Five dead, nine injured in fire in Beijing migrant worker housing

Blaze occurs despite evictions and safety campaign in unapproved housing

Locals sit near the site of a fire in Beijing’s Baiqiangzi village, which is mainly inhabited by migrant workers, in Beijing on Wednesday. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Locals sit near the site of a fire in Beijing’s Baiqiangzi village, which is mainly inhabited by migrant workers, in Beijing on Wednesday. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

 

Five people died and nine were injured after a fire broke out in a house in a migrant worker neighbourhood of Beijing, weeks after authorities started to demolish buildings following a previous blaze.

The fire in a village house in Shibalidian township in the capital’s Chaoyang district started at 1.18am, and was caused by flames from two electric bicycles, the fire department said. Electric bikes are the cheap form of transport preferred by the city’s legions of migrant workers.

Police had detained the owner of the house, which was self-built and being rented out, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Cai Qi, who is head of the Beijing Communist Party and a close ally of President Xi Jinping, and acting mayor Chen Jining, inspected the fire scene and visited the injured in hospital, Xinhua said.

“The city officials urged a thorough safety overhaul of illegally operated business venues and houses leased for group tenants in Beijing. Owners of the properties should be held responsible for the house safety,” Xinhua reported.

There have been protests this week by Beijingers against the forced evictions of migrant workers from unapproved housing in the capital, particularly as there are sub-zero temperatures in the city.

Authorities say that they are knocking down the houses for safety reasons as part of a 40-day campaign aimed at improving fire safety. A blaze on November 18th killed 19 people in the Daxing textile-manufacturing sector of city, and was blamed on faulty wiring.

However, the pace at which the evictions are taking place has shocked many people, also because it affects the migrant workers who have come to the city and have no way of finding alternative accommodation.

‘Low-end’

The government’s use of the phrase “low-end” or “bottom-tier” population to describe the migrants affected has stirred the city’s middle-class.

In an effort to shore up anger about the evictions, Mr Cai has publicly declared the city’s “due respect and gratitude” for the contribution made by migrant workers, saying that the city of 22 million cannot function without the tens of thousands of sanitation workers, couriers, caterers and carers.

Normally news of such accidents is censored, but in the past few cases there have been widespread reports on state media as the government tries to communicate its message that the evictions and demolitions are part of efforts to make the capital a safer environment.

Critics, however, say that evictions showed a lack of tolerance and are merely an excuse for gentrification.

Baiqiangzi, the village where the fire happened, is typical of the kind of settlements that have sprung up around the city to house the migrant workers who come to Beijing to work, a hotpotch of jerry-built shacks near a furniture warehouse.

It’s thought that poisonous fumes from the fire may have contributed to the deaths.