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Amid crushing floods in China, officials focus not on climate change, but on control

Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

"That made it even worse for us," he said. "The government should have told us that morning to evacuate. At least protect people. We can forget about property, but human safety and human lives — you should at least guarantee that."

Many people had been swept away, said Qiao, who believed the official number of deaths was too low: "It's definitely not just two or three. It's more than 10, it's tens of people."

"The government is thinking of their image," he added. "We common people have the common people's pain."

Others were more forgiving and didn't blame the government. Official death and missing tolls are still being tallied. The extreme weather was beyond anything anyone could predict, many locals said, especially in these parts of Henan, usually a dry area that does not experience heavy rains. Even the weather chief of Gongyi, the city that includes Mihe, had been washed away in his car during Tuesday's floods (and later rescued), according to Chinese reports.

"We've never seen such big water," said Zhang Huanrong, 50, a woman who lived near the railroad tracks behind Mihe. Zhang, whose septuagenarian uncle is still missing, imitated the sound of the water: "It was like balabalabala, hundreds of cars rushing out with the water, with trees and washing machines and you don't even know what."

But Zhengzhou city's and Henan province's weather bureaus had issued 10 red alerts about extreme storms in the 18 hours leading to the flood. The alerts were public, and at least in Zhengzhou, each alert came with recommendations that the local government "take appropriate emergency measures" including halting all meetings, classes and businesses.

The Times called authorities in Zhengzhou and Gongyi to ask why emergency measures were not taken before the floods. They referred The Times to their local propaganda departments, which asked The Times to call the Henan provincial propaganda office. It in turn sent The Times to the local departments again. They then asked The Times to send questions by email and did not immediately respond.

The scenes unfolding in Henan are following a familiar formula in President Xi Jinping's China: After disaster, authorities turn tragedy into triumph, while controlling victims' narratives and quashing questions. A genuine outpouring of care for flood victims has been reshaped into support for the party, while anger at officials' failures has been redirected toward "hostile foreign forces."

 

It is a script deployed in China with remarkable success after propaganda last year obscured the government's missteps during the COVID-19 outbreak and Wuhan lockdown. The pro-party message persists today in Weihui, a badly flooded smaller town north of Zhengzhou, where some rescue vans had red banners hung on their sides that read: "Follow the Party forever."

This is all playing out as Chinese people continue to live their lives — and endure their hardships.

In the hills behind Mihe, dozens of tiny villages inhabited mostly by the elderly were caught in mudslides during the storms. On the road to one village, flat fields dropped off into freshly carved craters. Bushes hung upside down from their roots against eroded red hills.

Zhang Renzhi, 71, wearing a loose blue shirt and rubber sandals, sat staring at the corn field outside his home. His 91-year-old father sat behind him, hunched and head bowed in a wooden chair. They had been trapped here during the storm, mud and water flowing straight on to their roof as the hills seemed to collapse around them.

"I was afraid," said Zhang. "There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to escape."

For two days, father and son lived on the water and food they had stored inside, without power, electricity or a phone signal. Rescue workers came to evacuate them on the third day, but Zhang, worried that his father was too frail to move, turned them away. He had already started shoveling mud from the living room, the front yard, the roof.

As night fell, they would stay in the dark, waiting for the next rain.

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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