State Council Reports Henan Officials Covered Up Summer Flood Deaths

An investigation by China’s State Council has found that Henan officials covered up the death toll caused by severe flooding in July 2021. In August, local officials reported 302 confirmed deaths and 50 people still missing—the State Council’s tally puts the total number of dead and missing at 398, the majority of them in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. While the disaster was unfolding, local departments gave false reports to the central government, the State Council report said. Official acknowledgement of a government coverup is a rare occurrence. At The Wall Street Journal, Liyan Qi reported on the State Council’s report, continued dissatisfaction with official transparency, and the arrest of officials deemed responsible for the deaths:

The State Council didn’t make clear how many deaths or cases of missing people were reported for the first time on Friday, but said that officials in Zhengzhou, who were supposed to make daily reports of casualties, had at different stages either concealed or delayed reporting 139 cases of deaths and missing people, the statement said.

[…] One Zhengzhou resident, who had voiced doubts around the death toll, said on the Twitter-like Weibo platform after Friday’s news that the government should release names of the people missing or dead on social media. “Without the names, the numbers are just hollow numbers,” said the resident, who identified himself as a young man, in his post.

[…] Eight officials, including those in charge of the construction of the subway line and the highway tunnel, have been detained by the police, while another 89 officials are facing Communist Party disciplinary action, the State Council said. [Source]

Zhengzhou’s Party Secretary Xu Liyi was demoted for his failures in flood prevention, six months after the disaster. A source told The South China Morning Post, “Xu’s demotion is just the beginning. More heads will roll after the final verdict is announced.”

Cover-ups of the scale and death tolls of accidents and natural disasters are an endemic problem in China. In 2017, Professor Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University told CDT: “You have incentives to cover up and not get caught. That’s the option that a rational official is going to take. That still hasn’t been solved, really.” In this case, some officials used disaster relief funds to compensate the families of victims. Although it went unstated in the report, the compensation was likely a form of hush money.

Foreign journalists who attempted to report on the 2021 flooding were harassed after the Communist Youth League Weibo account directed residents to obstruct their work, and an official censorship directive ordered domestic media to avoid an “exaggeratedly sorrowful tone” in their coverage of the disaster. Shortly after the flooding, the Henan provincial government commissioned a facial recognition surveillance system to track journalists entering the province. Local residents who attempted to document the tragedy or gather in remembrance were also subject to harassment from “Zhengzhou’s mysterious men in black.” An impromptu memorial at the gate of a flooded subway station where 14 people drowned was barricaded by police. Posts critical of the disaster response or skeptical of the publicly released death tolls were heavily censored on Chinese social media at the time.

The rainstorm that triggered the flooding was truly historic. A weather historian told The New York Times that it was the heaviest hour of rainfall ever measured in a major metropolitan area. Yet official negligence played a part as well. Officials in Zhengzhou’s emergency management bureau failed to respond appropriately to five red alerts warning of heavy rain. The Guardian quoted this section of the State Council report, focusing on various deficiencies: “Although the disaster was triggered by extreme weather, many problems and deficiencies were exposed. The weaknesses also exist to varying degrees in many parts of the country, [the investigation] noted, urging close attention and solid deeds to rectify them.”

Poor city planning was also a culprit. Zhengzhou has fewer than 1,500 miles of storm sewer pipelines, half the norm for cities of a comparable size. During the floods, a number of people expressed skepticism over Zhengzhou’s much-vaunted status as a “sponge city” expressly designed to absorb rainfall: “Those corrupt officials are just like sponges, soaking in Maotai. If they hadn’t drunk tens of billions, wouldn’t the ‘sponge city’ be built by now?” Although the “sponge city” plan failed to avert the disaster, The Economist explained the concept of “sponge cities” and argued that the urban planning initiative likely did save lives during the flooding:

About one in ten Chinese people lived in cities in 1950. Now six in ten do. About 70% of those cities are in floodplains. “We overbuilt, and we built it wrong,” says Yu Kongjian, a landscape architect at Peking University. Mr Yu was among the first to urge that urban areas become “sponge cities”, meaning they must be capable of absorbing rain without creating floods. He drew inspiration from old Chinese irrigation systems, such as “mulberry fish ponds” that act as natural reservoirs. He estimates that urbanisation has resulted in a third of farmers’ ponds and half of all wetlands disappearing.

[…] Experts agree that Zhengzhou has not disproved the effectiveness of the sponge-city programme. They point out that the government had required sponge projects to cover only 20% of the city’s urban area by 2020. So it may be difficult to evaluate Zhengzhou’s efforts at least until 2030. Kong Feng of the China Agricultural University in Beijing says that more subterranean spaces need to be used to collect floodwater. For example, he suggests, the lowest levels of underground car parks could be adapted to serve as emergency reservoirs. Such a backup “may not be needed for ten years. But use it just once and it will be life-saving for the city,” says Mr Kong. He has been involved in China’s first nationwide survey of risk from natural disasters, which was launched last year.

[…] Many critics overlook the fact that in Zhengzhou, too, water levels fell more swiftly than they would otherwise have done, says Mr Kong (it may have helped that Zhengzhou’s flood-prevention efforts had also included the building or refurbishing of over 5,000 kilometres of drains). City officials recently called on Mr Yu and his team to help them make Zhengzhou more absorbent. [Source]


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