After the Beijing Floods: Why Does China Obscure Death-Toll Statistics?

Chinese officials announced that the death toll from recent floods in Beijing was 77, not the earlier reported 37. Despite the authorities' recent pledges of openness, an instinct to tightly control information remains in the authoritarian one-party state

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A resident pours mud along a street outside his home in Beijing on July 26, 2012, after the worst rainstorms in six decades pounded the capital

Like mosquitoes after a rainstorm, disasters in China are inevitably followed by persistent, nagging and uncomfortable questions about how many people died. It is the same if the disaster is massive, like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 87,000, or comparatively small, like the shopping-mall fire earlier this month in the city of Tianjin that officials say killed 10. It matters not if the cause is disease, like the SARS epidemic that spread across the country and then around the globe in 2002 and 2003, or the high-speed-train collision in Wenzhou one year ago that left 40 dead. In China, where calamities have long been covered up and concealed, the doubts about death tolls run deep.

On Thursday evening, the government announced that 77 people had died in last weekend’s Beijing floods and listed the names of 61 civilians and five officials. That followed widespread questioning of the earlier death toll, which had stood at 37 since Sunday. “Why are we always playing games with statistics?” novelist Xu Kaizhen wrote on Sina Weibo. “Announcing the correct death toll is responsible and moral.” Even the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, has called for greater openness. In an editorial on Thursday titled “Death Tolls Aren’t ‘Sensitive Topics,’” the newspaper lamented that citizens are still questioning official figures. “Only when you have ‘open’ and ‘timely,’ faster-released and better quality information will you put people first and ‘desensitize’ death tolls,” it said.

(PHOTOS: Heavy Rains Cause Havoc in China)

The Beijing government has pledged to be open about the figures. During a press conference late Wednesday, spokesman Pan Anjun listed several statistics, from 541 mm of rain in the hardest-hit Fangshan district to $1.8 billion in damage to 1.6 million residents affected. But he did not provide a new death toll. According to a report in the Changjiang Daily, a newspaper based in the central city of Wuhan, a reporter from CCTV, the state-run broadcaster, said she had seen the sheet from which the official was reading, and it listed a death toll of 61, but the assembled spokespeople declined to answer her question.

The Changjiang Daily story has since been removed from its website, part of extensive online censorship that has surrounded flood coverage. On microblogs, including Sina Weibo, users have complained about the disappearance of messages related to the flood. On Thursday evening, the search function on Sina Weibo appeared to be disabled, allowing users to search only for accounts, not content. Most significantly, at least four pages’ worth of flood coverage from this week’s edition of Southern Weekend, one of the country’s leading news publications, were killed by censors, according to a person familiar with the decision.

The sensitivity over disasters and death tolls has existed since the founding of the People’s Republic, says Frank Dikotter, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. “Communist states scrutinize any reports of unnatural death — suicide, accident, starvation — because those stand as statements of the political health of the regime as a whole,” says Dikotter, author of Mao’s Great Famine, a book that examines the deadliest episode of cover-up and faked numbers in the country’s history, the 1958–62 famine during the Great Leap Forward that killed as many as 45 million. “When it comes to unnatural ‘natural’ deaths — flooding or earthquakes — these numbers are extremely sensitive and therefore unreliable.”

Experience with scrubbed numbers has left many in China wary of official statistics, particularly when they deal with human life. During the SARS epidemic, mainland Chinese officials were slow to tell the outside world about the then mysterious disease, which helped fan its global spread. When a handful of cases arrived in Beijing, the government said they were under control, even as the disease spread rapidly through the capital’s hospitals. It was not until a single doctor spoke out that it was revealed that the total cases were several times what the government had claimed.

(MORE: Deadly Flash Floods Hit China’s Capital)

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, there was little debate over the number of people killed. But a subset of the total, the number of children who died in collapsed schools, did become a point of heated contention. The government long refused to reveal that number, likely out of sensitivity that it would reflect poorly on officials who were in charge when the schools were built. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei helped to organize activists who compiled 5,196 individuals’ names. Nearly one year after the May 12, 2008 earthquake, the government released an official tally of 5,335 student deaths. That most likely wouldn’t have happened without pressure by volunteers, but their effort came at a heavy price. Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan writer who was compiling his own list, was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” During a trip to Chengdu to attend his 2009 trial, Ai was assaulted by a police officer and later had to have emergency surgery for cranial bleeding.

Likewise, the Tiananmen Mothers, a group made up of people who lost family members in the 1989 massacre of protesters in Beijing, has also compiled the names of 203 victims during that crackdown. But the group has been harassed and members, including founder Ding Zilin, have been detained by police. In May one of the members, 73-year-old Ya Weilin, killed himself, stating in his suicide note that his grievances over his son’s death had never been answered. “These organizations that attempt to count the number of children who went missing in Sichuan or the number of dead in Tiananmen, they don’t receive any support,” says Dikotter. “They end up being censored at best and put in jail at the worst. It’s very difficult to find out this kind of information. It is so sensitive.”

In response to the Beijing floods, volunteers have launched their own investigation into the death toll. A spreadsheet posted online now lists the names of 26 dead and two missing. Based on reports of other dead, it cites an unconfirmed total of 42. “Officials have been very eager to release numbers in terms of how much property is damaged, but people are asking, ‘If you’re so quick to say how many animals are dead, what about the humans?’” says Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “There is some disconnect by officials in the sense they don’t want to draw too much attention to Beijing. A larger number would show Beijing in a bad light.”

Dikotter says in terms of scale, there is no comparison between recent disasters and the massive calamities in the Mao era like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But despite pledges of openness, the official instinct to tightly control information remains. “This is a very well-rehearsed machine that’s been in place for some decades,” he says. “It can’t help itself. It wants to control information. That’s the default mode. Even if in some cases [the information] might not seem to be all that shocking, that’s just what it does. It’s like brushing its teeth in the morning, that’s what you do. You don’t think about it too much.”

27 comments
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JasonP
JasonP

Simple BECAUSE IT CAN!! S LIBERAL media wold too to make a Liberal President Look Good! But would inflate the death toll nmbers for a conservative president!!!

daffypolitics
daffypolitics

It is nobody's business but China's. Unless you want to help. Other than that take your nosy nosy questions to yourself media.How dare the media twist everything about China! You people are liars plain and simple.I am mad. If you cannot show the decency to respect other Nations and their cultures then do not  bother to run the story. It is corporations like you(people like you) instigating trouble  between nations that should get you arrested. To h with you and whichever politician you have paid off. I am an American civilian citizen,And I APPROVE THIS  MESSAGE. 

wktian1987
wktian1987

china is a country that other countries that don't understand

Even if it is not good, but it is not as bad as the people in other countries think

You can come here, and  feel it in person

wktian1987
wktian1987

china is a country that other countries don't understand

Acan712
Acan712

Actually,most chinese don't care whether the death-toll stastistics is true. they just want to know when the flood will finish and  how the goverment help the victims. 

Acan712
Acan712

Most people in China don't care whether the death-toll statistics is true. they just want to know what will goverment do to help the vicitims and when the flood will finish. 

hopkinshope
hopkinshope

Paragraph seven, the date is wrong. It's May 12, 2008, not March.

hopkinshope
hopkinshope

Paragraph seven  the date is wrong. It's May 12,2008, not March.

James
James

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jimmy kraktov
jimmy kraktov

If Bejing had just under 2 feet of rain, there were far more than 61 people who died. There are some 20 MILLION people in Bejing. My guess would be around 10 times that amount. At Least!!

ratamacue76
ratamacue76

Short answer: that is what all communist nations have done in the past. Why stop the trend now? That is just their M.O.

AlCelestial
AlCelestial

A government that does everything is blamed for everything,  including the dead men did not tell their tale in time.

Jfante1452
Jfante1452

I really don't understand your point.

duduong
duduong

Here is another example of reflexive China bashing full of unsubstantiated accusations and innuendos.

In every major disaster around the world, the death toll always creeps up slowly as verifying death takes time. It took weeks after the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2005 hurricane Katrina before the death tolls even reached the order of magnitude of the true numbers. In comparison, the Beijing rain storm would probably see much speedier reporting. Does that mean China is more or less honest than the US? No, it just means that this rain storm is not as bad as Katrina and the infrastructure has been devastated to a lesser degree.

Jfante1452
Jfante1452

Do you think there is any truth to this story or are you an advocat for the Chinese government?

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

I think he's just annoyed by how American press always makes China seem as bad as possible to the point of exaggeration. I love America so much more than China, but at least that's how I feel sometimes when I read all of these negative China-related articles. The government is bad no doubt - even evil, but China as a whole is not that bad.

Sorry Eh
Sorry Eh

While the western media has always been quick  to chastise China whenever it gets a chance, here China is definitely not the victim of false accusations. Higher deaths = worse image for the government.

Winston Smith
Winston Smith

why doesn't  Time tell the truth about 9/11 ?

-ajl.smugmug com/911

Mike P
Mike P

probably because the truth has already been told...duh. 

the conspiracy theory involving someone planting explosives in the WTC is completely bunk . There are so many idiots who buy into that ludicrous idea and obviously you are one of them

Jason
Jason

...yeah, no it hasn't. Its only gotten more evidence in favor.

I guess seal team six , Brietbart and his coroner, and all the other fishy stuff thats gone down is all just conspiracy nonsense too.

I bet you laughed your ass off when everyone said Bart was killed cuz it sounded crazy; then oh look his coroner is poisoned with Cyanide...(if you even know who he is...)

I tend to forget Americans like you live off American Idol and CNN or whichever news sources you choose your spoon feeding from.

So many out of touch Americans. Glad reality is about to hit you in the face any min now.

The only thing I find most annoying is people like you turning around saying  they knew it the whole time (after the fact) probably.

tommariner
tommariner

China concealing deaths? Try and get an answer on any statistics in the US that will affect the election. Try and get some unemployment numbers from the government here that is not a) half of it really is, b) is followed by some obscure value being at a four year low (or high), and has an excuse, like "seasonally adjusted".

At least in China you know it is an authoritarian government that puts out its junk numbers through a controlled press. Here we pretend that our freedoms are not dramatically eroding and the press is not really an advertising arm of a political party's election committee.

But the biggest lie of all here is that our President and Congress are making decisions representing us ... rather than taking actions designed to get re-elected.

Jfante1452
Jfante1452

This is an article about censorship in China, not about how the Obama administration is like the Chinese government. Congratulations on changing the subject and trying to gin up hatred.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

You're an idiot.  If you can't bare to trust Government's statistics, then there are  non-profit organizations and research foundations that provide the most non-partisan, accurate statistics.

If you haven't figure it out by now, the US government is TERRIBLE at keeping secrets, which thankfully to the free press.  The recent being Wikileaks. 

I can't imagine anyone other than a dumb apologist that can stand proud to argue against freedom of the press, and praise a controlled press.

Jason
Jason

 Did you say freedom of the press? That still exists? This site is so full of shills lol...

Courtney
Courtney

Why stop the trend now? That is just their M.O. CAshLazy.com

Mike P
Mike P

Chinese troll

Sorry Eh
Sorry Eh

American idiot. (No, not the song.)