Authorities in the Chinese capital on Thursday detained a man who police said was slightly injured after setting off a small explosive device near the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
"There was an explosion at approximately 1.00 p.m. today on the street outside the South East corner of the Embassy compound," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement on its website, as images showing billowing smoke from a Beijing street began to be shared via social and mainstream media.
"According to the Embassy’s Regional Security Officer, there was one individual who detonated a bomb. Other than the bomber, no other people were injured and there was no damage to embassy property," it said.
Police detained a 26-year-old man identified only by his surname, Jiang, in connection with the incident, official media reported.
"A man sustained a hand injury when he detonated a 'firecracker-like device' in Beijing's Chaoyang district on Thursday afternoon," China's international broadcaster CGTN reported, citing a police statement.
Jiang, who hails from China's northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region "set off the explosive device at the crossroads of Tianze Road and Anjialou Road," it said, adding that no other injuries were reported.
The device was detonated close to the U.S. Embassy visa office, which was evacuated shortly afterwards but has since resumed operations, it said.
Clampdown on news
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the incident was an "individual public security case" that was promptly and properly dealt with by police.
"We heard an explosion, and then everyone started running ... because we didn't know what was happening," an eyewitness told reporters. "The whole area was cordoned off; some people were saying it was just a tire exploding, while others were saying it was a terrorist attack."
The authorities were quick to limit reporting and sharing of news relating to the incident, telling journalists to leave the area, and threatening one correspondent with the loss of her Chinese visa if she didn't comply.
A Beijing resident who gave only her surname Liu said that local residents would likely never know the full story about the incident.
"It's too fragmented, so we'll never get to piece it together, because there's too little to go on, and it's hard to analyze it when it's in fragments," she said. "But my conclusion is that this was a disgruntled citizen, because there are so many grievances that are never addressed in China."
She said some people with grievances against the government "will do anything in their power" to come into contact with foreign journalists and publicize their petitions against official wrongdoing.
"They want exposure; that's the sort of mentality they have," Liu said.
Call for attention
Rights activist Wu Tianli said the choice of location suggested that the main point of the explosion was to attract attention.
"Most government and [ruling Chinese Communist Party] buildings are guarded by police now, and there's basically no way to get close to any departments that are considered sensitive," Wu said. "If you want to try anything to make a fuss there, they will arrest you beforehand, and if you go somewhere else, it's not going to have much impact."
"The U.S. Embassy of course would have a huge impact in China."
Police also detained a woman after she shared video footage she shot of the immediate aftermath of the incident with journalists at the scene, according to Becky Davis, Beijing correspondent for Agence France-Presse, who posted video of the incident to Twitter.
"Have a taste of Chinese rule of law at Beijing US embassy explosion site!" Davis wrote. "A bystander ... kindly decided to share images and video - apparently passed to her by a friend - w a scrum of journalists via WeChat."
Davis' video showed a woman being bundled screaming into the back of a car by a man in a green shirt claiming to be a family member. "This is a family matter," he says, but the woman shouts: "I do not know that man. I didn’t do anything! I was just a bystander!"
Police asked by Davis about the incident later told her to leave the area, adding, "I have control over your visa," Davis wrote.
Back to normal
Crowds were still queueing outside the embassy after the explosion and traffic was moving as normal in an area of northeastern Beijing that is home to numerous embassies including those of France, India, and Israel, Reuters reported.
The Global Times newspaper, which has close links to Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said police also took away a woman who sprayed herself with gasoline in a suspected self-immolation attempt outside the embassy at around 11 a.m. on Thursday.
It was unclear whether the two incidents were linked.
Beijing rights activist Hu Jia said petitioners are a common site in Beijing's diplomatic quarter, where they hope that "going foreign" will lend some weight to their complaints.
"We can't rule out that this was done by someone on the lowest rungs of the social ladder," Hu said. "It's very likely that [the blast] was an isolated incident, expressive of someone's total despair, in the hope of getting some attention."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.