China floods pose awkward questions for Communist party

Chinese politics & policy updates

Flash floods in central China’s Henan province this month have spurred a revamp of the Communist party’s emergency response plans as it prepares for the intensifying threat of extreme weather.

Grieving family members and online commentators have criticised local authorities in Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital, for failing to prevent water from blocking tunnels and filling up subway cars. The number of confirmed deaths hit 99 on Thursday.

Authorities have labelled the downpour a “once per 5,000 years” event, after almost eight months’ worth of rain lashed Zhengzhou on July 20. But the natural disaster was worsened by “a systemic human disaster”, one Zhengzhou-based academic wrote on social media.

“Natural disaster was the external trigger but the man-made disaster was the internal factor,” they wrote. “As such, we must legally investigate Zhengzhou city’s senior politicians for the crime of dereliction of duty.”

China must prepare for more extreme weather

China’s one-party state prides itself on leading swift and competent rescue operations following natural disasters, as well as strict disciplinary measures for officials deemed responsible for lapses in preventing damage.

Beijing has celebrated its success in largely eradicating coronavirus, despite early missteps in its response to the outbreak. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has pointed to mass testing, strict lockdowns and rapid contact tracing as the “notable advantages” of party leadership and the country’s political system.

The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, warned officials on Monday not to rely on “luck” and encouraged them to overcome “paralysis” to close subways, business and schools as soon as an extreme weather warning is issued.

Top party leaders often rush to the front lines to lead the emergency response. But Xi, who has taken personal control of the party to a greater degree than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, was on his first visit to Tibet since becoming leader. It was not until Wednesday morning that the president sent in the army and ordered officials to take charge of fighting the floods.

Beijing’s use of grand infrastructure projects to tame the deadly floods of the Yellow river has become an important piece of Communist party lore. That had made the threat of extreme weather events as a result of global warming a sensitive issue for the party, said Scott Moore, an expert on China’s water management policy at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The Yellow River Conservancy Commission, the Zhengzhou-headquartered department responsible for managing seasonal floods along China’s second-longest river, has built a high-tech system to control flooding. But it had not been designed to deal with flash floods caused by intense rain, Moore said. 

“There’s a mismatch between historical baseline flooding and the new normal of global warming flooding, which is more likely to be caused by unusual meteorological events,” he said. “To have this kind of catastrophic flooding makes a mockery of that system; it’s an indictment.”

The Communist party confronts a backlash

The party’s flood control strategy also includes tight control of online discussion and media coverage of events. Both foreign correspondents and local Chinese journalists reported being harassed when attempting to report on deaths in the Jingguang tunnels in Zhengzhou where dozens of cars were trapped.

Local officials were instructed to conduct door-to-door visits to local businesses to warn against giving interviews to foreign media, according to an internal memo reported by the China Digital Times, a group that tracks censorship directives and online discussion at the University of California, Berkeley.

Residents place flowers outside a train station in Zhengzhou where at least 14 people died in a submerged railway carriage
Residents place flowers outside a station in Zhengzhou where at least 14 people died in a submerged railway carriage © AP

Officials also set up a yellow barrier around flowers placed at the entrance to the Shakoulu subway station, where water had burst through a wall and about 500 passengers were stuck in submerged subway cars and at least 14 died. 

After an outcry online at the apparent effort to limit mourning, the barriers had been removed within a day and the street was quickly covered with hundreds of bouquets.

The floods also led to individual acts of heroism that were celebrated on Chinese social media after videos and images went viral. A former army commando in a white T-shirt swam car-to-car to rescue those trapped inside. A team of volunteers pulled people from an underground shopping centre against a torrent of water.

Moved by the desperation she encountered online, a student based in Puyang, a small city in the north of Henan, set up an open-access shared Tencent spreadsheet to gather and organise data so rescue teams could find those in danger.

Manto, who asked to be referred to by her screen name, said that what started as an effort by 32 classmates and friends quickly became a collaborative exercise with more volunteers than she could count, after Tencent promoted the document on its official social media channels.

“We were only a small part,” she said. “The actual rescue still relied on the immense power of the state arriving on the front lines.”

Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing

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