Social media has played a key role in the aftermath of disasters that have struck China. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China's Twitter-like Weibo was used for coordinating disaster relief work. And after last year's Tianjian explosion, as local media pushed superficial coverage or ignored the event altogether, Web users published and spread first-hand photos and updates.
Social media is a place for victims of a tragedy to express their sorrow and seek each other out for support. It's also a place for citizens to publish their own observations and reporting — even if China's strict censors end up deleting them.
That's what's happening at the moment with news related to widespread flooding, affecting 26 provinces. So far, around 1.5 million people are displaced and 180 have been killed. The Chinese Communist Party believes that disaster news should be positive and in alignment with their ideology, thus the lack of critical or hard-hitting information.
Many netizens have complained about the deletion of flooding news on Weibo. A Weibo user from Anhui province wrote:
Anhui saves the country [the province, which is located midstream of the Yangtze River, is a flood discharge location], but no one is there to save Anhui. I called my family, even though the rain has stopped for three days, the water level remains high and local armed police officers are still performing rescue operations. Sometimes, when I make a comment about the terrain in Anhui, the comments got deleted. This is ridiculous, for many years Anhui has sacrificed for downstream cities and the province does not have equal development opportunities. Now that we are flooded, we can't even comment about it?
His complaint received many echoes in the comment section:
– 我们这边也是 虽然晴天 但是水位不退 有时候还涨 不下雨 但是大家都开心不起来了 发消极的微博还被删评论冻我账号 真无语了
- We are required to be positive, optimistic and naive. Shut our eyes and talk about the Big Truth! Be careful, they might ban you from speaking.
– We are the same here. The rain has stopped but water level remains the same. Sometimes it even gets higher. People are unhappy. Whenever I say anything negative, my comments are deleted and my account suspended. I am speechless.
Banned news outlets outside China reported that the floods in Anhui have killed a few dozen people. Hundreds of flood victims demonstrated on July 8 against state-owned Chinese Central Television's (CCTV) interview with local disaster relief officials who claimed that the floods only affected two major streets.
Of course, news about the protest could not be found on Weibo. What did circulate widely was news about the People's Liberation Army's heroic and self-sacrificing contribution in disaster relief work. A CCTV reporter summarized the channel's video report on the subject in a Weibo post and added screenshot photos. It was then republished by major news outlets and “civilization volunteers” — Communist Youth League of China members who promote the party's message online:
Salute to the most adorable people! In heavy terrain, they moved the sand bags without rain clothes and their bodies were covered with mud. Each sad bag weighs 60 catty [about 36 kilos] and they each carried 300 of them and had to move to and fro 600 times; the water and buns were mixed with rain and this is their daily diet… wherever there is danger, the disaster relief fighters show up. Salute!
Many netizens were not touched by the propaganda. Below is a sample of the skepticism found in the comment threads:
- Whenever I read these kinds of accounts, I feel doubt. The official propaganda turns the fact about lack of disaster relief equipment and coordination work into a “touching” story. Such an act is using the frontline soldiers’ sweat and blood [for political purposes]. Every time they frame the disaster as the most serious one in 100 years, every time they use the disaster to pull at China's heartstrings. The propaganda is good at turning a disaster into a positive story and making human errors invisible.
– The most adorable people are respectful. But how come in this strong country there is no back-up team giving them warm water and meals?
– You can't even give them a sausage? And you make this into news? You can't take care of the people who protect the country, this is self-shaming.
On Twitter, opinion leaders were more vocal in criticizing the censorship and propaganda on the floods. Wu Zuolai, a current affairs blogger, argued that the official spin on the news could make people stop donating to disaster relief work:
— 吴祚来 (@wuzuolai) July 3, 2016
Sina's news portal has been turned into CCTV. However big the disaster, the first headline is about President Xi, followed by the premier. The floods in the south, which have caused countless deaths and injuries, becomes secondary news. But people also change, no matter how “sensational” the reports are, no one donates. Because it is not the people's matter [but the party's matter]. The Chinese Communist Party has 80 million members, if each of them donates 100, it would manage to collect 8 billion for a birthday party. People don't have to take part in it.
And Gao Yu, a prominent Chinese journalist who is under house arrest for leaking a party document, discussed the issue of government accountability:
— 高瑜 (@gaoyu200812) July 7, 2016
Now Wuhan [in Hubei province] is all flooded and the number of people affected has reached 30 million. Yet [former Chinese Premier] Li Peng and his family can still enjoy their summer. The reason is that disaster relief work has followed the same pattern for 67 years [since the establishment off the People's Republic of China in 1949]: the people's army are fighting floods with buns as their meals; the leaders make a show appearance on the front lines; the truth about lives and property lost is covered up; sin and responsibility are transformed into glory in the media.
Former Chinese Premier Li Peng is a key person behind the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The project was designed to be able to cope with once-in-a-millennium floods. However, in reality, the project changed the climate along the Yangtze, causing serious droughts in the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2010. And when water discharges from upstream dams, downstream provinces suffer from widespread flooding.
Moreover, the reclamation of inland lakes and wetlands for luxurious property development projects has further obstructed water discharge during floods. But under the current censorship system, criticism that associates development projects with the floods are labelled as spreading rumors, and the only “big truth” about the floods is the heroic People's Army under the leadership of the party.