In a similar fashion to the SARS outbreak of 2003, the flooding in Beijing last July revealed the cracks in the Great Wall of official “truth,” into which poured the protests of Chinese citizens at an uncontrollable rate. For the second time in less than ten years, China’s capital has become a laboratory for the study of how public opinion has now become a variable that is impossible to control, although in different ways than the West.
Propaganda still has a strong foothold in the interior cities and surrounding countryside, but the spread of information in the urban metropolises is no longer reserved to official channels. The “people of the blogs” are no longer satisfied with the one-way flow of information. They cast doubt on the “exceptional” amount of rainfall in Beijing, and grow tired of the same stories of heroism and praise for the rapid response of rescue workers. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are demanding the unfiltered truth, and this time they have the means to obtain it.
Five days after the disaster, officials released a more credible version of the extent of the damage from the flooding. The tally of lives lost nearly doubled (from 37 to 77), 65,000 people were evacuated, 500 flights were canceled, and entire neighborhoods of China’s capital were submerged in water and sewage. Despite the fact that the total rainfall of 164mm was the highest recorded since authorities started keeping track in 1951, the criticism of the city’s infrastructure was blistering.
Many commenters lamented the grandiose structures that celebrate Chinese accomplishments, but expose the city to damage from inclement weather. The drainage system, a product of old alliances with the Soviet Union, is woefully inadequate for a growing metropolis. Ironically, the area that suffered the least damage was the 600-year-old Forbidden City.
As a result, the mayor of Beijing was changed but not removed. Now the head of the Communist Party of Beijing, Guo Jinlong has been succeeded by Wang Anshun, and the new mayor has spared no excuse for the shortcomings: “The municipal government will consider the public’s criticisms openly and constantly improve its efforts to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”
The times when criticism of the establishment was labeled antisocial and repressive seem far away now; the reaction of Xinhua, the official state news agency, was surprisingly harsh: “success in boosting GDP growth, urbanization, the development of rural areas and other massive tasks currently being undertaken by the government will mean nothing if the country’s citizens cannot enjoy safety while they remain alive, and dignity following death.”
Declaring a turning point in the availability of information would be premature, but the change in approach, from imposition to comprehension, is an important development. Beijing is a city surrounded by desert, where rainfall is rare, erratic, and often violent. It is the responsibility of the administration to manage the overflow to guarantee the safety of its citizens and health of the crops in the surrounding farmlands. Chinese history tells us that when the government fails at this basic task, its legitimacy is brought into question, and so it is worth their while for the government, for once, to admit its errors and commit to prevent them from happening again.