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Fatal Fire at a Beijing Hospital Draws Ire From Chinese Netizens

A fire at the Changfeng Hospital, in Beijing, China, left scars both inside and outside of the building, April 19, 2023.
A fire at the Changfeng Hospital, in Beijing, China, left scars both inside and outside of the building, April 19, 2023.

Public anger erupted on China's internet over a deadly fire that the government had not disclosed eight hours after it started. While China's state media outlets have started to report on the incident, largely citing an official announcement, online censorship remains.

The fire, which erupted at the ChangFeng hospital in Beijing's Fengtai District, has left 29 people dead as of Wednesday. The local fire department, in an announcement distributed by state media outlets, said they received a call about the fire at around 1 p.m. local time Tuesday.

Video on social media showed smoke billowing out of hospital windows as patients and health care workers tied bedsheets together to escape.

Yet those videos and related discussions were quickly deleted on all Chinese social media platforms. State-owned media outlets such as CCTV and People's Daily did not start reporting on the event until close to 9 p.m. local time.

Angry relatives and internet users went on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and criticized China's level of information control.

Quotes from the social media site Weibo concerning a fire at a Beijing hospital April 19, 2023.
Quotes from the social media site Weibo concerning a fire at a Beijing hospital April 19, 2023.

"So many deaths but couldn't get on hot topic chart. RIP," wrote one user who goes by the name "Hugging Kitty."

A hot topic chart lists the trending topics on Weibo.

"Not even a hot topic (about it). Keep hiding it," wrote another person with the screen name "Wonton Fifty."

"Our (internet fire) wall is a protection or a cover?" asked a person with the screen name "99Aqu."

"Lives are cheap in their eyes, we have to take care of ourselves even more," wrote user "You don't know Sam."

Some internet users wrote they were first informed of the fire by foreign media outlets instead of Chinese ones.

"Laughable to the extreme. … Heard about this from CNN," one said.

A dozen detained

During a news briefing on the fire a day later, Li Zongrong, deputy head of the Fengtai District in Beijing, said that among the 29 killed, 26 were patients at the hospital. A nurse, a medical assistant and a family member were also among the dead.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Li said the fire may have been caused by welding sparks from work being done in the hospital's inpatient wing. Twelve people have been detained, including the hospital president and her deputy.

Relatives of the patients at ChangFeng hospital voiced anger with the facility's management of the crisis.

Family members told local media they didn't learn about the fire until they saw it on TV later that night and rushed to the hospital to locate their loved ones. They added they had not received any notification from the hospital about the fire on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the two hashtags related to the incident on Weibo were censored to varying degrees. According to data released by Weibo, interest in topics about the fire peaked between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. local time Tuesday and then plummeted.

Scant information

Meanwhile, searches on Weibo for information about the fire brought up only reports from official accounts.

Hu Xijin, former editor in chief at the state-backed media outlet Global Times, said in a later-deleted post that "there's very little information about the fire, I don't think this is how it should be."

According to online screenshots, ChangFeng hospital, where the fire happened, posted an article on WeChat less than two months ago about how the leadership and staff held a meeting and ran inspections to ensure fire safety.

The article has since been deleted.

One social media user summarized what has happened so far: "First they block information, second they delete all traces, third they extinguish the fire and rescue people, fourth they remove hot topics."

The last time a deadly fire like this drew much national attention was a blaze in Xinjiang that led to demonstrations across China and the U.S., with protesters holding white or blank sheets of paper.

The internet users say nothing seems to have changed. Still, only official narratives are allowed.

"The last fire gave us a lesson, so does this one," wrote a Weibo blogger. "Disaster may only appear in official announcements, and only one narrative is allowed. From this perspective, the fire will burn forever, until we switch our role from a lucky survivor to one of the death toll numbers."

Most of the online comments quoted in this report have been deleted as online censorship on the fire continues.