Beijing’s Deadliest Fire In Two Decades Went Unreported For Hours—A Reckoning With Censorship Followed

The suppression of news about a Beijing hospital fire that killed 29 last week has inspired vigorous discussion of censorship on the Chinese internet. Just after noon on Tuesday, April 18, a fire broke out in southwestern Beijing’s Changfeng Hospital. The first report on the fire was published at approximately 8:40 p.m. by the Beijing Daily, an outlet controlled by the Beijing municipal branch of the Communist Party. For eight hours, the capital’s deadliest fire in two decades was subject to a near-total news and social media blackout. Some of the victims’ families first learned of the fire through the Beijing Daily report, having received no indication from the hospital that anything was amiss. The initial news embargo was followed by a brief relaxation of discourse controls and a subsequent flood of anger and grief online. A number of essayists used the brief opening to pen criticisms of government speech controls and assert citizens’ right to know what is going on in their own city—many of these essays were soon censored. CDT has archived a number of the censored essays, portions of which are translated below. A censored essay published to the WeChat public account @燕梳楼 posed three questions about censorship, the delayed notification of families, and the death toll

Question One: Why did the news come out so late?

[…] It’s absolutely remarkable that [no news about the fire appeared online] in this highly-connected internet age. Even Hu Xijin couldn’t resist complaining about it. “This is a first in the history of the news,” he wrote. If Hu Xijin is disgusted by something, it’s usually some event too big to be covered up.

Question Two: Why were family members notified so late?

[…] [The families of the victims] never received a single phone call from the hospital. Instead, they were the ones frantically calling the hospital, doctors, and nurses, but nobody would tell them anything. When they rushed to the hospital themselves, they were met with the curt statement: “Register first, there’ll be an opportunity to ask questions later.”

[…] I must ask: if the families hadn’t found [their loved ones] themselves, when were you planning on telling them? Were you going to go on acting as if nothing had happened?

Question Three: Did only 29 people die?

[…] On the first night, the official report said that 21 people had died. On Weibo, one post said, “The death toll won’t pass 29.” Lo and behold, at today’s press conference they announced 29 deaths. 

What sort of trick is this? The death toll for the [2020] Shanxi restaurant collapse and other similar incidents is always 29, hence the public’s sensitivity to that number.

When dealing with and determining the nature of accidents, if the death toll is between 10-29, it’s classified as a “major fatality incident.” If the death toll is more than 30, it’s classified as a “particularly major fatality incident,” which requires more stringent handling and follow-up investigations. [Chinese]

The day after the fire, Beijing officials held a press conference providing more information on the blaze. Chinese authorities believe the fire was started by accident during construction work. Twelve people, including the hospital’s director and vice-director, as well as the person responsible for the construction work, have been arrested in connection with the official investigation. Early reports indicate that many of the victims were disabled elderly patients receiving long-term care, a service the hospital had recently begun offering in partnership with a Shanghai care provider. The official press conference left many questions unanswered. A censored WeChat essay from @基本常识 [“Common Sense,” in English], “Five Truths the Press Conference Didn’t Tell You,” asked why so many died from a “normal” accidental fire and intimated that the number of patients from outside Beijing who died in the fire might be a sign of corruption at the hospital. Another censored WeChat essay lamented the state of the media in the “New Era,” perhaps a reference to the Party’s oft-repeated description of Xi Jinping’s governance

It’s perplexing that there was no news of a fire that killed 21 people [Editor’s note: initial reports only reported 21 dead] in a populous city like Beijing before the official report came out. Only after reading the official report and searching online did I see that one video platform had posted a report, “People sit on air conditioners to escape fire at Beijing Changfeng Hospital,” on the fire an hour before the official report was published. Yet when I went to watch it, I saw it had already been “404-ed” [“404” is Chinese internet slang for “censored.”]

Such questions are the professional responsibility of journalists, whose job it is “to ask questions.” Unfortunately, “there are only official statements, there is no news. It seems that nobody knows what happened.”

On WeChat moments, an old media hand long-rendered obsolete by the times wrote: “Only after eight hours did they let us see the news.  Full government-media integration strides proudly into the New Era.”

This comment left a lot of people frustrated and disappointed, but its truth is indisputable. For quite some time, the news has not been a place for “the weak to find succor, and the tragic to find a way forward.” [Chinese]

In 2016, Xi Jinping famously visited the three major state-run media outlets in Beijing (People’s Daily, Xinhua, and CCTV), and instructed them: “The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name.”

On Weibo, there was widespread anger over the media’s docility. The following are a selection of translated Weibo comments originally archived by CDT Chinese

白昼的火树银花:The tell-tale sign of state-controlled media.

散似秋云无去处:Freedom of the press is a barometer of how civilized a society is.

回不去了呀:Repost and then take a screenshot to preserve this! Right now, all “unharmonious” notes are being throttled—and I’m not talking about The Musical Singer.

赤楚卫一心一意:Well-behaved and obedient mouthpieces.

因沒講出來:”News” only comes from mouthpieces, and “truth” only appears as white text against a blue background [a reference to the color scheme often used for government press releases]. We’re living in a world that massively deceives us, yet somehow there are still people who are happy with this, who think it’s good enough. [Chinese]

For the Singaporean outlet The Straits Times, Elizabeth Law reported on how the Chinese government was able to censor all mention of the fire on social media in the first place

“The direction of censorship on search platforms, including social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin, seems to be to, instead of blocking all results for a query, selectively show results from authorized sources so that the presence of censorship is less obvious,” said Mr Jeffrey Knockel, a senior research associate specializing in censorship at The Citizen Lab under the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

[…] At a popular social media and e-commerce platform with hundreds of millions of active monthly users, thousands of moderators review content flagged by the algorithm, said a government relations executive who asked not to be named.

“Sometimes there are instructions in the form of a list of ‘forbidden words’, depending on the climate at the time, but mostly it’s companies having to figure out what is allowed and what isn’t,” she said. 

In the case of the recent hospital fire, content from a certain geographical area had possibly been banned from getting uploaded, or certain keywords were blocked until a predetermined time, the executive added. [Source]

On WeChat, journalists and editors lamented the censorship. One Beijing newspaper editor wrote, “The most terrifying thing is not the death of 29 people, but eight hours of silence.” In an uncensored essay, journalist Zhang Suozhang wrote in a sarcastic devil-may-care tone: “What’re you still paying attention to that fire for, huh? Get yourself to Zibo for some barbeque and join in with the revelers!” The passage is a dig at the media’s incessant reporting on Zibo’s barbecue cuisine, which has turned the Shandong city into a viral travel destination. The dominant tone of online discussion about the fire was one of mourning for the victims and reflection on the state of Chinese society. A censored essay originally posted to the WeChat account @张3丰的世界 finished by paraphrasing lyrics from the 1997 rock song “Good Night, Beijing”: “Those muddled desperate cries call out to society for salvation—are you not moved? Their wait is a portrait of our fate. Good night, Beijing. Good night, all those waiting for news.”


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