In Beijing, a Flood of Complaints
As the Chinese capital cleans up from deadly floods, the country's netizens take to social media to blame officials.
The trouble with propaganda is that sometimes people believe it. On Saturday, July 21, Beijing saw its heaviest rainfall in 61 years, leading to massive -- and in some cases preventable -- flooding, forcing the evacuation of 50,000 people from neighborhoods and villages across the capital. Shortly after the rain stopped on Sunday night, the city government reported that a shocking 37 people had died: 25 had drowned, collapsed structures killed six, five were electrocuted, and one was hit by lightning. Chinese citizens were left wondering how their capital, the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the last decade and the seat of a government that claims to "serve its people with all its heart" still had a Third World sewer system.
The trouble with propaganda is that sometimes people believe it. On Saturday, July 21, Beijing saw its heaviest rainfall in 61 years, leading to massive — and in some cases preventable — flooding, forcing the evacuation of 50,000 people from neighborhoods and villages across the capital. Shortly after the rain stopped on Sunday night, the city government reported that a shocking 37 people had died: 25 had drowned, collapsed structures killed six, five were electrocuted, and one was hit by lightning. Chinese citizens were left wondering how their capital, the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the last decade and the seat of a government that claims to "serve its people with all its heart" still had a Third World sewer system.
More than 9 million people have so far commented on the storm on the Chinese Internet; many complained about a government response that they felt lacked thoroughness, especially in the hardest-hit area in the poorer southwestern district of Fangshan, and chided the officials for releasing what many believed at the time was an unrealistically low number of deaths, though no alternative credible counts have been released. On Tuesday, Beijing city government spokeswoman Wang Hui shot back against the claims. "We learned our lesson from SARS," she said, referring to the widespread criticisms of the government hush-up of the 2003 respiratory disease outbreak. "Everyone should know that we’ll speak the truth." If it were only that simple.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media ran headlines saying that Guo Jinlong resigned from his post as mayor of Beijing to take over as Communist Party secretary, the highest-ranking position in the municipal government. Though the timing is strange, the move itself is not: Guo had been appointed party secretary in early July, and his resignation and appointment follows the pattern of the last few transfers of power in the Beijing city government. Indeed, in many ways, Guo has had it easy. Because the Communist Party controls the media, he can showcase positive images of rescuers helping stranded victims and put a lid on roving photographers publishing photos that show damaged infrastructure and official inaction. Likewise, while Sina Weibo users might gripe, the overly offensive content gets deleted. Guo’s name is even blocked on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, making it more difficult to publicly criticize him.
Guo, wearing a button-down short-sleeve shirt (the garb favored by Chinese government officials who want to show they are men of the people getting things done), gave an interview at 1:35 a.m. on Sunday morning to state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) in which he said, "We’re rushing to deal with this emergency with all of our strength." He forestalled criticism by acknowledging that the "storm tells us the city’s infrastructure is still comparatively weak." And, of course, he didn’t have to worry about answering any difficult questions.
But for all the advantages the system provides for Guo personally, the credibility of the system in general, and the Beijing city government in particular, took a direct hit from the storm. "When you establish the principle that ‘We’re in charge of everything,’ then, when stuff happens, people point at you and say, ‘You’re in charge of everything, right? This is your fault,’" says Perry Link, an emeritus professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University. In China — in perception, if not in practice — the Communist Party controls most of the country’s resources, and so gets much of the blame. Li Chengpeng, one of China’s most popular bloggers, didn’t blame Guo for the mismanagement (if he had, the post would have likely gotten him in trouble), but the system: "When the largest rainstorm in 61 years fell upon Beijing, I was a thousand kilometers away writing an article about how central government ministries and commissions spent 6 billion yuan [nearly $1 billion] buying cars for official use last year." In Beijing, he wrote, only private cars worked to save citizens. "The 6 billion performed no heroic deeds."
The director of Beijing’s Meteorological Bureau, Qu Xiaobo, said on Sunday that his agency lacked the ability to warn Beijingers of the storm by text message, as it can only send 400 per minute. Yet China’s three state-owned telecom companies regularly bombard millions of people with advertisements in a short period of time; indeed China Telecom said it had the text-messaging capabilities to warn its millions of subscribers in Beijing, but the city government didn’t direct it to do so. "My spam messages always come in on time," complained Internet user "Local Area Network Netizen" in the comments section of a news story on the microblog Netease about the text-message delays. "When it involves the people, there’s a technological obstacle," commented "Zhongshan Shu" on the same article. "But when it’s about disseminating government policies, how come there’s no obstacle?"
There’s an old Chinese superstition that natural disasters reflect the displeasure of heaven and signal the changing of dynasty. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed around 250,000 people and happened six weeks before the death of Mao Zedong, was seen as heralding the end of an era. But more mundane natural disasters rarely see the sacking of even a top-ranking official. Less than a week after a downpour triggered a mudslide that buried more than 200 coal miners in Shanxi province in 2008, Gov. Meng Xuenong resigned; the party secretary survived.
In the unlikely event that Guo does get sacked, it will probably only happen months later, and after this fall — when Beijing will host its once-in-a-decade political transition in which President Hu Jintao is expected to yield to his replacement, Xi Jinping, and where stability and party unity become paramount. "It’s rare for the government to punish someone that high up immediately after a natural disaster," said a Chinese academic, who asked to remain anonymous. "It’s bad publicity and not the party’s tradition."
Still, Guo, like officials the world over, probably feels like he can’t win. His spokeswoman, Wang, who has been active on Weibo promoting the government response to the crisis, responded to netizens’ complaints about the police ticketing cars stuck in the water. She wrote that "Vice Mayor Ji Lin said it was incorrect to ticket cars that suddenly became stuck in the floodwaters; all such tickets will be made invalid." But even this display of authoritarian power wielded in the name of popular justice also caused some grumbling. "With one word the leader can invalidate a ticket," said Sina Weibo user "Shi Hun Kuang Gui," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Apparently nothing has changed and the leaders are still above the law. May I ask, outside of leaders, are there any other ways to settle issues? Is this how to build a society with rule of law?"
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