Gas Leak Explosion in Yanjiao, Near Beijing, Kills Seven and Injures 27

At least seven people died and 27 were injured Wednesday when an explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a four-story building in Yanjiao, a town in Sanhe city, Hebei province. Yanjiao, located approximately 20 miles east of Beijing, is a satellite town or “bedroom community” of the nation’s capital. Each day, more than 300,000 of its working-age residents, drawn to Yanjiao for its more affordable housing prices, make the long commute to Beijing by bus. 

At Reuters, Liz Lee and Bernard Orr provided an early report describing the blast and immediate aftermath:

Videos on social media platform Weibo showed a large orange fireball over the site, followed by billows of grey smoke, and scenes of the destroyed frontage of buildings, mangled cars, with glass shards in the streets, and some objects still ablaze.

A suspected gas leak triggered the accident in a shop selling fried chicken in the town of Yanjiao, city emergency officials said in a statement, drawing rescuers, firefighters, health and other officials to the scene.

[…] China’s latest deadly gas explosion at an eatery comes after the government issued detailed guidelines last year on the use of gas appliances and cookers to avert safety risks.

Social media posters on Weibo said the explosion occurred near a cultural centre in the town. Construction of a metro line was taking place nearby, Chinese weekly the Economic Observer posted on its social media account.

City emergency authorities sent an investigation team, according to social media posts. [Source]

Local officials have announced an investigation into the cause of the blast. According to a now-deleted article by the Chinese-language Phoenix Weekly, the owner of the fried chicken restaurant said that they only used electricity, not gas. Some Yanjiao residents suspect that the gas leak may have been caused by construction on nearby Metro Line 22, which will connect Yanjiao and other cities in Hebei to Beijing’s subway system. The censored Phoenix Weekly article noted that local residents had been complaining for some time about subway construction work taking place late at night, electrical short-circuits caused by construction work, and subway entrances and exhaust vents being located too close to residential buildings. (Regulations specify that entrances and vents should be located at least 100 meters away from residential buildings.) 

As rescue crews toiled at the site of the explosion, black-uniformed police intent on “damage control” prevented journalists from state-media outlets China Central Television (CCTV) and China Media Group (CMG) from reporting at the scene. Newsweek’s John Feng reported on the interactions between police and journalists, and what television viewers saw at home:

The explosion was considered a national-level news event, but at least two state media journalists who sought to report from the scene found themselves stopped by uniformed officers, even as they remained outside the 1,600-foot safety zone.

It led to a rarely seen segment on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, which aired scenes of its reporter Yang Hailing being interrupted as she provided a live update.

In the video, police told her and her crew that the area was “too dangerous.” Yang told the news anchors back in the studio that authorities were “intervening.”

In another incident, award-winning journalist Xu Mengzhe of the state-owned radio and television broadcaster China Media Group shared a now-deleted social media post of her and her crew being surrounded by uniformed officers and pushed away from the scene.

The two incidents led to an equally rare intervention by the All-China Journalists Association, the membership of which is overseen by the Communist Party. In a statement on Wednesday, the group said journalists had “a right to report legitimately.” [Source]

City officials in Sanhe later issued a rare apology for impeding the journalists, as Josh Xiao, Jing Li, and Evelyn Yu reported for Bloomberg:

“Due to the front-line staff’s poor communication skills and rough and simplistic approaches, it has triggered a misunderstanding from media friends and questions from public opinion,” officials handling the disaster said in a statement on Thursday.

The government “immediately severely criticized the staff involved, and sent officers to express their apologies to the relevant journalist friends on several occasions.”

[…] The incident in Yanjiao has prompted some anger in China. The topic was one of the most read on the social media site Weibo on Thursday morning, attracting some 110 million views. “There are so many people that are closer to the site than the reporters but you only choose to persuade the reporters to leave,” one internet user said.

[…] “Journalists have the right to conduct legitimate interviews,” the All-China Journalists Association said in a statement. Local governments “should not simply and roughly obstruct media reporters from performing their normal duty in order to control public opinion.”

China is revising an emergency response law that could make independent reporting on disasters like the one on Wednesday more difficult. One of the changes would encourage journalists to rely on government press releases when covering any incidents. [Source

At AP, Simina Mistreanu contrasted the apology to state-media reporters with the government’s more typical treatment of non-state media and international journalists:

Foreign journalists are often harassed, manhandled or followed by plainclothes police while reporting in China, and their sources may be threatened, interrogated or detained.

Earlier in March, a Dutch journalist and a camera operator were detained while reporting on a protest outside an investment bank in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Authorities shoved the journalist to the ground and used umbrellas to block the camera.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a professional group in Beijing, regularly condemns such actions. However, the Foreign Ministry, which is the point of contact for foreign journalists in the country, has not in recent memory publicly acknowledged or apologized for the harassment.

For Chinese journalists, refusing to toe the official line may translate into imprisonment or being pushed out of the profession. China has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world — 44 in 2023, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. [Source]


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