Another deadly blaze strikes Beijing, killing 5


—Photo by AFP

BEIJING: Five people died in an east Beijing fire on Wednesday, underscoring the challenges for the Chinese capital as it struggles to balance building safety with providing housing for its poor.

Local media reported that the residents of Chaoyang district died before dawn after electric bike batteries plugged into a home-rigged charging system caught fire and belched noxious fumes into a three-story apartment building.

The accident came a month after an inferno killed 19 in south Beijing’s Daxing district, prompting a controversial safety campaign that included the sudden eviction of thousands of migrant workers from unregulated slums.

A spate of deadly fires ? and the authorities’ response ? have generated an unusually intense debate in China about class, safety regulations and the Communist Party’s heavy-handed leadership.

Beijing officials argue the mass evictions are a precautionary measure to protect migrants and have razed vast tenements in a matter of weeks. But the campaign has drawn widespread condemnation on social media from laborers as well as China’s middle class, who say it is part of a longstanding government ploy to clear out the so-called “low-end population” and make the city upscale.

Hundreds of migrant workers held a rare protest on Sunday against what they said were “violent evictions,” while scores of academics and white-collar Beijingers have signed an open letter expressing sympathy for the laborers cast into the winter cold with just days’ notice.

Beijing Communist Party boss Cai Qi appeared to double down on his safety campaign on Wednesday as he visited the scene of the latest Chaoyang fire. The state-run Beijing News reported him saying the fire was a reminder that safety work must not be stopped “for a moment.”

Faced with popular criticism, the government launched a propaganda counter-offensive this week, with Cai going on a talking tour to visit delivery boys and sanitation workers and thank them for their “sweat and contributions to the capital’s prosperity.”

“We need to give these workers respect and show even more care and love for them,” he was quoted by the Beijing News as saying.

Authorities have tightly controlled domestic reporting on the fires, censored search results, and sought activists and artists who have shared videos of razed migrant worker villages on social media.

During a recent visit, police patrols blanketed the site of a razed Xinjian village in southern Beijing, shooing away any visitors seen taking photographs.—AP