Record Flooding Highlights Rural-Urban Divide in China
The decision to protect Beijing by diverting water prompts widespread anger in Hebei province.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: The diversion of record floodwaters prompts anger beyond Beijing, a joint naval exercise between China and Russia takes military vessels near U.S. waters, and China’s July trade figures reflect a worse-than-expected slump.
Floodwater Diversion Prompts Anger
The aftermath of Typhoon Doksuri created record flooding across northern China last week, leading provincial authorities to divert water from overflowing reservoirs into populated areas to protect Beijing from the worst effects. The move fueled widespread anger; in the past, flood waters were directed into sparsely populated low-lying plains near the capital, but in 2017, the area became the home of the Xiong’an New Area development—a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping intended to serve as a second bureaucratic capital.
Dozens of people drowned in the flooding—although the death toll remains uncertain—and around 1.5 million people were displaced, mostly in Hebei province, including nearly 1 million from the so-called flood control areas where the water was diverted. The central government has promised that homes destroyed by the floods will be rebuilt by winter, although distrust of such claims is warranted. The economic damage from the floods seems vast, from drowned sheep to wrecked warehouses.
Last Thursday, Ni Yuefeng, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of Hebei, declared that the province would “resolutely serve as a moat for the capital” in now-censored comments on WeChat. China’s top leadership, likely holed up at the annual CCP retreat at the Hebei seaside resort of Beidaihe, have made themselves scarce. The retreat, which is not officially announced, is usually a period of intense politicking, and Xi and other leaders are unlikely to cut it short. State media has reacted to the crisis with articles about how Xi is leading the rescue efforts.
Opening spillways is a normal flood control technique, and the overwhelming scale of the rain last week prompted difficult decisions for officials. But the question of whose homes get sacrificed is particularly sensitive in Hebei, because Beijing—and to a lesser extent neighboring metropolis Tianjin—are often blamed by Hebei residents for monopolizing resources such as water and energy and generating other problems, such as shutting down factories to help Beijing’s air quality. (Both Beijing and Tianjin sit within Hebei but operate as separate administrative areas.)
The worst-hit area was the city of Zhuozhou, home to around 600,000 people. But many of the flooded areas are in the hinterlands, where urban sprawl has claimed once-rural areas. These divides are drawn sharply in China: Urban hukou (residence permit) holders receive higher benefits than their rural counterparts, including access to better schools and hospitals. But on the ground, the distinction seems blurry—traveling from Beijing to cities such as Baoding or Tangshan, it’s often hard to tell if the urban area ever truly ends.
The flood-hit areas are also major grain producers, highlighting another significant issue in the countryside, where clashes over farmland are common. State intervention in rural life has stepped up, thanks to the creation of the Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigade in 2017. This process, which was completed last year, involved rolling several functions into a larger, more powerful security agency—as is the tendency under Xi. The result is a force of rural cops with power over everything from solving crime to soil quality checks.
Lack of enforcement, especially when it comes to environmental regulations and food-quality controls, is a real problem in the countryside. But striking a balance between local needs and the national agenda remains a challenge. The Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigade got its first test during the spring planting season this year, as Xi issued a new set of orders aimed at increasing grain production—a particular bugbear for the president.
The agency’s campaign failed: Viral videos showed officers stomping on vegetable gardens, cutting down fruit trees, and seizing livestock. Critics dubbed the enforcers nongguan, or “rural management”—a play on the term chengguan (“urban management”), the authorities notorious for extorting street vendors and assaulting migrants. That prompted a walkback from authorities, who said the enforcers had acted without authorization. (I suspect that the officers were shifted from former COVID-19 enforcement squads without additional training or supervision, to keep up employment.)
China’s rural areas are never truly peaceful. Despite success in alleviating absolute poverty, the countryside remains relatively poor, with incomes around 40 percent of the urban average. Rural areas are also underreported, even by Chinese journalists, who often face threats if they try to report on sensitive issues in isolated areas. But between the flooding, new enforcement squads, and China’s general economic downturn, the mood could get exceptionally bad this year, leading to protests around harvest season if farmers are left without government support.
What We’re Following
Maritime clashes. A joint China-Russia naval exercise last week near the Aleutian Islands brought 11 military vessels near U.S. waters—and signaled the closeness of the two powers. China may have hoped to provoke a response from the United States that it could use to claim U.S. hypocrisy over freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Washington responded by dispatching four destroyers to the region, but it reiterated that the ships were in international waters and posed no threat.
A more dangerous encounter took place on Monday in the West Philippine Sea, as Chinese ships fired water cannon at Philippine vessels and blocked their progress, with Manila unable to reach Beijing through an established hotline. Such a crisis communications mishap could risk serious escalation—especially when China deploys its gray zone Maritime Militia forces. The United States has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.
Art wars. A London street art space is the site of an unexpected clash between members of the Chinese diaspora after a group of art students spray-painted a wall with CCP slogans about socialist values. It seems that the artists may have sought to provoke an incident to expose supposed Western hypocrisy about freedom of expression. The move backfired when the wall became a hub of anti-CCP art and satire, leading the group leader to release a statement saying that the artists “had no political intent”—likely out of fear of political backlash back home.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- No Water, No Workers, No Chips by Michael Ferrari and Parag Khanna
- Ukraine Has a Breakthrough Problem by Barry R. Posen
- The Palestinian Leader Who Survived the Death of Palestine by Adam Rasgon and Aaron Boxerman
Tech and Business
China’s trade looks shaky. China’s bad economic news continues with the release of some grim trade data. In July, exports fell by 14.5 percent and imports fell by 12.4 percent—worse than predicted. Manufacturing contracted for a fourth straight month, leaving little promise of growth to come. Meanwhile, firms are foisting more Xi ideology on their employees, and economists are instructed not to discuss just how bad things are.
For a government that once had a flexible and pragmatic toolbox when it came to the economy, China seems to be increasingly trapped by its own ideological demands—and by the need to prop up its leader.
Superconductor investigations. Chinese scientists are at the forefront of testing a South Korean lab’s claims about the discovery of a superconductive material at room temperature. If true, such a technology would have transformative potential. Scientists at the leading International Center for Quantum Materials at Peking University found that the material did not demonstrate superconductivity, matching work by a similarly high-ranking lab in India.
Although there is no new industrial revolution coming, it’s a pleasant reminder of the global nature of science at a time when the fight for talent between the United States and China has driven many Chinese scientists back home.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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