Beijing Officials Raise Flood Death Toll

Facing mounting public criticism and a crisis of credibility over the city’s response to the weekend’s flooding, Beijing officials raised the death toll from 37 to 77 on Thursday evening. From The Wall Street Journal:

City workers are still carrying out search efforts, which have been impeded by mudslides that followed Saturday’s storm, the Beijing municipal government said in a statement posted to its official account on the Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo late Thursday night.

Of the 77 dead, the vast majority drowned, with five electrocuted and one struck by lightning, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, quoting Beijing flood-control spokesman Pan Anjun.

A further sharp increase in the death toll “is not likely” because the search is drawing to an end, Mr. Pan said, according to Xinhua, though he added “we will not give up searching just yet.”

Xinhua reports that a second storm bypassed Beijing on Wednesday and struck the nearby city of Tianjin instead, flooding roads and stopping air traffic. Angry bloggers have blasted Beijing’s response to the floods on a scale not seen since last summer’s Wenzhou high-speed rail disaster, according to The Financial Times, and The Los Angeles Times reports that online censors have scrambled to control the information flow as suspicious netizens have posted their own death toll figures. TIME’s Austin Ramzy explores the sensitivity with which official death toll statistics are guarded in China:

Experience with scrubbed numbers has left many in China wary of official statistics, particularly when they deal with human life. During the SARS epidemic mainland Chinese officials were slow to tell the outside world about the then-mysterious disease, which helped fan its global spread. When a handful of cases arrived in Beijing, the government said they were under control, even as the disease spread rapidly through the capital’s hospitals. It was not until a single doctor spoke out that it was revealed that the total cases were several times what the government had claimed.

In response to the Beijing floods volunteers have launched their own investigation into the death toll. A spreadsheet posted online now list the names of 26 dead and two missing. Based on reports of other dead it lists an unconfirmed total of 42. “Officials have been very eager to release numbers in terms of how much property is damaged, but people are asking, ‘If you’re so quick to say how many animals are dead, what about the humans?’” says Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “There is some disconnect by officials in the sense they don’t want to draw too much attention to Beijing. A larger number would show Beijing in a bad light.”

Dikötter says that in terms of scale, there is no comparison between recent disasters and the massive calamities in the Mao era like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But despite pledges of openness, the official instinct to tightly control information remains. “This is a very well rehearsed machine that’s been in place for some decades,” he says. “It can’t help itself. It wants to control information. That’s the default mode. Even if in some cases (the information) might not seem be all that shocking, that just what it does. It’s like brushing its teeth in the morning, that’s what you do. You don’t think about it too much.”

See also previous CDT coverage of the flooding in Beijing.