Two deadly school fires in China within the last week have led to a surge of online criticism of inadequate fire safety measures, as well as complaints about online censorship, government callousness, and a dearth of media coverage. This increasingly familiar combination—a fire, a high death toll, unsatisfying official explanations, and media passivity—has been seen in a number of conflagrations over the past few years.
In November 2022, at the height of China’s “zero-COVID” policy, at least 10 people died and nine were injured when a blaze ripped through a predominantly Uyghur residential building in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Because the building had been placed under lockdown, firefighting and rescue attempts were delayed by hours, and many residents found themselves trapped in the burning building. The Urumqi fire touched off nationwide demonstrations against China’s draconian “zero-COVID” measures and repressive government policies, and culminated in the 2022 “White Paper Protests.” 2023 saw two particularly deadly fires: the Changfeng Hospital blaze in Beijing that killed at least 29 patients, yet went unreported for hours, and a November 2023 fire at a coal mine company office in Shanxi province that killed 26 people and injured 38.
The same pattern seems to be playing out in the two fires that occurred this week. The first blaze broke out on January 19 at Yingcai School, an elementary-level boarding school in rural Fangcheng county, Henan province, and resulted in the deaths of 13 third-grade boys as they slept in their dormitory. The second fire broke out on January 24 in a building in Xinyu city, Jiangxi province, killing 39 people and injuring 9, with some people reportedly still missing or trapped. The building housed a street-level shop, a basement internet cafe, and a vocational training school.
Initial online reactions to the Henan dormitory fire expressed sorrow over the loss of 13 young lives, and frustration at government and media silence on the details and cause of the fire. A hashtag about the fire and its death toll briefly appeared on Weibo’s hot search list, but was quickly removed, and discussions about the fire by Weibo users were censored. Also censored was a Weibo post by Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan, who excoriated Henan’s media outlets for not even bothering to republish the Henan Fire Department’s official notice about the fire, much less conduct interviews or on-site investigations. “This is a step beyond mere censorship,” Lao wrote. “It must be a conscious choice, born of internalized habit.” WeChat current affairs blogger “Princess Minmin” wrote about searching the official WeChat accounts of three large provincial media outlets—Henan’s Dahe Daily, Henan Daily, and Henan TV—and being shocked to find not a single news item about the dormitory fire.
CDT Chinese editors compiled many Weibo comments critical of the media silence about the fire (and about some other fires that preceded it). A selection of these comments are translated below:
@海大的我渡摆: If we fail to reflect on the Urumqi fire, such tragedies will only repeat themselves, and in the end, the victims will be faulted for their inability to rescue themselves and those in power will evade responsibility.
@彦小奚_：Thirteen lives don’t even merit a hashtag.
@山后没相逢_：Human life is worthless, news reporting is dead, and now all that’s left are official notices and propaganda.
@sundayliu: Such a major accident didn’t even make the “hot search” list—the invisible hand behind that is really scary. They’ve still got kids singing about being the “Successors of Communism,” but to them, we’re all just slaves whose lives are worthless.
@全球证券市场: Thirteen lives lost, and they’re not even considered worthy of appearing in the top three “hot search” topics. Not a single media outlet in Henan reported it. The Henan Fire Department had no comment but for a coldly impersonal official notice. No further investigation was announced, no apology issued. Such callousness about the loss of human life is despicable. [Chinese]
On January 23, when Fangcheng County released the results of a preliminary investigation into the fire, its statement seemed to raise more questions than it answered. WeChat bloggers Wei Chunliang and Xiang Dongliang, both of whom write prolifically about current affairs, raised a number of similar questions about puzzling inconsistencies in the official statement. Wei Chunliang noted that despite some headlines claiming that Henan authorities had “released details” about the fire and that seven people had been detained by police in connection with the blaze, there was no detail in the statement about the cause of the fire, nor any explanation about why some students died while others managed to escape. Since firefighters reported that they found the 13 students who perished still lying on their respective beds, Wei wondered if perhaps those students had been incapacitated beforehand somehow, and unable to escape. In a post that described the circumstances of the boys’ deaths as “fishy,” Xiang Dongliang questioned the veracity of the official statement, particularly the claims that the dormitory door was “always open” and that a head teacher lived in the dormitory.
Shen Maohua, a journalist and book reviewer who blogs as “Wei Zhou,” published a WeChat post about the need for stringent accountability to prevent future tragic fires. “For those 13 families, the sky has fallen,” he wrote. “What they need from us now is not cheap sentimental sighs, but strict accountability and deep reflection. […] If this time, we can truly reflect [on the mistakes that were made], then the deaths of those 13 children will not be completely meaningless.”