Devastating floods in Hebei expose the site selection problem of China’s sub-capital, Xiong’an

Students and teachers were trapped in a school in Zhuozhou as the flood came all of a sudden. Image from a Weibo video via 细雨蒙蒙lsj

Affected by the remnants of Typhoon Doksuri, the northeast of China, and Hebei province in particular, have recorded the heaviest torrential rainfall in 140 years. Between July 29 and August 2, 2023, record flooding has lead to the displacement of over 1.23 million people in Hebei province alone. 

Yet, a statement made by a top official of Hebei province regarding the region’s mission to serve as “a moat for the capital” has unintendedly exposed a design problem for China’s newly constructed sub-capital Xiong’an as it blocked flood waters from being discharged into Baiyangdian, the largest lake in Hebei.

The most devastating flood occurred in Zhuozhou, a small city with a 718,000 population surrounded by farmlands, and located between upstream Beijing and downstream Xiong’an. The flood was up to 7 meters high. Chinese breaking news whistleblower Teacher Li's video on Twitter showed the depth of floodwater in the small city:

Safeguarding upstream Beijing

On August 2, Ni Yue-feng, the CCP secretary of Hebei province, instructed the rescue teams after visiting Zhuozhou and Xiong’an that they should follow the spirit of Chinese President Xi Jinping and proudly said that to safeguard Beijing, the surrounding regions should function as the “moat” of the Capital

The statement triggered a backlash as residents in the affected regions were unaware that they lived in the bed of the Capital's moat. In the case of Zhuozhou, the floods came in a flash, and many residents were trapped with no preparation and support. As shown in the surveillance TV taken on July 31 on a highway in Zhuozhou (via Twitter user @kevinpabloFR), the water level rose from a few inches to over one meter high in just a few minutes when vehicles were still running on the highway:

Coordinates: Zhuozhou
Check out this epic flood scene

At first, complaints on social media platforms about the unannounced discharge of floodwater were slammed as “rumors” by online patriots. But the Hebei CCP secretary’s remark about the necessity “to serve well as a moat for the capital” confirmed the allegations. 

A report on state-funded Global Times also confirmed that some areas in Zhuozhou were designated flood storage basins, and it would take about one month for the water to recede in the region fully, as 300 million to 400 million cubic meters of water is expected to pass flow across Zhuozhou even after the rainfall ceased. 

Safeguarding downstream Xiong’an

However, many raised the point that the unprecedented flood in Zhuozhou was not only caused by water discharge from upstream, but also by the blockage of water supposed to be discharged into Baiyandian, the biggest lake in Hebei province. Twitter user @Petrichor summed up the online discussion:

Conventionally, Baiyandian is a water detention basin during floods. But this year, why didn't Zhuozhou discharge floodwater into Baiyangdian even though its water reached a critical level? Because the Department of Water Resources dared not take action as Xiong’an is the sub-capital. In the past, Zhuozhou just needed to protect Beijing. Now, it has to protect the emperor’s uncle’s homeland, Xiong’an. 

The newly constructed Xiong’an City is a grand development project that represents Chinese President Xi Jinping’s China Dream. It was coined as a sub-capital soon after the developmental project debuted in April 2017, as Beijing announced the gradual migration of “non-core” functions of the Capital to the New Area, which is 100 km from the Capital. In a recent visit to Xiong’an, Xi described Xiong’an as a “city of the future” as it is expected to serve as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship by 2035.

However, the calamitous floods in Hebei exposed the vulnerability of Xiong’an to future floods, a problem raised by Lu Dadao, a prominent Chinese geographer, back in 2019. Lu’s article resurfaced on Chinese social media platforms last week to explain the human error factor in the current flooding. Chinese Digital Times also saved a backup copy of Lu’s critique of the selection of the sub-capital site:

The Xiong'an New Area is located on a large piece of lowland in the northern part of Hebei, surrounded by slopes. The heart of the lowland is Baiyangdian, and it is surrounded by edges of slopes with an average altitude of about ten meters.  In Chinese history, the region has been very vulnerable to flooding. The standard of flood-prevention measures of the future Xiong’an New Area has to be extremely high. When serious flooding occurs, Baiyangdian may have to discharge water, and the city may be submerged.

To prevent Xiong’an from being submerged, floodwater was not discharged into Baiyangdian this time. Veteran Chinese journalist Michael Anti explained how the Hebei authorities channelled the flood water with a map of Baoding prefecture, where the sub-capital is located:

Let me use the map to indicate the relationship between Zhuozhou and Xiong’an. Hebei has 13 designated floodwater storage basins. This time, seven were activated. Within Baoding prefecture, only one had not been activated. Which one? The biggest natural water storage site and the only lake in the region — Baiyangdian region (Xiong’an). Zhuozhou discharged water through Xiaoqinghe (to Tianjin) and Langouwa [a reservior] (to the South) but did not discharge it to Baiyangdian. That’s why floodwater from Langouwa had to turn east and slowly discharge into Dongdian [in Tianjin].

As Langouwa’s floodwater took an east turn instead of going south to Baiyangdian, farmlands in Bazhou, another small city east of Xiong’an were submerged. Outraged villagers hence protested outside the city government, demanding compensation. Chinese dissident @ZhouFengSuo provided the context of the protest:

Support Bazhou’s protesters for defending their rights. People from outside would not have known that Bazhou was another designated site for submergence if they did not stand up to protest. I checked the map. Bazhou is east of Xiong’an and south of Zhuozhou. The aim is to protect Xi Jinping’s Xiong’an New Area by turning the surrounding areas into a moat. 

Meanwhile, Chinese social media started censoring discussions that blamed Xiong’an for the floods in Zhuozhou (via Teacher Li on Twitter):

But there are still a lot of discussions about how water flew in Hebei during the flood. One Weiboer put the water channelling politics in China in a nutshell:

会不会被淹,不在于海拔高度,而是在于政治高度 ​

Whether a place is submerged or not relies not on its altitude but on its political status. 

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