Jul. 27 – In the aftermath of the worst rainstorm to hit China’s capital in the last six decades, there has been widespread anger against the Chinese government, which is accused of censoring the death toll. The death toll was previously reported to be 37, however, after a public outcry, Chinese authorities increased this number to 77 after claiming that mudslides made investigation and verification difficult.
The rainstorms affected nearly 2 million people and caused approximately US$1.6 billion in damage, according to China’s state-run news outlet Xinhua. The worst hit area was Beijing’s Fangshan District, a rural community on the city’s mountainous outskirts. Officials reported that 38 people died in this district, yet residents who compiled their own toll online claimed that this number was closer to 300.
Chinese censors have been busy deleting any negative postings online, such as the above example, to ensure that the only news broadcasted is related to the relief effort. The Chinese government is wary that a perceived failure to cope with the flooding could create instability during the country’s leadership transition, set to take place later this year.
“The newspapers have turned a disaster, a defeat, into a heroic song of praise. Officials do this so readers will forget the disaster, the dead and the toppled houses. Ahead of the 18th Party Congress, no negative coverage is allowed,” commented Li Datong, a veteran editor living in Beijing.
On the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo, there have been numerous reports about disappearances and an outcry about the lack of information issued from the government. China’s propaganda department has attempted to censor these messages, but has been outpaced by the sheer number of comments and criticisms.
“Why are we always playing games with statistics?” wrote novelist Xu Kaizhen on Sina Weibo. “Announcing the correct death toll is responsible and moral.”
“In addition to making the city beautiful, [officials] should also have built a working drainage system. They only know how to turn on the tap of positive propaganda, not realizing that public opinion is the most important drainage system,” one blogger in a now deleted post wrote, remarking on the failed drainage system in Beijing.
“We need to commemorate the people who have died in tragic events. But there are so many of them now, and they go uninvestigated, unaccounted for. Nothing happens after these incidents, and the people die and no figures are given to the public? No acknowledgment? No explanation? We know we cannot expect the government to do this work, so we have to do it. Civil society needs to do it. Now people are using the Internet… to do the job the government does not want to do,” said Li Chengpeng, a writer from Sichuan Province.
Li Chengpeng provides chilling insight into what may turn into a great credibility crisis for the Chinese government. In an age where social media and microblogs connect an estimated 538 million Chinese Internet users, allowing the instant flow of information, the Chinese government has to be more transparent. If they are unable to provide complete information for their citizens, they risk increased social upheaval and a subsequent challenge to their credibility as the leaders of China.