ZHENGZHOU, China — The mayor of this flooded city arrived at the tunnel at midnight. Muddy water poured across the road as workers drained the six-lane-wide underpass. Dozens of onlookers gathered, hoping to glimpse what lay beneath the water. Police shooed them away.
Chen Yuanqiu lived nearby. He had witnessed the flood and knew that during rush hour the tunnel could be clogged with hundreds of cars. The government said that only six people had drowned. But rumors in chat groups suggested that bodies were being taken out of the tunnel in secret.
Chen, who had been watching videos of the scene all day, grew skeptical of official claims. He had a troubling question: "How many people were trapped inside?"
The events at the tunnel underscored tensions around a storm that brought catastrophic floods across central China's Henan province last week. Rather than sparking a public conversation about climate change and whether China's cities are prepared for extreme weather, the ruling Communist Party has restricted information and encouraged nationalistic celebration amid an ongoing crisis. The result is a sense of unease as flood survivors are pressured to praise government relief efforts, and those who call for accountability are attacked.
The floods have affected more than 13.3 million people and displaced at least 2.4 million, according to official figures, with 71 deaths and five missing so far. They include six bodies found among 247 cars in the tunnel and 14 who drowned in the Zhengzhou subway, authorities say. Lists of missing people compiled by grassroots volunteers include dozens more.
Large swaths of Henan north of Zhengzhou are underwater, with more rain forecast in coming days. Many of the flooded villages and smaller towns west of Zhengzhou have no running water, electricity or cellphone reception. A massive rescue effort is underway, including both Chinese military and grass-roots volunteers who have rushed from across the country to help.
At the same time, government propaganda is controlling the narrative. Chinese media have been instructed to report on post-disaster recovery, avoid an "exaggeratedly sorrowful tone" and adhere to official statistics on casualties and damage, according to a leaked censorship directive published in the China Digital Times.
Grief has become a target of control. On Monday, Zhengzhou residents laid dozens of bouquets of flowers at the entrance to the subway line where the 14 had drowned. But authorities soon erected a yellow barrier around the flowers, blocking them from view. Journalists and passersby shared photos of the blocked memorial online, sparking thousands of angry comments.
"They are even afraid of flowers," one wrote.
Another circle of flowers and candles soon surrounded the yellow barrier. At night, videos shared online showed Zhengzhou residents pulling the barrier down as people applauded.