Amid widespread domestic and international concern about the flooding in China, the Chinese media and Internet users have been asking why the Beijing drainage system failed to avert the disaster in the capital and why the authorities failed to give its inhabitants more warning.
In response to the growing criticism, the Beijing propaganda department has told the media to refrain from any reference to shortcomings in the city government’s handling of the bad weather, and comments and articles have been suppressed or blocked.
This has been the worst flooding in China in 61 years. The storm that hit Beijing on the night of 20 July caused at least 77 deaths.
First-hand accounts by residents on the Internet – in blogs and on social networks – rapidly facilitated the emergence of mutual assistance mechanisms that helped offset the lack of measures taken by the authorities. It was above all on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) that victims were able to organize an effective solidarity network.
Several Chinese newspapers criticized the water drainage system as ineffective. They contrasted the major damage to the capital’s flooded streets – which were modernized for the 2008 Olympics – with the almost non-existent damage in the Forbidden City, which was much better protected by drainage built centuries ago.
Recognizing the scale of the disaster on 21 July, after a meeting about the flooding, the Beijing municipal committee’s propaganda department announced the need to maintain a degree of “stability” in public opinion. Propaganda department chief Lu Wei said this stability depended on the media and ordered them to report only “achievements worthy of praise and tears,” including acts of heroism by the emergency services or individuals.
Comments on microblogs such as Sina Weibo disappeared or were blocked. Those who did not remove their own comments from Sina Weibo found that Weibo’s moderators had prefixed them with the words “Permission denied."
The blogger Li Chengpeng’s article “Totem” reporting that, although the Beijing city authorities had spent 6 billion yuan on trucks, only civilian cars were seen rescuing victims, can no longer be accessed on his blog.
A sarcastic comment by seasoned Chinese journalist Gong Xiaoyue (龚晓跃) about the government’s handling of the situation was also removed. It said: “Many thanks to this once-in- 5,000-years government for allowing us to experience so many worst-in-a-century things in such a short period of time”.
US Deputy Secretary of State Michael Posner said that, during annual talks between the United States and China in Washington, he raised the cases of activists, lawyers and bloggers who had been the victims of government harassment and repression.
China is on the 2012 Reporters Without Borders list of countries that are “Enemies of the Internet” and is ranked 174th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.