The government of Baishan, a prefecture-level city in northeast China’s Jilin province, rushed to issue an apology last Friday after local residents complained of being tear-gassed.

According to local cadres, large amounts of mace and other irritating gases were blown over the city after a change in the wind direction. The noxious gases may have come from a military drill on the outskirts of the city.

The Baishan government’s statement only noted that the incident occurred during an annual military exercise, without elaborating further.

Photos released online show the pneumology department at a local hospital in Baishan packed with patients.

“We inhaled very pungent gas, and my nose and throat itched for days, but no one bothered to tell us what happened. Not too many believe it was just because of a military drill,” complained a local resident.

Baishan’s public security bureau said on Saturday that the discomfort would wear off after the fumes left the affected area, and advised residents to seek medical attention when symptoms persisted.

Some netizens suspected the drill was conducted to deal with possible border emergencies, as Baishan shares a sinuous border with North Korea’s Ryanggang province.

It is believed border cities in Jilin and Liaoning provinces have long been preparing to deal with the potential impact of North Korean refugees crossing the border in droves. Tear gas is widely used by police forces and armies across the world for crowd control and quashing protests.

There were also unconfirmed rumors that North Korean border troops had fired tens of thousands of canisters of tear gas along the Yalu River that marks the border between the two nations.

Residents of Baishan are unlikely to ever know exactly what happened, and local censors have been ordered to pull online message posts and block discussions of the tear gas incident.

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Baishan in Jilin is one of the several Chinese cities that border North Korea. Photo: Google Maps

In the past few years the lives of residents in the two northeastern provinces have been filled with mounting apprehension due to Pyongyang’s frequent missile launches and nuclear tests.

To considerable consternation, the Jilin Daily last December ran a full page of tips on how to stay safe during a nuclear attack. The newspaper ran the feature a little over a month after the Kim Jong Un regime claimed the successful detonation of the nation’s first H-bomb.

Unusual reports also surfaced in state-sanctioned media indicating that Beijing would consider military intervention in North Korea if radiation from its nuclear test site seeped across the border. Following reports that the site was facing landfalls and collapses, the entrances to the site were blown up by North Korean authorities earlier this year in front of the cameras of international journalists.

Jilin and Liaoning residents heaved a sigh of relief at the thaw in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang following Kim Jong Un’s three trips to Beijing in only three months. Xi Jinping is tipped to pay a reciprocal visit to further prop up ties during Pyongyang’s National Day celebrations in September.

Meanwhile, border patrols on both sides have reportedly been tightened again since early August.