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China flooding: Death tally rises, Beijing credibility plummets

With an estimated 538 million Internet users in China, the Chinese Communist Party is finding its propaganda apparatus tested by a public flurry of fact and rumor alike.

By Tom LasseterMcClatchy Newspapers / July 26, 2012

Commuters try to get on a bus on a flooded road following a heavy rain, in Tianjin, China Thursday, July 26. Residents impatient for official updates compiled their own death tolls Thursday for last weekend's massive flooding in Beijing and snapped up survival gear following new forecasts of rain, reflecting deep mistrust of the government's handling of the disaster.

AP

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Fangshan, China

It took just one glance at a jumble of cars mired in the brown waters covering the G4 expressway late on Monday afternoon to cast doubt on Chinese government estimates that only 37 had died in flash flooding over the weekend.

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A casual count of one patch of road came up with 33 vehicles – buses and taxis, and cars thrown on top of each other and over highway railings. Most passengers may have escaped, but many in the crowd of onlookers voiced something between quiet skepticism and open derision that the official numbers were true.

“They must hide this,” said one old man who was hustled away from a perch overlooking the scene by uniformed police yelling that photography in the area needed prior consent. With plainclothes security milling around the area, he and other onlookers didn’t give their names.

The man said that he’d already heard how many were killed in Fangshan, a district roughly 20 miles southwest of downtown Beijing, after heavy rains on Saturday night: “More than 300.”

Not long ago, such grumbling would have stayed among locals, something to mull over with family at the dinner table. With an estimated 538 million Internet users in China today, however, the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly finding its propaganda apparatuses, designed for top-down messaging, tested by a very public flurry of fact and rumor alike.

On Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blog site akin to Twitter, those scrolling through photographs of the aftermath of the deluge banged out angry questions: Has more humble sewage infrastructure in the capital and surrounding areas been overshadowed by flashy, tall buildings and the money they bring? Did the government pursue rapid growth at the cost of safety? Are the common people being shunted aside by the ambitions of the rich?

Bad storm

Officials pointed out that the storm on Saturday night was historically bad. It brought more rain than Beijing had seen in 60-plus years and slammed parts of Fangshan with more than 18 inches, the highest amount ever recorded, state media said. Rivers were sent bursting their banks, and about a half-mile of the G4 highway was swamped.

In one small village in the hills to the northwest of Fangshan, initially feared to have been savaged during the flood, locals surveying the aftermath this week said that no one died. In fact, they said, a warning from government offices to evacuate to higher ground doubtless saved many lives.

Still, a weibo posting from the southern province of Guangdong on Monday afternoon used the phrase “government’s shameless ‘37 died.’”

Another entry on Monday invoked the name of Yu the Great, or Da Yu, who’s enshrined in ancient Chinese mythology for mastering floods.

“The descendents of Da Yu spend so much money to go abroad to observe and study water control,” said the item, a sarcastic jab at the nation’s bureaucrats and their reputation for corruption.

Several people drew parallels to the July 2011 high-speed train crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou, which killed at least 40 people and created a national uproar over the quality of the nation’s development and, to some extent, criticism of those at the helm.

The long-term implications for the legitimacy of Beijing’s authoritarian government, and, by extension, the Communist Party, from such regular and widely broadcast criticism are not yet obvious.

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