A fire in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province killed 39 people and injured nine more on Wednesday, January 24. It was the second deadly blaze to claim student lives in a single week: a fire in an elementary school in Henan killed 13 third-graders last Friday. A marked dearth of reporting—and heavy censorship of popular discourse—on the Henan fire provoked mass ire online. Discourse on the Xinyu blaze focused on the meaninglessness of official calls for enhanced fire safety checks and the tough lives of college students at the margins of China’s education system. At CNN, Nectar Gan reported on the Xinyu fire:
Most of the victims trapped by flames and thick billowing smoke were college students taking classes at the center and people staying at the guesthouse, Xinhua said.
A preliminary investigation found the blaze was caused during an improper renovation of a cold storage facility in the basement, state-run news agency Xinhua reported. Twelve people have been detained, the agency said.
[….] Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued a statement about the fire, noting it was yet another major safety tragedy to have occurred recently and calling for “deep reflections.”
Xi urged all government authorities to “learn lessons deeply,” “carefully investigate hidden risks and dangers” in production safety and “resolutely curb the frequent occurrence of various safety accidents to ensure the safety of people’s lives and property and overall social stability,” according to Xinhua. [Source]
Many of the deceased were students pursuing associate degrees who had enrolled in an after-school training course in preparation for a test that would allow them to transfer into four-year bachelor’s programs. Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the Party-controlled China Youth Daily, interviewed “associate-to-bachelors” (专升本 zhuānshēngběn) students enrolled in the class who had lost friends in the fire. The students reported that the windows of the classroom were sealed shut and that the door into the room was narrow and often shut. Other reporting from investigative outlets confirmed dangerous classroom conditions caused by haphazard construction, and quoted an employee of a hospital in Xinyu saying that the majority of the deaths were attributable to smoke inhalation.
On WeChat, the writer Shen Maohua, who writes under the pen name “Wei Zhou,” wrote that official and public calls to tighten fire safety inspections were futile measures:
If standards are as strict as they claim, then there should be a plan for everything. So how could something like this happen?
The reason is simple. If standards are extremely strict, the bureau administering them naturally aggregates immense power. If you don’t have any pull in [the fire department], you can’t secure a fire safety certificate. They’ll give you the runaround for months and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. An entrepreneur once told me he’d fallen into this trap. Then, after a helpful tip, he purchased equipment from a fire department-designated company. He immediately “earned” a certificate.
[…] I’m not saying that all supervisory departments engage in rent-seeking behavior. I’m just pointing out that if there is not a transparent and open process governed by rule of law, “strict supervision” only leads to more rent-seeking opportunities for the powerful, and does nothing to prevent disasters from recurring.
[…] It creates a vicious cycle. When something bad happens, everyone calls for “stricter supervision.” The supervisory bureau not only avoids responsibility but is also bestowed with greater powers, which in turn causes it to become even more difficult to work with. Meanwhile, the original fire safety hazards are not addressed in any meaningful way. This goes on until the next disaster.
So why do these disasters keep recurring? You tell me. [Chinese]