Beijing’s top official on Friday acknowledged in rare frank comments that last week’s floods had “exposed many loopholes” in the Chinese capital’s planning and infrastructure, a day after authorities raised the death toll from last Saturday’s rain to 77 amid rising public anger.
Guo Jinlong, who was recently appointed as the city’s Communist Party chief, on Friday visited one of the worst hit areas: the southern suburb of Fangshan that saw dozens of homes collapse and thousands of people displaced.
Mr. Guo, along with other officials, was seen bowing in respect at a mourning ceremony held to honour lives lost in the district. Officials have, in recent days, sought to stem the increasing public anger by acknowledging that “profound lessons” had been learned.
“We must seriously reflect on the lessons and always bear them in mind,” Mr. Guo said.
His comments came after strong criticism of the government’s handling of the floods, with media outlets and bloggers voicing anger at inadequate warnings ahead of the rain and drainage systems that appeared to offer little relief.
Even in the heart of Beijing, the streets of the glitzy skyscraper-lined Central Business District and the popular Sanlitun shopping district were flooded, with overflowing sidewalks and stranded cars.
The acting Mayor, Wang Anshun, who assumed Mr. Guo’s position following his promotion earlier this month, said he “appreciated the public’s criticism and suggestions on the government’s work in handling the disaster”.
“The municipal government will take on board the public’s criticism and supervision in an open manner, and constantly improve the work to avoid such a tragedy happening again,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Authorities on Thursday updated the earlier death toll of 37 to 77.
Officials said 66 people had been identified, of whom 46 had drowned and five died while carrying out rescue work.
Saturday’s rains, officials said, were the heaviest Beijing has seen in six decades. The downpour left the city’s streets flooded, washing away homes and highways in less developed suburbs.
Accounts of a less than adequate official response stirred anger this past week. In particular, the story of a 34-year-old magazine editor, Ding Zhijian, who drowned in his submerged car even as his wife spent three hours unsuccessfully seeking the help of police and emergency services triggered widespread criticism.
Qiu Yan, his widow, said emergency telephone numbers rang unanswered, while rescuers finally arrived three hours after she first sought their help.
“The doors could still not be opened and they had to break the windows to get him out, but he didn’t have any signs of life,” she told local media.
Following his death, state media reported that with reports of further rains this week the sale of hammers — ostensibly to be used to smash car windows — had increased by 600 per cent.
The government appeared concerned about the public anger, issuing directives to publications this week to tone down any criticism. The outspoken Southern Weekend — a Guangzhou-based publication — was forced to withdraw an eight-page feature on the floods before publication.
But even the usually nationalistic state-media outlets did not shy away from questioning the official response. “When it comes to everyday disaster prevention, why does China appear so backward compared with developed countries like Japan?” asked Global Times.
“Advantages in the Chinese system enable the government to quickly mobilise all kinds of forces in an emergency. But this is of little help when it comes to disaster prevention, which relies mainly on society’s willingness to invest in large-scale safety.”
A commentary in the liberal Caixin magazine said the loss of life could have been prevented “if proper and effective precautions were made”.
Last year too rains left Beijing’s streets clogged and flooded. Commentaries also questioned whether the recent spending of billions on skyscrapers and “beautification” projects had ignored basic infrastructure needs.
“The city’s underground sewage system is directly responsible for the flooding. Within Beijing, it seems that the Forbidden City still has the best drainage,” said the Caixin commentary. “For a system built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, with extra work done after 1949, it works effectively despite its 600-year age. No matter how heavy the rain, there is no flooding in the Forbidden City. I wonder if one should celebrate the wisdom of our ancestors or be ashamed of our own stupidity?”