At least five are dead and 38 injured after a Jeep crashed and caught fire in Tiananmen Square, in front of the Mao Zedong portrait that hangs over one of China’s most sensitive areas.
Images and video posted online showed flames leaping out of the vehicle, followed by black smoke rising into the sky. Those nearby reported ambulances and fire trucks rushing to the scene, which was later guarded by numerous police. Two nearby subway stops and an important central Beijing road were closed, but quickly reopened.
Initial reports from official media said three people died inside the Jeep, which crashed into the guardrail of a bridge leading to the Forbidden City. The death toll was raised Monday evening, with state media saying two tourists died, including a woman from the Philippines and a man from China’s Guangdong province. The injured included one Japanese and three Filipino tourists.
An official with the Canadian embassy in Beijing said it appeared no Canadians were involved in the incident, which took place at a spot normally jammed with tourists.
Two AFP journalists were temporarily detained at the scene. Pictures were deleted from their cameras, the news agency reported. A BBC news team was also briefly detained.
AFP reported an eyewitness who said, “I saw a car turn a bend and suddenly it was driving on the pavement, it happened fast but looked like it knocked people over.”
The extreme sensitivity around the crash was apparent online, where censors quickly moved to suppress discussion. Twitter user William Farris, who describes himself as a lawyer working for an Internet company in Beijing, said authorities had purged a series of terms when linked with Tiananmen, including “car accident,” “explosion,” catch fire” and “surprise attack.”
On Chinese social media, it appeared even journalists at state-owned outlets were struggling to report the events, with posts from newspapers like Beijing Times deleted soon after posting. Photos and video were also expunged.
The crash, which happened just after noon Beijing time, brought a flurry of attention, given Tiananmen’s role as a staging ground for anti-government activity – most notably the 1989 student protests that resulted in the massacre of several hundred people by government troops.
On Monday evening, it remained unclear whether the fire was the result of an accident or deliberate protest. On social media, some speculated that it could be related to terrorism or Tibetan protests. Iona Liddell, the London-based executive director of the Tibet Justice Centre, told the Globe and Mail she had no immediate information that would link the crash to Tibet.
“Obviously it’s within the context of tensions in Tibet that are running quite high in the runup to the big meeting in November,” when China’s Communist party holds a major plenum that is expected to produce substantial economic reforms, although few political changes.
China routinely installs fire extinguishers around Tiananmen Square as a counter to the threat of self-immolation from Tibetan protesters. Since 2009, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as a call for freedom for their people and the return of the Dalia Lama.
Their deaths have done nothing to alter the Chinese posture toward Tibet. Last Wednesday, China issued a “white paper” that made clear its unwillingness to bend on policies it called “correct.” It described pre-1950s Tibet – prior to Mao’s ascension to power – as “dark and backward as medieval Europe,” and argued that Tibetan culture has been well maintained. It called Tibetans “happy and healthy.”
Earlier this year, China’s state media took an aggressive turn to denouncing the self-immolations, which the Global Times called a “plot being hatched by the Dalai Lama group, which deliberately creates an atmosphere of terror.”
Tibet received no mention in official Chinese media reporting on the Monday fire. The Xinhua news agency, in a brief report, said “the relevant information remains under further investigation.”