China's Flood Victims Speak Out

Families in hard-hit Anhui province have seen little aid, despite government promises

SHI DUOMEI wades through the muddy, thigh-deep flood waters engulfing the collapsed earthen homes of her village in northern Anhui Province.A damp cloth shades Mrs. Shi's head from the sweltering, mid-morning sun as she collects tiny fish, crayfish, and other bits of food in a small plastic bucket. "Here, you can play with this," says Shi, plucking a crayfish from a bamboo-framed net and handing it to her son. Before long, the bite-sized crustacean ends up in the lunch bucket, too. Shi and her peasant family of six are among tens of millions of Chinese left hungry and homeless by this summer's flooding, the worst in China since 1954. Swollen by heavy "plum rains," Yangtze River tributaries and other waterways began bursting through dikes in central and eastern China in late June. The torrents soon swept 21 of China's 31 provinces and major cities, affecting more than one-fifth of the country's 1.1 billion people. They claimed 2,295 lives, injured 50,000 people, and destroyed or damaged 9 million houses. Just south of the Huai River, Shou County, where Shi lives, is one of the hardest-hit disaster zones in Anhui - China's worst-hit province. As winter nears, Shi and other flood victims are bracing for another ordeal: surviving below-freezing weather in makeshift shacks without adequate food, bedding, fuel, or clothing. "We've lost our house and our harvest, all our chickens and ducks. Nothing is left," says Shi. Yet government relief for the family so far has amounted to two packages of instant noodles. China's hard-line leaders have seized on the catastrophic floods as an opportunity to shore up their rule two years after they sanctioned the 1989 massacre of liberal protesters in Beijing. Mixing relief with propaganda, Beijing has told the 220 million flood victims that they owe their salvation to the Communist Party's organizational prowess, the Army's brawn, and "the superiority of socialism." "This is a very good opportunity for the party," said one Communist Party member in Beijing. "Fighting floods and rescuing people - this is the party's tradition. This is what it does best."

Propaganda backfires But the propaganda seems to be backfiring. Victims complain bitterly of government "lies" and a lack of aid as relief supplies fall far short of official promises. Hundreds of "disturbances threatening public order" have erupted in disaster zones, forcing police to take emergency measures to tighten security, the official press reported July 27. Moreover, Chinese critics charge that the $13 billion in flood damage was higher than necessary due to the state's neglect of water conservation. Beijing's ability to coordinate flood-control work has also been weakened by the rising influence of local governments, which seek first to protect their own territory. The party called on regions in mid-July to "sacrifice for the whole [country]." Nevertheless, hundreds of disputes broke out as localities refused to open sluice gates to flood their land in order to safeguard larger or more strategic areas, official reports said. Ironically, the floods underscore how Maoist methods of social mobilization have grown obsolete since 1979, when market-oriented reforms began dispersing economic power to the grass roots. Today, economic incentives, rather than Marxist slogans, are needed to manage China's vast hydraulic system. "Communism is Good! Socialism is Good!" declare bright red letters hammered to a lone, bamboo relief shelter overlooking a sea of waterlogged fields here. Yet slogans evoke only resentment from local peasants like Shi and Cao Zifeng, who say the government has ignored their needs. On July 8, flood waters burst through a Huai River dike and surged into Mrs. Cao's village, destroying the family's small rice crop and leveling their dirt-walled, thatched-roof home in half an hour. Cao and her husband escaped to high ground with their toddler and five-month-old baby boy, some cooking utensils, and a bag of last year's rice. But so far "the government has given us nothing," says Cao, cradling her baby as she stirs a watery rice gruel over a campfire. China's cabinet, the State Council, has pledged that every person in disaster-striken areas will receive one pound of grain daily. But local food shortages and transport bottlenecks could make the promise meaningless. In Anhui, 70 percent of summer crops were damaged by flooding. Some peasants are surviving on black cakes of moldy wheat. None of several families interviewed in Shou County had received more than a few days worth of relief grain. Beijing, acknowledging that its aid of $560 million is "far from enough," has appealed repeatedly for domestic donations and $200 million in international relief. Meanwhile, it has made highly publicized efforts to prevent official embezzlement. Yet for some peasants, the government has already lost credibility. "The [party] cadres made a lot of propaganda, saying they would help people, but they never came. All those broadcasts are false," says villager Bo Huaye. "They shouldn't tell lies," says a grey-haired refugee surnamed Liu, whose husband died during the floods. "The radio reports talked about money, crackers, coal, blankets, but we never saw a bit of that."

Peasant migration Mrs. Liu is one of tens of thousands of homeless peasants who have left their villages in search of refuge. Liu joined a rush to the Shou County seat, an ancient walled city protected from the floods by a massive, 20-foot-high rampart of packed earth and stone. The influx doubled the city's population, officials say. Thousands of "drifters" from disaster areas are also entering Shanghai and southern Guangdong Province, Chinese police report. Most are being sent home. Some experts conclude that Chinese ought to learn a lesson from the lack of state relief: buy insurance. "[Chinese] tend to lean on the government in an emergency, which they believe is one of the advantages of a socialist society," says Hu Angang, a scholar at a government think-tank. "But that's actually a misunderstanding," he adds.

On Monday, the economic impact of Yangtze flooding.

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