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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.”
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 Saturdaynight. 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.