Understanding Beijing’s Disaster Response to the Flooding in Central China

July 31, 2021 Updated: August 4, 2021

Commentary

July 23 marked the third day of major flooding in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province. Based on my observations on how the Chinese regime handles natural disasters, authorities would use the first three days to gather data before releasing an official statement.

However, top officials would censor information and create their own propaganda narrative in the name of “maintaining social stability.” This model of official response, along with the media propaganda, will continue to exist in the communist regime.

Beijing’s Propaganda Routines on Floods

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) propaganda focuses on three points: to emphasize the severity of natural disasters; to publicize the regime’s initiative in emergency rescues; and to underestimate the death toll.

Disasters have occurred frequently in various parts of China in recent years, and the first thing that local governments do is to attribute the disasters to nature. Flood disasters have been publicized as “record-breaking rainfall,” “once in 50 years,” and “once in a hundred years,” and so on. This time, authorities described the Zhengzhou disaster as “once in 5,000 years historical record rainfall”—even experts try to justify this claim. On the website of the Henan Provincial Department of Water Resources, scientists offer an explanation with probabilistic algorithms.

However, Chen Tao, the chief forecaster of the Central Meteorological Observatory, refuted the so-called “disaster of the millennium” at a press briefing held by the Central Meteorological Observatory on July 21, according to Chinese news portal Sina. Chen said, “From the perspective of atmospheric science research, we began to rigorously record meteorological data after 1950. Since then, we are able to collect a relatively accurate and complete scientific record of rainfall. So far, the entire rainfall amount covers around 70 years.”

Zhengzhou Floods: What Are the Man-Made Factors?

When encountering natural disasters, the Chinese regime looks at three issues: whether the early warning mechanism is activated; whether the disaster is natural or man-made; and accountability.

Accountability is determined by how the first two issues are handled and the number of deaths. But, there’s always room for interpretation.

Jingguang tunnel flood
An aerial view shows cars sitting in floodwaters at the entrance of Jingguang Expressway tunnel after heavy rains hit the city of Zhengzhou in China’s central Henan Province on July 22, 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)

The disaster warning determines the fate of the officials. During the 2008 Sichuan and 2010 Yushu earthquakes, the lack of an early warning system became a major focus of accountability.

When torrential rain and flooding first occurred in Zhengzhou this time, the Meteorological Bureau was accused of not warning the public. However, people soon discovered that the Meteorological Bureau had in fact issued a warning. The “Meteorological Disaster Warning Signal” was issued by Li Kexing, the director of the Zhengzhou Meteorological Bureau, at 9:59 p.m. on July 19. The warning circulated on the internet, which proved that the Zhengzhou Meteorological Bureau had indeed issued an early warning and advised the public to stop gatherings, and close schools and businesses.

The real issue is that local authorities have ignored the waterlogging problem for the past 20 years—Zhengzhou is known as the “sponge city.” The waterlogging is a man-made disaster caused by successive government projects.

A collapsed dam is another man-made factor in the Zhengzhou floods. It’s noteworthy that authorities produced conflicting reports on the situation. The Emergency Management Department issued a report on the failed dam, the Guojiazui Reservoir in Zhengzhou, at 1:30 a.m. on July 21. But, the Ministry of Water Resources issued another report saying that as of 7 a.m. on July 21, “there was no breach of the dam, but only large-scale erosion of the surrounding slopes [landslides].”

A video from the site showed that Zhengzhou’s Jingguang Expressway Tunnel was suddenly inundated and witnesses said that it happened in less than five minutes.

On July 21, state-run media Xinhua quoted Xi Jinping as saying, “Some rivers have exceeded the warning levels and some dams have been breached.”

This statement carries two significant pieces of information: first, the local authorities reported the situation to Xi and admitted that the dams failed; second, Xi had warned local authorities to pay attention to rumors of flood discharge.

It’s important to know that Chinese netizens called it a “flood discharge” and not a “dam breach.”

Epoch Times Photo
Road collapses after severe flooding and landslides in recent days have hit the county-level Gongyi city, near Zhengzhou, in central Chinas Henan Province on July 22, 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a huge difference between a dam breach and flood discharge. It’s hard to hold anyone accountable for a dam breach as there are causes beyond human control other than the poor quality of the dam. Flood discharge, on the other hand, relies on the decision-making of local authorities, balancing the pros and cons of flooding one place while preserving others based on the water level.

Death Toll Determines Disaster Levels and Officials’ Posts

On July 23, the regime announced that more than 50 people died in Zhengzhou’s floods. The day before, the local government reported that there were 33 deaths and 8 people missing. It’s believed the the death toll will continue to climb.

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, there’s a large number of online messages from people looking for their missing loved ones in Zhengzhou and the neighboring areas. One website listed information on more than 130 missing persons. People are still gathering around the disaster-stricken Jingguang Expressway Tunnel looking for their loved ones.

Based on my years of experience, formulating a quota for the number of casualties has been a tradition in the regime since the Mao era.

I was in China during the Qingshuihe explosion incident—a chemical plant exploded in Qingshuihe district of Shenzhen city in 1993. A reporter at the scene took nearly 80 photos of the deceased. Even though the death toll exceeded that number, the Ministry of Propaganda reported that only 3 people were killed by the explosion—2 deputy directors of the Public Security Bureau and a director of the local police station. The figures were fabricated because it was stipulated at that time that accidents involving more than 10 deaths were considered to be very serious, and those in charge would be held accountable. Now it seems that the quota may have been reformulated.

Epoch Times Photo
Children sit on a makeshift raft on a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China, on July 22, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The CCP censors information and prevents rumors from spreading online. I’ve observed that authorities always set the tone for the disaster, and catching rumormongers becomes a main focus on disaster management. The Henan provincial government issued a notice on the recent flooding, reminding the public to ignore rumors and not to spread them—this is an actual warning from the top.

Another government routine is fundraising. However, people are more reluctant to make donations to the Red Cross and government agencies because during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, these organizations were accused of embezzling funds.

Conclusion

Some experts believe the Zhengzhou floods will not be the last disaster in a Chinese city. There’s an article that’s been circulating on Chinese social media titled, “Look at the Ancients, Look at the Present Again: The Flood in the Central Plains in the Eyes of an Expert.” The author participated in the evaluation of the 2015 National Smart City Constructions. There is a passage that readers should keep in mind: “On top of the loose soil, there is only a shallow layer of cement topped with tiles for appearance purposes only. I have traveled all over China—east, west, north, and south. These face-saving projects are everywhere. Heavy rainfall, especially a 100-year flood, will hollow out the loose soil underneath.”

In other words, as long as you live in a Chinese city and there is a heavy rainstorm, severe flooding could happen at any time. People must be prepared to deal with the situation and shouldn’t rely on Beijing’s disaster emergency model.

He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the United States, she authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

He Qinglian
He Qinglian
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the United States, she authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.