As Death Toll in Henan Floods Climbs, Conflicting Reporting and Journalist Intimidation Run Rampant

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henan floods death toll continues to rise
People look out at cars sitting in floodwaters after heavy rains hit the city of Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 21, 2021. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The reported death toll from last week’s flooding in China’s Zhengzhou city has risen to 302 with an additional 50 people still missing after historic, record-breaking rainfalls battered the Henan Province region for days affecting millions and forcing the evacuation of upwards of 815,000 people and the relocation of an estimated 1.1 million. 

Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital, was particularly hit hard, registering the most amount of rainfall ever to fall in a single hour in the region at 201.9 mm (7.95 inches), breaking a record that was set in 1951. 

Over the course of three days, from 20:00 on July, 17 to 20:00 on July, 20 the rainfall reached 617.1mm (24.30 inches) , a level of rainfall that the region would typically receive in a year. 

The torrential rains did not only affect Zhengzhou. The prefecture-level city of Xinxiang received the largest amount of precipitation in a 24-hour period ever recorded. Local authorities recorded over 260 mm (10 Inches) of rain in the city that is home to upwards of 480,000 people.

A heavily used road connecting the cities of Xinxiang and Weihui was rendered impassable by the floods and over 1,000 people had to be evacuated from a hospital in the region that was at risk of flooding. A total of 204,000 people have been relocated after severe floods overwhelmed the city of Weihui.

Several villages along the Ying River, the largest in the province, also flooded after water breached its banks. The Wei River was also overwhelmed by the torrential rains and flooded several villages in the area. 

In addition, the floods are being blamed for a massive explosion at an aluminum alloy factory in the city of Dengfeng.  

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While the death toll in Zhengzhou has been highly reported, and contested by many, little news concerning casualties in the numerous other areas of Henan province, that were also hit by catastrophic flooding, has been reported.

Mixed messaging on the ground

Numerous state-run news media outlets are celebrating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reaction to the floods, however, the reaction on the ground, by regular citizens, stands in stark contrast to the official story. 

In Zhengzhou where the official death toll in the inundated metro line 5 subway system and the Zhengzhou Jingguang Expressway tunell stands at 14 and 6 respectively the outpouring of grief among the public hints at casualties far exceeding what is being officially reported. 

People ride the front of a wheel loader to cross a flooded street following heavy rains which caused flooding and claimed the lives of at least 33 people earlier in the week, in the city of Zhengzhou in China’s Henan province on July 23, 2021. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A floral tribute, at the still-closed Zhengzhou metro system, was sealed off with temporary yellow fencing in a purported attempt by authorities to distract from the actual number of fatalities on the metro line 5 subway station.

Calls for accountability have been directed at city and provincial officials while online condemnation rages. 

One resident wrote on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, “Can we do a good check of Zhengzhou’s drainage system?” while others criticized the substandard construction of infrastructure with one netizen proclaiming, “We’re digging and building roads every day … change the leadership and do it all over again, all the money has been spent on superficial things!”, Al Jazeera reported. 

On Monday, August 2, China’s State Council announced that an investigative team would examine the handling of the floods and would propose measures to improve disaster prevention according to Xinhua, a state run news agency.  

“Those who are found breaching their duties in the Zhengzhou flood will be held responsible according to the law and regulations,” Xinhua reported. 

Harassment and intimidation of foreign correspondents

Foreign journalists, reporting on the aftermath of the flooding in Henan Province are reportedly facing hostile confrontations in the streets of Zhengzhou by Chinese nationals who are accusing them of attempting to portray China in an unfavorable light. 

“Reporters from the Los Angeles Times and German outlet Deutsche Welle were confronted by an angry crowd in Zhengzhou on Saturday, who filmed and questioned them, and accused them of ‘rumour mongering’ and slandering China,” The Guardian reported. 

Alice Su, Beijing Bureau Chief for the L.A. Times was reportedly harassed while covering the deadly floods alongside Deutsche Welle journalist Mathias Bölinger. 

“On the ground in Henan, we saw a complex mix of grief and nationalism, catastrophe and propaganda – paranoia at ‘foreign smearing’ from some, courageous demands for accountability from others.” Su tweeted.

“They kept pushing me, yelling that I was a bad guy and that I should stop smearing China. One guy tried to snatch my phone,” Bölinger tweeted

Bölinger is said to have been misidentified as the BBC’s Robin Brant. Brant became the target of what some are calling a “manhunt” after Henan’s Communist Youth League asked it’s 1.6 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo to report the whereabouts of the BBC Shanghai reporter. 

The “manhunt” for Brant appears to have followed his reporting on 12 deaths in the subway station in Zhengzhou.  

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC),  said in a statement on Tuesday that, “The FCCC is disappointed and dismayed at the growing hostility against foreign media in China, a sentiment underpinned by rising Chinese nationalism sometimes directly encouraged by Chinese officials and official entities.” adding that, “The FCCC is especially alarmed at the threats levied against our Chinese colleagues. Online, critics have falsely accused them of espionage and treason and sent them threatening messages – simply because of their valuable work for foreign media organizations.”

The FCCC called on the Chinese government to uphold its promise to allow unfettered access by journalists to report on regions of China and to maintain its responsibility to protect people’s safety.