Beijing authorities have reportedly ordered Chinese media to stick to positive news about record weekend floods, after the death of at least 37 people sparked fierce criticism of the government.
Censors also deleted microblog posts criticizing the official response to the disaster in China’s rapidly modernising capital, which came at a time of heightened political sensitivity ahead of a 10-yearly handover of power.
City propaganda chief Lu Wei told media outlets to stick to stories of “achievements worthy of praise and tears”, the Beijing Times daily reported, as authorities tried to stem a tide of accusations that they failed to do enough.
Many Beijing residents took to the country’s popular microblogs, or weibos, to complain that some of the deaths could have been prevented if better warnings had been issued and the city’s ancient drainage systems modernized.
A call by the Beijing government for donations to an emergency flood relief fund was also criticized by microbloggers, with many ridiculing the authorities for asking ordinary people to pay for the damage.
On Tuesday, over 72,000 postings on a microblog thread focused on the call for donations were deleted.
David Bandurski, who monitors China’s Internet censorship at the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, said most of the microblog postings censored in China over the last two days related to the Beijing floods.
“There could be a number of reasons for this, but the overarching reason could be the upcoming change of leadership at the (Communist Party’s) 18th Party Congress,” Bandurski told AFP.
“This is an important political meeting, so when people are pointing responsibility at local government incompetence, everyone goes into sensitive mode… no one wants to take responsibility for anything.”
This year’s Congress will see President Hu Jintao step down from his position as head of China’s ruling Communist party in a leadership change that will usher in a new generation of leaders expected to be led by Vice President Xi Jinping.
Authorities were still clearing up the damage from Saturday’s disaster as the country’s top leaders gathered in Beijing on Monday for a meeting addressed by Hu that was given front-page coverage in state newspapers.
The China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper with a predominantly foreign readership, ran an editorial on Tuesday urging Beijing authorities to improve the drainage system, which it said “leaves much to be desired”.
But much of China’s state-run media steered away from critical stories, focusing on human interest angles of residents helping each other out.
Senior Beijing leaders at an emergency meeting late Monday urged greater efforts to find those still missing, identify the bodies and repair flood-damaged roads.
But residents in the worst hit district of Fangshan on the mountainous southwestern outskirts of China’s sprawling capital told AFP the government was doing little to help find their missing loved-ones.
“The government doesn’t help at all, every family is responsible for searching for their own family members,” said Wang Baoxiang, whose 30-year-old nephew had been missing since going out in Saturday’s rains.
According to official assessments released Monday, seven people remained missing, but in the badly hit Fangshan district, locals told AFP reporters that at least 10 people were missing in one small village.
Tuesday’s Beijing Daily quoted mayor Guo Jinlong as saying any increases in the death toll should be reported immediately, amid suspicion that the authorities may be underplaying the impact of the floods.
Guo also urged journalists to “correctly guide public opinion”, code words in China that which mean to only portray the government in a positive light.
“The news media has played a very good role in timely reporting the developments in emergency response operations, correctly leading the public opinion… and playing a role in boosting morale,” Guo said.
“The focus of our rescue work and news propaganda must now be moved toward the suburban areas, especially those areas severely hit by the disaster like Fangshan.”
[image via Agence France-Presse]