A centralized system that prevents local governments from responding fast during emergencies, and rewards them for relief efforts over efforts to prevent calamity, is a recipe for disaster. Analysts weigh in on China’s recent Zhengzhou floods.
By Wang Yun, published by Radio Free Asia on August 3, 2021
Forty-five years after a massive earthquake devastated the northern city of Tangshan, survivors say the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s disaster response still scores poorly compared with the praise heaped on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in state-run media.
Wang Lihua was just four years old when the Great Tangshan Earthquake rocked Tangshan in the northern province of Hebei with an intensity measuring XI (Extreme) on the Mercali scale just before 4.00 a.m. on July 28, 1976.
At least 242,000 people died, according to official reports at the time, although some estimates have put the death toll far higher.
Wang remembers being left behind frightened as his mother scrambled to try to rescue neighbors out from under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
“People helped each other back then, I have to be honest about that,” Wang told RFA in a recent interview. “The troops came in later to clear away the rubble, but before that there was no help, and it was really hard.”
Wang said the worst part about the Tangshan quake was the lack of foreshocks or prior warning from the authorities, a pattern that was repeated recently when the central city of Zhengzhou was hit without warning by a massive deluge that swept pedestrians and cars from the streets, and left people drowned or scrambling for their lives as the waters entered subway tunnels, trains, and stations.
“The was no early warning, and the rescue operation was slow to get started,” Wang said. “There was huge hardship from the earthquake right up until the PLA arrived, especially for the injured.”
“There was no water — they were pretty much left there to die.”
The earthquake anniversary received muted coverage by state media, with state news agency Xinhua posting photos of people gathering in front of an earthquake memorial wall in Tangshan.
As with the Zhengzhou floods and previous disasters, state media coverage has generally focused on the heroic actions of PLA soldiers and miraculous rescues, regardless of complaints by victims on the ground.
Another belated response
Forty-five years after Tangshan, people are asking on social media about another apparently belated response and lack of warning during the Zhengzhou floods.
Why didn’t the Zhengzhou authorities warn people in time? the posts wanted to know. Why didn’t the government act to protect people in the Jingguang road tunnel and in the tunnels and trains of Metro line No. 5?
The section of the north-south highway that runs through Henan’s provincial capital Zhengzhou is nearly two kilometers long and six meters off the ground.
The volume of the tunnel is about 300,000 cubic meters. In less than three hours, more than 200 cars in the tunnel were damaged and six people were killed, according to official figures, which some fear are a gross understatement of the true toll of casualties.
According to U.S-based political commentator Heng He, the CCP’s system of political reward does little to reward officials who prevent major disasters.
“No matter how effectively you prevented something, this won’t be marked [as an achievement on your record],” Heng said. “That’s why officials prefer to launch disaster relief operations, rather than preventing disasters.”
He said that the build-up and release of upstream waters following heavy rains on July 19 had unleashed a “man-made disaster” on the city of Zhengzhou.
Orders from higher up
According to Heng, the similarities in the government response in Tangshan and Zhengzhou appeared to be linked to a lack of standard emergency protocols for local governments, meaning delays in waiting for orders from higher up.
“Emergency protocols are there to tell you what to do and what not to do,” Heng said. “If those aren’t available, all they can do in China’s totalitarian system is wait [for orders].”
He said that for the CCP’s taste, standardized emergency protocols would concentrate too much decision-making power in the hands of local governments.
“They can’t allow local officials and departments to wield too much power,” Heng said, adding that the net result is that rescue operations just can’t be mobilized in time to save people if officials can’t act independently at a local level.
According to CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily, the Zhengzhou branch of the People’s Armed Police sent out only around 150 officers with around 5,800 kayaks and other equipment to aid the relief effort, to serve a city with a population of more than 10 million.
“The ultimate power to command the army back then was in Mao Zedong’s hands, and no one else could give it orders,” Heng said. “It is still the same today.”
“The CCP’s Central Military Commission has taken back command of the People’s Armed Police, so local detachments can’t issue their own orders,” he said, referring to a reform that took place under CCP leader Xi Jinping in 2018.
The armed police’s disaster relief duties were then outsourced to a company, China Aneng, which sent in the first group of around 50 people from Hebei, Anhui, Jiangsu, and elsewhere a day after the flood hit Zhengzhou on July 20.
Germany-based water conservation expert Wang Weiluo said that if there has been any improvement in China’s disaster relief capabilities since Tangshan, it hasn’t been organizational.
“It is mainly on the technical level: pumps, excavators, and so on,” Wang said. “They definitely have much more technical capability than before.”
“The thing that hasn’t changed is the absolute and centralized command structure for disaster relief operations,” he said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.