Public Anger Floods Beijing (Updated)

Last Saturday’s downpour engulfed Beijing in a serious flood, and the water-logged capital’s anxiety is surely mounting as more heavy rains are forecasted throughout the week. As the city deals with the aftermath of the largest rainstorm in 61 years, the Internet has proved to be a survey-ground for public reaction – while many netizens used Weibo to criticize the government’s lack of preparation and inability to deal with the disaster, the online environment also proved a useful venue for those in need, and those willing to help. One major point of contention, expressed both in the physical and digital worlds, deals with doubt over the official death toll released on Monday, which remains at 37. An article in yesterday’s China Daily emphasizes transparency in official government figures:

The city suffered the worst rain in six decades over Saturday and Sunday and many people have questioned the official death toll.

Wang Hui, director of the Information Office of Beijing Municipal Government, told a news conference they understood the importance of information transparency following the 2003 SARS cover up.

She added that the death toll had not risen because some bodies are yet to be identified.

According to their official micro blog early Tuesday evening, 1.9 million are affected by the rain, 77,325 have been relocated, and the government has allocated a 100 million yuan disaster relief fund. But it made no mention of casualty figures.

China Daily reports from today keep the death toll at 37, but accounts from the ground have suggested that this number may be a serious underestimation. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal quoted locals expressing their disbelief:

“The death toll is definitely higher [than 37],” said a man surnamed Li who was found standing by the side of the road in Shuangma Zhuang village next to a white sedan, its shape twisted by the waters. Mr. Li, who declined to provide his given name, said he was called to Shuangma Zhuang to identify the body of his older brother, who had been discovered inside the car when police pulled it out of the water on Monday afternoon.

As Mr. Li pointed to where police had sawed through the metal to remove his brother’s body, a friend standing nearby also cast doubt on the official number. “The government says 37 died. It’s probably more like 370,” he said.[…]

A McClatchy article published yesterday has more on doubt surrounding official numbers, the government’s tendency to distort data in the aftermath of disaster, and explains how modern communications technology has changed the nature of public discontent in China:

It took just one glance at a jumble of cars mired in the brown waters covering the G4 expressway late on Monday afternoon to cast doubt on Chinese government estimates that only 37 had died in flash flooding over the weekend.

“They must hide this,” said one old man who was hustled away from a perch overlooking the scene by uniformed police yelling that photography in the area needed prior consent. With plainclothes security milling around the area, he and other onlookers didn’t give their names.

The man said that he’d already heard how many were killed in Fangshan, a district roughly 20 miles southwest of downtown Beijing, after heavy rains on Saturday night: “More than 300.”

Another point of frustration, easily seen in Weibo activity, involves Beijing’s infrastructure and emergency preparedness – how could a modern city, one that “poured huge sums of money into the Olympics”, be so overwhelmed by and infrastructurally ill-equipped to deal with the recent storm? These types of questions were found not only in web chatter, but also in a Global Times op-ed released just after the storm. A more recent Global Times piece reports on angry reactions to a government sponsored relief fundraiser [zh] that many distrust or see as a means to distract from the municipal government’s inability to manage the flood:

Su Meng, 25, a resident of Chaoyang district, said that charity donations are not a solution to disaster relief efforts, and the government would be better off considering some of the factors that led to the disaster instead.

“It seems the government is using the fund to divert the public’s attention from questioning its responsibility about the destruction,” she said.

[…]”I don’t trust government-led charity drives because I’m not sure whether my donation will get to those who really need it,” she said.

Zhu Lijia, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said now is not the right time for Beijing government to launch the fund.

“Thirty-seven people died in the flood disaster. The first priority for the government is to hold someone accountable for the deaths,” said Zhu.

An article from CNN quotes residents of Beijing’s Fangshan district, the area hit hardest by the storm, on their outrage at officials’ poor planning and insufficient response to the flood:

“Our family of five lives off one income,” said the 46-year-old farmer Wednesday. “Nobody cares about us because there’s no official in this household.”

[…]One neighbor, Gao Liying, added that she feels even more shaken by the village officials’ response when she told them the flood has ruined almost all her worldly possessions.

“They actually said: ‘If your house didn’t collapse and nobody died, then you’re not a victim,'” she said, raising her voice. “I asked: are you still human?”

Villagers like Zhang and Gao blame local officials for their decision to cover a former waterway with concrete — thus turning it to a road and diminishing drainage capacity — and their failure to warn residents before the storm.

“It was more than a natural disaster,” Gao said. “The officials are responsible too.”

While the government continues to insist on the accuracy of their reporting and the methodical nature of their response, they also stress the “unprecedented” nature of the storm, a point that a Caixin English op-ed directly refutes:

This is not the first time Beijing has had an “unprecedented” rainstorm. On June 23, 2011, Beijing was also inundated. It was also a day as dark as night and traffic ground to a standstill. However, just one year later, the government is again using the term.

The city’s underground sewage system is directly responsible for the flooding. Within of Beijing, it seems that the Forbidden City still has the best drainage. For a system built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, with extra work done after 1949, it works effectively despite its 600-year age. No matter how heavy the rain, there is no flooding in the Forbidden City. I wonder if one should celebrate the wisdom of our ancestors or be ashamed of our own stupidity?

There was a wave of skepticism regarding the quality of Beijing’s drainage system in 2011. The Beijing Drainage Group admitted that only the drainage systems of the eastern and western sections of the city moat, Tiananmen Square and the Olympic Park are up for the challenge of once-in-a-decade rainfalls, while most other areas can fend off only the regular storms occurring every one to three years.

Li Chengpeng, a Chinese blogger known for his reflections on the disastrous Sichuan earthquake of 2008, posted his take on reactions to the flood, and what they say about civic awareness in China. While his blog was quickly deleted, chinaSmack has recorded and translated the post, along with a selection of comments.

Update: 07/26/2012 13:40 PST

State-owned media updated the official death toll today:

Also see Crazy Crab’s illustrated take on the disaster, and the rest of CDT’s coverage of the 2012 Beijing flood.