Residents impatient for official updates compiled their own death tolls Thursday for last weekend's massive flooding in Beijing and snapped up survival gear following new forecasts of rain, reflecting deep mistrust of the government's handling of the disaster.
The city government has not issued new death toll figures since Sunday, the day after Beijing's biggest downpour in 61 years overwhelmed drainage systems, swamped downtown underpasses and sent flash floods roiling through the city's outskirts.
Beijing says 37 people were killed, but state media reports Thursday said the toll could be as high as 61 and online rumours put it in the hundreds.
Tight lid on official information
Officials have kept a tight lid on information, mindful that any failure to cope with the flooding could undermine the country's leadership as it undergoes a once-a-decade transition, with Beijing city leaders a part of that reshuffling. China's communist government has justified its one-party rule in part by delivering economic growth and maintaining stability in the face of bubbling unrest and periodic mass disasters like Saturday's flooding.
In Beijing's worst-affected Fangshan district, residents were compiling their own death toll online using both public and private chat rooms on the popular Baidu website. The toll was not being posted publicly, but some online accounts said the number was more than 300. There was no way to independently confirm the tally.
A woman with the information office of the Fangshan district government said fatality numbers were still being compiled and would be released as soon as the work was done. "I don't know where those numbers came from," said the woman, who would only give her surname, Xu, when asked to comment on reports of more than 300 dead.
Calls to the information office of the Beijing municipal government rang unanswered.
A separate Google document also was circulating on Twitter with a list of 19 confirmed dead or missing including their names and genders.
Li Chengpeng, a writer based in the southwestern province of Sichuan, said he was collecting names of the dead from flooding in Beijing and elsewhere. The official Xinhua News Agency reported at least 95 were killed after weekend storms hit 17 provinces and cities.
"We need to commemorate the people who have died in tragic events," Li said. "But there are so many of them now, and they go uninvestigated, unaccounted for. Nothing happens after these incidents, and the people die and no figures are given to the public? No acknowledgment? No explanation?"
"We know we cannot expect the government to do this work, so we have to do it. Civil society needs to do it," Li said. "Now people are using the Internet ... to do the job the government does not want to do."
The Changjiang Daily newspaper reported online that Beijing city officials at a news conference late Wednesday were swarmed afterward by reporters trying to get additional comments. It said one journalist with the official broadcaster China Central Television asked spokesmen why they didn't give the new death toll when she could see from the paper in their hands that the toll was 61 dead including five civil servants. The officials left quickly without responding, the report said. The journalist wasn't identified by name in the report.
By Thursday afternoon the report had been deleted. Wang Gang, an employee in charge of news for the site, confirmed the piece had been removed on orders from the Propaganda Department in Wuhan city, where the newspaper is based. Asked why they were told to do so, Wang said: "To maintain stability, of course." Chinese media is strictly controlled by the government.
Although China can be tight-lipped when it comes to mass casualties from natural and manmade disasters, it has improved since 2003 when its lack of transparency during the SARS outbreak was blamed for public panic. Death tolls are usually released in a more timely fashion, but the government still routinely withholds the names and biographical details of the deceased, making it hard for citizens to check their accuracy.
The death toll disputes were playing out against the backdrop of an ill-timed power shift, with both Beijing's mayor and vice mayor resigning on Wednesday. Some speculated that the outgoing mayor, Guo Jinlong, who is expected to join the central government's top 25-member politburo in the fall, might have been shedding his mayoral duties in order to avoid further taint from the scandal. But that seemed unlikely since Guo has actually moved into the city's most senior post, Beijing's Communist Party secretary.
The reshuffle was not unexpected but the timing was likely to deepen the public's frustration over the city's lack of leadership and accountability.
Meanwhile, warnings of rain and possible mudslides Wednesday sent many in Beijing home from work early, snarling traffic. The alert triggered a run on survival equipment on the popular Taobao shopping website, including spikes in sales of a keychain device for smashing car windows. The sales boom was first report by the Wall Street Journal's China news blog.
The run on those tools seemed driven by media coverage of the death of 34-year-old Ding Zhijian, an editor who drowned when his SUV became trapped in four meters (12 feet) of water that flooded a highway underpass Saturday. His funeral was Wednesday.
Wednesday's expected downpour bypassed the capital and instead fell on Tianjin city, which Xinhua said suffered widespread flooding. There were no reports of fatalities. More rain was expected for much of north China Thursday, the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said.