Eight out of the nine men in China’s governing elite have a background in science and engineering. Some of them are even hydraulic engineers.
So when, on Saturday, the normally dry city of Beijing experienced a rare “grade three” rain storm – “grade four” being the most serious – the drainage infrastructure in China’s capital might have been expected to fare pretty well.
Sadly, not so. The city flooded and at least 77 people died in the following 24 hours. Most perished from drowning, while more than Rmb10 billion of damage was done, state news agency Xinhua reported.
By Sunday morning the storm had cleared, producing some of the bluest skies and cleanest air in recent memory. But few were in the mood to enjoy it. Even as the state-controlled media tried to strike a positive tone with stories of selfless acts from public workers and rapid government response times, millions took to the country’s microblogging services to vent their anger at the loss of life.
On Sina Weibo alone – China’s massive Twitter-equivalent – there were 6 million posts by Monday morning, many accusing the government of sacrificing safety in its drive to hastily construct a modern-looking capital.
“It’s almost exactly a year since the train crashed in Wenzhou. You could say that both accidents were just caused by thunder and lightning, but everybody understands that they were the consequences of paying attention to superficial stuff and ignoring the underlying issues,” one microblogger wrote.
Another concluded: “These people died because of Beijing’s rapid and excessive modernisation. May they rest in peace.”
Many others noted that the centuries-old ditches built around the Forbidden City had managed to cope with the downpour, suggesting that imperial drainage was superior to the flood prevention systems in the supposedly more modern parts of the capital.
Netizens also commented that while the rainfall was heavy – the heaviest in Beijing in over 60 years according to China’s Meteorological department – rain like that is relatively common in China’s southern and coastal cities.
“This comes down to one thing, drainage. That is the only explanation for a man drowning in his own car in central Beijing,” one netizen fulminated, referring to the case of an SUV driver who drowned when his car overturned at a flooded intersection not far from Bejing’s main east-west thoroughfare, Jianguomen.
Other horror stores were also doing the rounds, including the case of a man who was swept into an uncovered drain. His body was later found 9 kilometres away pressed up against a sewer gate, the Beijing Times reported.
The capital’s police force also came in for heavy criticism from the online community. They weren’t much help during the crisis, it was claimed, but when the flooding receded and Beijingers returned to collect their abandoned cars, they found parking tickets on their windows. Unsurprisingly, such belated diligence didn’t go down too well, with netizens asking if the police force exists to save people in danger or to raise revenue.
But as well as the negative stories there were positive tales too. Hearing that some 80,000 people were stranded at Beijing airport, a group of 30 civilians set out to pick them up in their own cars (the Dunkirk spirit, in Chinese guise).
Others used weibo to offer their homes and offices as spaces for displaced people to camp out.
Xu Xin, a legal scholar, suggested that despite the crass efforts of the local government to claim that a “Beijing Spirit” was on show, the rain had shown that there is growing sense of civil society in the city.
By that, Xu seems to mean a feeling generated by the community, and not the government. “The spirit of Beijing is not reflected by grand, meaningless words but by the pictures of Beijing tonight. The carrier of the spirit is weibo, on which the energy of kindness is being paid forward,” he wrote.
Given that mobile communication remained largely unimpaired throughout the downpour, netizens are also questioning why the government did not send text messages to people to tell them to stay at home, as it had promised last year after another heavy downpour.
The answer, according to the head of China Telecom, is simply that they were not instructed to do so.
As one weibo user put it: “They are able to monitor every text, but they don’t send out a single text when disaster comes. Think how many people would be saved if everybody had gotten a timely and accurate warning.”
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