CDT Chinese has collected several essays and commentaries from across the Chinese internet grappling with the disasters inflicted by flooding in Henan. The essays, selections from which are translated below, deal with the Shakou Road Station subway tragedy, media arrests, official surveillance, declines in China’s press freedom, and the flood’s devastating aftermath. At least 302 people are confirmed to have died in floodwaters, mudslides, building collapses, and submerged basements, garages, and tunnels, according to officials, while 50 more remain missing. At least 14 of the victims died on Line 5 of the Zhengzhou subway, portions of which were totally submerged during the July 20 flood. Trapped passengers posted pleas for help on social media and posted harrowing videos of their subway cars filling with water. Although official media outlets initially asserted that everyone had been evacuated safely, grisly images of drowned victims laid out on the Shakou Road Station subway platform proliferated across social media. More remained missing. On July 21, the Weibo account @假装是个么得人发现的小号 (which reads “Pretending To Be a Little Account Nobody Has Discovered Yet” in English) began posting about her missing husband, who she said had been riding Line 5 home from work. In a post asking for others to look for him, she wrote: “He called me a bit after 6pm, telling me to call 911. I haven’t been able to reach him since.” Her search lasted six days, during which she was viciously attacked by both nationalists and fraudsters. Finally, on July 26, someone tipped her off that a subway-organized rescue team had recovered her husband’s corpse and then secretly shipped it directly to a morgue. On Weibo, she wrote about her husband, “John Doe,” and blamed the Zhengzhou Metro Group for his death:
Sha Tao’s been found. I found him in the morgue.
He was lying in a freezer, labelled “John Doe.”
No longer does he resemble the handsome young man he once was… Who would have imagined you’d be en route from work, just one stop from home, never to return again… As of today, I’ve lost my husband, my daughter has lost her father, and both sets of parents have lost a son…
The Zhengzhou Metro Group bears an inescapable responsibility for this accident. [Chinese]
Thousands had followed along with her search. After she found her husband, they shared their thoughts on his treatment:
臭兔屁：Perhaps one day, we will all be silently transformed into “John Does.” A message from a disconsolate yet enraged Zhengzhou native.
夏天的梓宁：@ZhengzhouMetro When you find a body and don’t know the name, you should publicize it in the media to allow relatives to quickly find the deceased. What were you thinking by secreting it away in a morgue?
爱yu一万年2020：In a word, human life isn’t as important as the Zhengzhou Metro leaderships’ careers.
木木杀手：They don’t even allow memorials or remembrances. [Chinese]
Zhengzhou citizens created an impromptu memorial to the Line 5 victims at the entrance of Shakou Road Station. They laid hundreds of white and yellow bouquets in front of the station. Police soon erected barriers around the entrance, which citizens tore down in the night. Police again placed barriers around the entrance, but citizens continued to place flowers. The process was a striking visual example of the real-time creation of “correct collective memory.”
— Far & Near Newsletter (@YuanjinPhoto) July 27, 2021
It was 头七（first 7th day after death), traditionally believed to be the day when the souls of the dead will return to bid farewell to the living, thus the memorial flowers and angry citizens who went ahead and torn down the walls erected by the government. pic.twitter.com/SXdwt5xY7V
— Xibai Xu (@xuxibai) July 27, 2021
The entire Zhengzhou subway network has remained closed over the past week. Victims’ families and netizens have accused railway authorities of a poor response that led to the fatalities. Also, questioning why the subway was allowed to operate in spite of the heavy rain / 2 pic.twitter.com/9WIxJT46oP
— Olivia Siong (@OliviaSiongCNA) July 28, 2021
This was the scene at the same Shakoulu subway station last Friday. We only spotted one bouquet then. Zhengzhou residents are continuing to deal with the lingering emotional impact of the fatal floods one week on / 4 pic.twitter.com/hSMecTWNU8
— Olivia Siong (@OliviaSiongCNA) July 28, 2021
Two reporters, from Caixin and Southern Metropolis, were arrested after photographing the spontaneous memorial using drones. WeChat public account 喜欢吹壳子 wrote an essay reflecting on their detention and the moral imperative to grieve in order to foster social progress:
Expressing grief for the dead is a basic human emotion, common practice among all human civilizations. Why do the relevant organs so flagrantly prohibit it? Are your hearts not made of flesh? After your deaths, do you not want people to mourn you or remember you?
If only the relevant organs had used the same thoughtfulness and effort to build dikes to prevent the flood, people wouldn’t be flocking to the subway entrance to lay flowers in memoriam because those innocent lives would not have been lost..
The behavior of the Zhengzhou Police is even more inexplicable. What right do police have to interfere so flagrantly with freedom of the press? Who gave you the right?
Thank you to those two brave reporters, Chen Chong and Chen Jiang, for giving us such precious, stirring photographs. This scene not only moved a nation to tears, but also touched a nerve. This photo will certainly go down in the history books.
Even more than thanks, we must pay attention to the treatment those two brave reporters were subjected to. Paying attention to them is to pay attention to ourselves.
Only speaking out—bravely issuing a call to arms—can foster social progress. Apathy and indifference will only accelerate society’s decline. In the end, we all may be reduced to victims. [Chinese]
Public grief can be perilous, as demonstrated by the reporters’ arrests. In a now censored essay, WeChat public account 郭包肉 wrote about Zhengzhou’s mysterious men in black, who have seemingly sprouted up everywhere after the rains to incite crowds, record mourners, and arrest those documenting the disaster:
The men in black surround a reporter for Deutsche Welle
The men in black outside of Shakou Road Station
As the men in black arrest a drone operator, a man in a white tank top shouts, ‘Why can’t he film here? Why can’t the public be told the truth?’”
Since the advent of the Zhengzhou disaster, men in black have been spotted everywhere. It’s as if they’ve got every corner of this gigantic city covered. Sometimes, they organize a crowd to surround and watch, and then whip the crowd into an uproar. Other times, they’re patrolling everywhere, always on the move, filming and taking notes. Or they take direct action, arresting people and swiftly whisking them away. Most of the time, they just lurk in the crowd, but don’t help with the rescue efforts or make any meaningful contributions. They’re well-built, modestly dressed, impassive and silent. They look no different from anyone else on the street. Only when they take action can people easily guess their true identities.
These mysterious men in black are not unique to Henan, nor are they a recent phenomenon.
郭包肉 still believes that China is a country with the rule of law, not a police state in the mold of the former USSR or East Germany. Since Reform and Opening, our nation’s great accomplishments in building a socialist rule of law have earned the world’s approbation. 郭包肉 feels extremely blessed and proud to live in the world’s safest country.
“Proud to be born in China in this life, keen to be reborn here in the next.” That is 郭包肉’s heart’s desire. [Chinese]
“Save me! Save me!” – What happened to a student when he tried to use a drone to take photos in Zhengzhou. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry said the BBC “inverted right and wrong” with its statement criticising reporting conditions in the city. https://t.co/T6DebBerDs
— Matt Knight (@MattCKnight) August 3, 2021
Overt intimidation and a tightly regulated media atmosphere have led to markedly less robust coverage of the flooding this time than in the past. Eagle-eyed WeChat public account 八米外 noted how, after a 2005 Henan flood, state media challenged the use of the phrase “Once in a thousand years”—rolled out by authorities to diminish their responsibility for ostensibly unprecedented rainfall—as unscientific. They lauded the moral backbone of China’s press in the pre-Xi Jinping era and lamented the current stigmatization of the press:
It must be admitted that putting forth such doubts did not require much bravery but was rather a natural byproduct of the relaxed atmosphere of the times. Even 16 years later, such penetrating questions and incisive commentary still show us the moral backbone of that era’s media.
How should that moral backbone be described? I personally believe that sort of backbone comes from media workers’ persistent faith in their righteousness. They always believe—no matter what the reason—that there must always be a space for reasonable debate. That the more reason is interrogated, the clearer it becomes. Stigmatizing the media only serves to make things worse.
If we aspire to a well-informed public, then the media must do all it can to tell us the truth and, in doing so, transfer the powers of discretion and judgement to the public. The media should not only report objectively but also comment with an eye towards moral precepts. These precepts are not complex: treasure the lives of others and respect their dignity. Furthermore, every report should be imbued with truth and in accordance with the heart-held values of the majority. Make those values surpass narrow self-interests and so transcend the boundaries of time.
It’s clear to see, the media of that era was responsible and had strength of character. Their blood ran hot. Their hearts were full of pride and enthusiasm. [Chinese]
For many, the grieving has yet to begin. One essay captured by CDT Chinese shared stories of families facing financial ruin. One family’s fish pond, their primary source of income, was washed out by the rain. A hotelier who lent rooms in one of his hotels to impacted families free of charge lost his other six hotels to the flood waters. A young liquor store owner broke down in the street after discovering that the flood had swept away 20,000 bottles of her Baijiu: “My shop’s gone. My home’s gone. Everything’s gone.” A beekeeper lost 70 hives and said, “I’ve still got to pay for my child’s school fees. I want to cry but what would that do.” The flood swept away farmers’ fields, leaving them with no harvest and no income. These alternative reports of the floods’ impact belie the cutesy face authorities put on the disaster and censorship directives ordering the media to focus on post-disaster recovery rather than present hardship. WeChat public account 艺术墙 wrote about their visit to the Xinxiang, a prefectural city near Zhengzhou that remains partially flooded, to document the ongoing crisis in Henan:
On July 24, they hosted an online conference to discuss whether or not to go to Henan to donate supplies. Despite the majority’s dissent, I decided to go.
Why go directly? Because internet information is severely distorted. Why is it severely distorted? Think about it. Whenever an object is put under high pressure, it becomes distorted. This is basic physics.
Why not donate directly to the Red Cross? “You understand” the reason.
The news at the time was that Zhengzhou was already fine, the real disaster was in Xinxiang.
That’s when I encountered the first rumor: “Xinxiang is under military control. Outside aid can’t get in unless it has government approval.” Even the rescue team believed the rumor. The staffers at the rescue center couldn’t’ confirm whether entrance to Xinxiang was permitted or not.
In fact, after entering we basically didn’t see any military. The disaster area is so large, and there are only a few thousand young soldiers, so they’re mostly concentrated around a ferry crossing on the upper reaches of the river. There are a number of grassroots rescue teams, a couple for every village.
On the 24th, we spent the day in Beijing buying supplies. We set out on the 25th. That’s when we ran into the second wave of “fake news”: “The Xinxiang disaster is already over.” All the headlines from major media were about the Tokyo Olympics. Pay attention. Who is our mainstream media speaking for? [Chinese]
The post continues with an eye-witness account of the disaster zone, which suffers from an acute lack of necessary supplies:
Rescue teams’ daily mission is to move people from flooded villages to government relief camps. They are very ineffective: there are a few thousand people to a village (a high percentage of whom are elderly and children), there are not enough rafts, nor enough manpower. Rubber dinghies are in short supply, as are medicines.
The most surprising thing—something that could never be experienced on television—is the disaster zone’s smell and temperature. The air is humid and ripe with the fishy smell of decay. It’s easy to imagine how a flood zone is a hospitable environment for microorganisms. “After the disaster comes the plague,” is no longer an empty line from the textbooks. If the water in the disaster zone is accidentally ingested, the lucky ones simply vomit. Others get dysentery or cholera. Many of those who choked on the water need to go to a hospital for treatment. Furthermore, the rescue teams and those affected by the disaster are at risk of getting infected by blood flukes. [Chinese]