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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.

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So far, China’s leadership has kept its version of balance. Officials at times address instances of corruption or environmental degradation, acknowledge popular outcry with sympathetic statements, and fire sacrificial bureaucrats, usually of low rank. There’s been a parallel enforcement of stricter requirements for social media registration, aggressive censorship campaigns and intimidation of those deemed to have made particularly dangerous online remarks.

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Nonetheless, the crises have continued to surface and with them, questions about bottom-line trust in Beijing’s word.

“Living in China has always meant having to learn to tolerate a certain amount of mendacity on the part of the government. This is nothing new,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, the Beijing-based founder of Danwei, a noted Website and research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. “But the Internet certainly does make public cynicism about the government an open topic of conversation, and many people believe this is a significant contributor to the crisis of trust in Chinese society.”

Competing narratives

Competing narratives in China are often hard to untangle, pitting unsubstantiated allegations by people afraid to talk against official pronouncements whose veracity is not guaranteed.

A shopping mall fire about 65 miles east of the capital at the end of last month, reportedly sparked by a short circuit in the wiring of an air conditioner, provided a recent illustration. The local government announced the death toll at 10. Some online accounts put the figure at 378.

State media carried reports for more than a week after the June 30 fire in Jixian County, citing details of the ongoing investigation that confirmed 10 dead.

On July 9, the Global Times tabloid, known for its nationalist tendencies, ran an opinion piece about the “credibility crisis.”

“Despite the efforts that governments at different levels have made to improve their credibility, in specific cases, the public has perceived the opposite,” said the essay.

It went on say: “Even rumors, as long as they oppose the official standpoint, are deemed as correct without verification. . . . When a regional dispute breaks out, it can become a national issue due to public doubt, amplified by the Internet, over the entire system of officialdom.”

A McClatchy reporter tried for a week and a half to arrange meetings with people who said that they, or someone they knew, had firsthand information about casualties at the mall. None would agree to be interviewed in person.

“They’ll catch whoever talks,” one man wrote in a series of exchanges with McClatchy. “This matter is not as exaggerated as what’s on the Internet, but people all feel the (actual) number is bigger than the official one.”

The online moniker used by the man, who lives in the area and said his friends were involved in rescuing people from the flames, is being withheld because of security concerns.

Another man cut off communications not long after his initial entry was scrubbed by censors.

“The post you saw has already been deleted, this proves that what we said was true,” he wrote earlier this month, before adding, “I’m afraid this will bring trouble to many people.”

The state Xinhua newswire had reported the day before that “police penalized a few netizens who spread rumors on more deaths in the fire and fabricated quotes of witnesses on the Internet.”

 'It's not very clear'

Back in Fangshan, none of the police at the scene of the flooded highway on Monday would say how many died there. “It’s not very clear,” said one officer, who shooed a reporter away from the scene.

A group of four men from Shandong Province said they were looking for a relative after a travel agency called them to say they’d lost contact with his tour group, which was scheduled to drive through Fangshan at the time of the flood. When a reporter asked for their names, the men walked off into the crowd.

Another man sat on a ledge and smoked a cigarette, saying he’d climbed out of his car after it got stuck in rapidly rising water on Saturday night. When the conversation turned to the number of vehicles submerged on the G4, the man said he’d been told it was over 80. The figure sounded a bit high, but looking at the murky waters nearby, it seemed plausible.

The next day, Xinhua reported the number salvaged: 84.

  • Researcher Joyce Zhang in Beijing contributed.

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