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Beijing hospital fire death toll rises to 29 as public anger grows

Initial media reports about the fire were scant. Footage of the fire was also censored on social media at first

Beijing Changfeng Hospital, Beijing hospital fire

Photo: Bloomberg

Bloomberg

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A fire at a hospital in Beijing killed at least 29 patients, leading to the arrest of 12 people and prompting public anger after initial mentions of the incident were censored.

The deadly blaze erupted at the hospital’s inpatient department Tuesday afternoon at the Changfeng Hospital in the heart of Beijing, less than seven miles away from Tiananmen Square.

Initial media reports about the fire were scant. The official Xinhua News Agency and the Beijing Daily didn’t publish articles until late Tuesday evening, several hours after the blaze had been extinguished. Footage of the fire was also censored on social media at first.

The death toll was confirmed Wednesday afternoon at a press briefing held by Beijing local government officials. Initial investigations suggested the incident was caused by construction work, as police detained a dozen people — including the head of the hospital.

“I would like to express my deep condolences to the victims” and their families, said Li Zongrong, a vice director of the capital’s Fengtai district, “as well as apologies to the residents of the city.” 
The handling of information about the fire has sparked outrage in China. Absent official reports in the hours after the incident, footage and photos of the fire initially spread rapidly on the Twitter-like Weibo service and the popular WeChat messaging app. One post showed patients climbing out of the smoking building with improvised ropes made from bed sheets. 

Those images, though, were quickly scrubbed. Xinhua’s late evening report, meanwhile, contained only a few sentences, saying that firefighters found out about the blaze at 12:57 p.m. local time and put it out by 1:33 p.m. It placed the initial death toll at 21 people and said another 71 patients had been evacuated and sent to other facilities. 

Multiple calls to the hospital Wednesday went unanswered, while its website and that of its parent company, Beijing Changfeng Hospital Co., appeared to be down.

China Securities Co., the company’s broker-dealer on the National Equities Exchange and Quotations, said Wednesday it had failed to establish contact with relevant personnel at the organization after the blaze, according to a filing. The exchange is an over-the-counter marketplace for small firms, where the hospital company is listed.

‘Difficult to Understand’
 
“It is really difficult to understand,” read one censored post on dissident-run tracking site Freeweibo.com, which reposts items that have been deleted on Weibo.

“Hospitals have relatively stronger safety management and precautionary measures, and Beijing is our country’s first-tier city. How could such a large-scale fire lead to so many deaths?”

The user said the fire had echoes of a deadly blaze in Xinjiang last year that spurred public outcry over the country’s stringent Covid Zero policy. Online posts at the time questioned whether lockdowns to prevent coronavirus had delayed rescue efforts.

Even Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times, was caught in the censorship dragnet. 

A Weibo post from Hu called for authorities to “trust the public” with information on the incident and criticized the removal of other posts. Hu’s post, too, was eventually taken down.

A later post from Hu on Weibo that expressed shock at the fire and called for more information on the incident to be disclosed remained online.

By Tuesday evening, the restrictions on information appeared to be easing.

State media outlets began publishing reports on the fire around 9 p.m. after online users questioned why the topic wasn’t appearing on trending search lists. Those users also wondered why there was such a lengthy delay in reporting the number of deaths.

A hashtag created to share information about the fire, #Fire at Beijing Changfeng Hospital that killed 21, did not reflect any data on Weibo as of Wednesday morning. But a differently-worded hashtag created later that didn’t state the hospital’s name showed over 6.2 million views of the topic.

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First Published: Apr 19 2023 | 9:37 AM IST

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