking issue with officials’ handling of the fire and its aftermath had been widely censored from social media by Wednesday, according to What’s On Weibo, but was still visible on the Hong Kong-owned website iFeng.

“At noon on April 19, Beijing held a briefing on the accidental fire at Changfeng Hospital that started at noon on April 18 but wasn’t made known to the public and the families of the victims until the evening of April 18,” said the blog post, which was still available on the news site.

“Fire is the most difficult accident to cover up,” the post said. “The flames are soaring, the smoke is billowing, and the calls for help are horrific. It is enough to detonate public opinion.”

Nevertheless, “mysterious forces” had intervened to ensure the incident was kept quiet for a full eight hours, the post said.

“What is even more incomprehensible and emotionally unacceptable is that the family members of these hospitalized patients in Changfeng Hospital didn’t learn about the fire until they saw the news in a pop-up window,” it said.

“Some departments and certain people completely lost the most basic human empathy when they decided to suppress the news of the accident,” the post said.

Of those who have died so far, 26 were patients at the hospital, one was a family member, while two were healthcare workers. Most of the patient victims were elderly, with an average age of 71.2 years, officials said.

It said the local Fengtai district fire department had been called at 12:57 p.m. on Tuesday, and that the blaze was out by 1:33 p.m., with rescue work continuing till 3:30 p.m.

Some victims died after being transferred to other hospitals, while several doctors and nurses also sustained burns during the fire, the Global Times reported.