‘Very concerned’: China’s 'frightening' move after 73 flood deaths

As China mourns the lives of at least 73 people who died during devastating floods to hit the central province of Henan, there is growing anger over Beijing's attempts to shift the narrative over the tragic event.

Local authorities have come under fire for their handling of community tributes in the city of Zhengzhou where 14 people died inside a newly-constructed subway which was flooded during the once-in-a-lifetime event.

There is also concern China is attempting to suppress coverage of the deaths, particularly from Western media.

Residents in Zhengzhou have been leaving floral tributes at an entrance to the subway however on Monday authorities put up barricades preventing more flowers being placed.

Flowers placed as tributes are seen in front of a subway station in memory of flood victims in Zhengzhou, China's central Henan province on July 27, 2021. China OUT
 / AFP / STR
Floral tributes were fenced in earlier this week as hundreds came to mourn the loss of 14 people who were trapped in the flooded subway in Zhengzhou. Source: AFP
This photo taken on July 26, 2021 shows people placing flowers in front of a subway station as they mourn victims killed in flooding caused by heavy rains in Zhengzhou, China's central Henan province. China OUT
 / AFP / STR
Zhengzhou residents were angry with the temporary fencing introduced and it was later pulled down. Source: AFP

Such a move prompted a wave of anger, with the government accused of not allowing residents to mourn the dead.

"It's too miserable, the public's emotions need to have an outlet!" one person wrote online.

"Who put the barriers up? Do you want to stop the people from mourning the dead?" another said.

The barriers were subsequently pulled down by residents and the floral tribute continued to grow along the street, however a police presence remained and the Associated Press reported the mood at the site remained "tense".

Subway officials told Radio Free Asia the barriers had been installed as a matter of safety due to its proximity to the road.

Amid scrutiny over the design and safety of the subway as well as authorities' actions leading up to the flooding, Beijing is believed to be concerned by the intense media coverage focusing on the tragedy and the possible failures of authorities.

“If they had prepared contingency plans ahead of time, the number of deaths could have been minimised. The Zhengzhou subway must take the blame and responsibility!" the wife of Sha Tao, a Zhengzhou resident who drowned in the subway, wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform.

A video circulating on social media on Thursday shows a man, believed to be operating a drone near the floral tribute, being restrained by uniformed and what is believed to be plain-clothed police. His drone is confiscated and the man is left reeling in pain on the floor holding his arm.

Follow-up videos show the man being comforted by bystanders who said he has their support. Video shows him reunited with his drone.

It comes after unverified reports a Caixin news photographer was detained a day earlier for taking a drone shot of the tributes.

Still images from a video widely circulating of the man being restrained for flying a drone at the tribute site. Source: Twitter
Still images from a video widely circulating of the man being restrained for flying a drone at the tribute site in Zhengzhou. Source: Twitter

Chinese media 'told to suppress negative coverage'

Local journalist Hong Tao told the Washington-funded Radio Free Asia the media had been told to focus on more positive angles such as the relief efforts in the wake of the floods and not the fatalities and possible failings.

He said the government was once again enacting a "nothing to see here, move on" mentality, heavily policing social media reporting of news topics.

Unwanted attention for the Chinese government will focus on a smart city system in Zhengzhou which involves technology that was meant to warn authorities of impending dangers such as flooding.

It is not known if the system failed or authorities did not take appropriate action when notified. Local authorities told the South China Morning Post investigations will commence once relief efforts have finished.

This photo taken on July 26, 2021 shows rescuers searching inside the subway which was flooded following heavy rains in Zhengzhou, in China's central Henan province. - China OUT (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Rescue workers search the subway's tunnel amid the recovery operation. Source: Getty

China's grip on foreign media has tightened in recent months, with reporters on the ground in Zhengzhou victims of harassment encouraged by authorities, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said.

"The Foreign Correspondents Club of China is very concerned to witness the recent online and offline harassment of journalists covering devastating floods in the Chinese province of Henan this month," it said in a statement.

It revealed several instances where reporters from the Associated Press, AFP, the BBC, Al Jazeera, the LA Times and Deutsche Welle had been harassed while reporting on the floods.

Video of reporter Mathias Boelinger being held in the street by angry residents has circulated online.

He was mistaken for BBC China correspondent Robin Brant who had earlier questioned the local government over its failure to prevent widespread destruction in the floods.

His name began to circulate on Weibo, with users accusing him of "distorting the facts" and urging people to call the police if he was spotted.

"The FCCC is disappointed and dismayed at the growing hostility against foreign media in China, a sentiment underpinned by rising Chinese nationalism sometimes directly encouraged by Chinese officials and official entities," it said.

Australian Stephen McDonnell, BBC China correspondent, said foreign journalists in Zhengzhou were victims of an "orchestrated campaign" fuelled by the Communist Youth League.

Beijing's feud with the BBC rolls on

Beijing's scepticism over Western media and what it believes to be partisan coverage has intensified, particularly during the pandemic where Beijing has worked to deflect accusations the nation's failings in Covid-19's early stages led to preventable widespread infections globally.

China heavily criticised the BBC for a pandemic recovery story about original epicentre Wuhan, accusing the public broadcaster of using filters to make the sky appear greyer than it actually was.

Enraged with the BBC's coverage on Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, China's Foreign Ministry scolded correspondent John Sudworth who eventually fled China to Taiwan over fears for his safety.

In response to the latest scrutiny of its coverage, the BBC called on the Communist Party of China to intervene and stop such attacks.

"There must be immediate action by the Chinese government to stop these attacks which continue to endanger foreign journalists," it said in a statement.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka hit out at media agency Reuters' "shameless" for using an "ugly" photo of Olympic gold medallist Hou Zhihui in its reporting. Chinese state media said the wire service was "unfairly targeting China".

Boelinger described the media environment in China as "frightening".

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