This Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of floods in Henan on July 20, 2021, when historic levels of rainfall left almost 400 people dead and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Despite a January 2022 State Council report that chastised local officials for covering up the death toll, many residents were dismayed by the government resistance and censorship that met their attempts to publicly commemorate those who perished a year ago. The anniversary also coincided with a series of record-breaking extreme weather events across the country and around the world, bringing renewed attention to governments’ efforts to address climate change and citizens’ creative calls for greater climate intervention.
In Henan’s provincial capital of Zhengzhou, citizens were thwarted in their efforts to commemorate the hundreds of people who died or disappeared last year when flood waters inundated road tunnels and subway stations. Local residents reported that florists had received notices forbidding them from selling flowers to anyone intending to place them near metro stations where people had drowned, and that plainclothes police officers were forcibly removing such displays of bouquets. “Flowers are allowed to bloom, but not to be seen,” wrote one netizen. Other online reflections on the anniversary conveyed fury at official negligence and vowed to never forget the disaster. CDT Chinese recently archived a popular WeChat post about “Raincoat Dad,” who sat for hours outside a metro station waiting in vain for his deceased daughter, with a sign that read: “Niuniu, your dad is still waiting to take you home.”
Flowers are forbidden today in Zhengzhou on one year anniversary of the catastrophic flooding when unknown number of people were drowned in submerged subway trains and cars. https://t.co/Qfh8elpzVb
— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) July 21, 2022
In rural villages west of Zhengzhou, vestiges of the flood remain—waterlines are still visible on walls, and ruined water-logged furniture litters yards. But online, commemorations of the floods were muted or scrubbed. WeChat blocked several accounts that posted articles questioning who was responsible for the floods, and Weibo censored the hashtag “#One Year Anniversary of July 20th Torrential Rains in Zhengzhou, Henan Province# (#河南郑州720特大暴雨一周年#). Reacting to government censorship of flood videos shared online, one netizen wrote: “What can’t be seen online can only be kept in your heart. What sorrow cannot be expressed can only form an undercurrent, roiling beneath the surface.” CDT Chinese collected other netizen reactions to censorship of those attempting to pay tribute to the lives lost during the flood:
@修勾刷刷碗：The media shouldn’t remain silent, or prohibit people from commemorating the absurd and the grotesque: “Many people feel that repeatedly talking about suffering has no practical function, but I maintain that seeing, listening, speaking, and remembering are inherently meaningful. Society doesn’t suddenly change for the better because of orders from the high and mighty. We ordinary little people have our duty, too. A single spark can start a prairie fire. Rest in peace, and remember.”
@Eddie-crush：This sucks … it’s just rotten to the core. Some people don’t want you to remember, but there are others who will always remember.
@Jonathan翟：The media’s reaction makes me doubt whether there even were torrential rains on July 20, 2021!!! Forgetting is just as terrible as a natural disaster …
@啦啦啦啦我不想佛了：This “stability maintenance” is a low blow. Clearly this would be a good opportunity—through communal tributes, communal mourning, and communal commemoration—to sum up the lessons we have learned and to better plan for the future. A warmer, more sentimental atmosphere would give everyone a sense of unity and hope, and might even teach society important lessons about respect for life and fear of death. But to do this would be tantamount to actually admitting that mistakes were made, so …
@炫_迈_男：The Internet may only have a one-month memory, but the people will never forget! Good and evil will have their comeuppance or reward!
@千秋o_O：There are no media reports, no voices, no memorials, but this day last year remains vivid in my mind. How did we lose our right to mourn it? Is it because it was a man-made disaster? So now we don’t even have the right to commemorate it? What’s the point of deluding yourself and others?
@Rock5891：Heaven sees what humans do. Deleting photos cannot delete the public’s memory. History and suffering should never be forgotten. [Chinese]
The hashtag "One year anniversary of July 20 Zhengzhou super storm" is banned for violating "relevant laws, regulations and policies" by Weibo https://t.co/nMskwp2wfZ
— 杨涵 Han Yang (@polijunkie_aus) July 21, 2022
Meanwhile, new floods and extreme weather continue to wreak havoc in other regions. In late June, floods in Jiangxi and Guangdong damaged the homes of about one million people, as authorities issued the first red alert of the year, indicating the most severe level of weather warning. This week, a tornado killed one person and injured dozens more as it swept through 11 villages in Jiangsu. On Monday, The Guardian reported on deadly flash floods in Sichuan and Gansu:
In the south-western province of Sichuan, at least six people have died and another 12 are missing after torrential rain triggered flash floods, state-owned news outlet CGTN reported on Sunday.
About 1,300 people had been evacuated as of Saturday, the report said.
Meanwhile, in Longnan city in the north-western province of Gansu, another six deaths were reported and 3,000 people had been evacuated, state broadcaster CCTV said. Rainfall over 1½ days was as much as 98.9mm in the worst-affected areas, almost double the July average. [Source]
Accompanying these floods and tornadoes is a widespread, record-breaking heat wave. Liu Zhao, an assistant professor in the department of Earth System Science at Tsinghua University, described in Sixth Tone how heat waves in China are becoming hotter, longer, and more frequent:
For more than a month, much of China has been blanketed by extreme heat. From June 16 to July 9, local governments issued 1,372 high-temperature “code reds,” indicating temperatures are expected to rise above 40 degrees Celsius within 24 hours. Nationally, 71 meteorological stations have reported record highs since the start of June, including many in regions not traditionally associated with high heat. In one blistering stretch, surface temperatures measured by a station in the central province of Henan reached 74.1 degrees Celsius.
[…] This year, deaths from hyperthermia have already been reported in Zhejiang, Shaanxi, and Sichuan provinces; many of those who died were workers on construction sites and in factories. One construction worker in the northwestern city of Xi’an reportedly worked nine hours in high temperatures before succumbing. [Source]
Extreme heat has proven similarly deadly. Just this summer, a nurse in Jiangxi fainted while conducting COVID-19 testing in hot weather; a courier in Guangzhou suffered heat stroke and fell into a coma, regaining consciousness over a month later; a sanitation worker in Zigong fainted, suffered a cardiac arrest, and was later diagnosed with heat stroke; and a factory worker in Zhejiang died of organ failure due to heat stroke. Such extreme heat is particularly dangerous for frontline workers, who have been toiling in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius across numerous cities over the past few weeks. In Xi’an, a construction worker died from heat stroke this month, and his family was initially denied financial compensation because the worker had not signed an official contract (a common practice among migrant workers). It was only after a national outcry online that the company agreed to pay for the worker’s funeral.
Beyond the human toll, China’s extreme weather events also exact a financial cost. The South China Morning Post reported that last year floods cost China about $25 billion, the world’s second-highest total after Europe, while only one-tenth of those losses were insured. Nectar Gan from CNN calculated China’s particular vulnerability to these extreme weather events:
For China, the sheer size of its population and economy means the scale of damage caused by extreme weather events is often massive.
Tropical cyclones, floods and droughts are estimated to cost China about $238 billion annually — the highest in the Asia Pacific region and nearly three times the estimated loss suffered by India or Japan, according to a report released last year by the World Meteorological Organization.
Heat wave-related mortality in China rose by a factor of four from 1990 to 2019, reaching 26,800 deaths in 2019, according to a Lancet study published in 2020. [Source]
In June, the Chinese government released a national climate-change adaptation strategy, acknowledging that climate change and global warming make the country more vulnerable to “sudden and extreme” weather events. While the plan called for modernizing climate-related disaster prevention systems, some scholars worry that governance and coordination issues are more important in preventing disasters than the science of prediction alone. Despite the ongoing and serious threat of climate change, successful government efforts over the past few decades have added to a downward trend of deaths from flooding in China.
However, as government attention to environmental issues has gradually increased, so has government-led censorship of environmental activism. In a recent Bloomberg profile, a Chinese environmental activist who goes by the moniker Nut Brother, or Brother Nut (坚果兄弟), described a narrowing space for protest and an increased level of police harassment. “The changes in the past decade mean we need to have projects that are more creative if we are determined [to] solve the environmental problems,” he said. One of his most recent projects took place in Huludao, Liaoning Province, where toxic fumes from factory pollution have fueled official scrutiny and public anger. This week, China Dialogue reported on Nut Brother’s creative project to raise awareness of the pollution in Huludao:
Over the weekend of 9–10 July, a public phone booth on a busy Beijing street, long underused in the era of smartphones, became a “hotline” for pollution victims in the city of Huludao, Liaoning province, to share their sufferings with total strangers.
It was set up by the artist and activist Nut Brother, well known for his creative tactics in exposing pollution problems. On his Weibo account, Nut Brother recruited members of the public to visit the phone booth, pick up the phone and listen to pollution victims deprived of other channels to air their grievances. Those conversations were recorded as part of a documentary project.