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The Beijing deluge of 2012

Beijing deluge

Xinhua reported on Monday morning that the death toll after torrential rains pounded Beijing on Saturday had climbed to 37.

The report said that “Among the victims, 25 were drowned, six were killed in house collapses, one by lightening strike and five were electrocuted.”

Xinhua said that storm was the “the heaviest rain in six decades… with the average precipitation reaching 170 mm while a township in the suburban district of Fangshan recording 460 mm of rain”.

There has been a lot of questioning of the death toll on the Chinese Internet. How could a storm kill so many people in China’s capital? Are officials spending money on prestige projects while neglecting unglamorous infrastructure like sewers and rainwater drainage systems?

The image at left is from Han Dongji’s Weibo. The caption says “Remember to be moved! Even more importantly, make some movement on fixing the drainage pipes!” The image is accompanied by the following text:

Floods in Beijing, 37 people died. This matter must be reflected on:
1) Officials, this is your shame, don’t continue to boast, some people should resign and accept blame;
2) Citizens of Beijing were at their best, there are many people whose actions were very moving, even to the point of sacrificing their lives;
3) Lessons should be learned and pointless sacrifices should not be made, for example if passengers and drivers had left their vehicles, perhaps a few lives would be saved;
4) All cities should take this as a lesson; today it’s someone else, tomorrow it will be you.

Even the editor of the pro-government Global Times Hu Xijin, who is usually quick to attribute problems in China to the complications of a developing country, was hard-pressed to find anything positive to say on his Weibo:

The death of 37 people after Beijing’s big storm is shocking and tragic. Firstly, this is undoubtedly a natural disaster but at the same time the fact that 37 lives were lost in the capital, where disaster relief capacity is strongest, makes it even more shocking, and I hope it will really move China. This is certainly a blemish on modernizing China. I only hope that it will become the starting point for real reflection and real change.

On the other hand, The Beijing Daily, a conservative newspaper controlled by the Beijing Communist Party, was much more focused on building team spirit with the top headline ‘Make the disaster relief, cleaning up the aftermath and stability maintenance the work priority’. Other front page stories include photos at the top right of the page of three of “Beijing’s most beautiful people” who lost their lives trying to help others in the floods, and a teaser for a flood related story titled “Don’t let even one villager remain in danger”, illustrated with a photo of a flooded village in Fangshan.

The front page also features an obituary for former China propaganda chief Ding Guanggen, who would probably approve of everything else on the page.

Other newspapers took a different tack. There seems to be a little bit of schadenfruede from the provincial newspaper Guizhou Business Post which featured photos of flooded Beijing street scenes with the headline partly in English “One night in 北京 (Beijing)”, a reference to a popular song of that title.

Update: From the Twitter feed of Li Yuan, editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s Chinese website:

Most popular weibo response to Beijing govt’s urge to donate to flooding victims: Donate the Fxxx of you!

Update 2 (July 25): The Shanghai Daily reports:

Beijing Drainage Group blames planners for flooding

The Beijing Drainage Group Co Ltd yesterday blamed the planners of the capital’s drainage systems after questions were raised about the city’s ability to cope with flooding after the torrential rainstorm claimed 37 lives over the weekend.

The company said the pump stations serving 90 overpasses citywide that were built last century were based on the experience of the former Soviet Union, where more than half the country received less than 400 millimeters of rainfall each year.

The then professionals involved didn’t anticipate such a downpour as happened at the weekend — the heaviest the city has seen in 60 years. The pump stations couldn’t cope and that was what had caused the severe flooding, the company said.

Chen Ming, the company’s manager, said 74 of the pump stations would be renovated within three years with each able to handle up to 50mm of rainfall per hour, according to Xinhua news agency…

…However, Xinhua said it was embarrassing that many ancient drainage systems still worked and that cities had to rely on these “antiques” to resist the floods.

In a royal palace near the capital’s Beihai Park, the roads were never submerged under waist-deep water thanks to drainage systems built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Nine wells inside the palace collect the rain and link to an underground river which surrounds the palace and flows to the then city moat. In addition, the paving was laid in such a way that rainfall could easily find its way into the soil beneath, Xinhua said.

Many other historic places, including Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, have the similar system and weren’t submerged.

Note: Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is one result of that of that on-going collaboration.

Links and sources
On Weibo: Hu Xijin, Han Dongji
The Beijing Daily: 当前要把工作重心转到救灾善后维稳上来, 抗击强降雨, 最美北京人, 东街村惊心救援八小时, 丁关根同志逝世
Sinocism: Today’s China Readings July 23, 2012
The New York Times: Ding Guangen, Former China Propaganda Chief, Dies at 83
Guizhou Business Post: One Night in Beijing front page
Xinhua: Death toll from Beijing downpours rises to 37
Wall Street Journal: Anger Swells After Floods Kill At Least 37 in Beijing
Tea Leaf nation: Torrential Rain in Beijing Brings Out Best and Worst in China’s Capital
The China Daily: Death toll from Beijing downpours rises to 37 (with details on disaster relief in Fangshan, the hardest hit area)
ChinaSMACK: Li Chengpeng: Beijing Rainstorm Reveals Humanity and Truth
Baidu Baike: 北京一夜 (One night in 北京)
China Digital Times: Flood Brings Out Beijing’s Digital Samaritans
Caixin: Swept Away Without Warning