Category Archives: disasters

“Anger Swells After Floods Kill At Least 37 in Beijing”

The WSJ has a piece up recounting the floods that rocked Beijing this weekend, and the reaction they’re already getting from netizens:

Urban areas of Beijing were hit with an average of nearly nine inches of rain over 16 hours on Saturday — the heaviest the Chinese capital has seen in six decades, according the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The deluge, which caused more than 31 road cave-ins, led to more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in economic losses, Xinhua quoted Pan Anjun, deputy chief of the Beijing flood control headquarters, as saying. Even more shocking, at least 37 people died in the downpour, according to a statement released Wednesday night through the Beijing municipal government’s official account on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service. Of those, 25 drowned, six were killed as a result of collapsed structures, five were electrocuted and one was struck by lighting, the statement said.

News of the storm spread rapidly on social media, where users posted video footage of flooded intersections and where messages of support appeared alongside pointed questions about how a city that spent billions building facilities to host the Olympics could struggle so badly in dealing with a thunderstorm

Among the sharpest criticisms came in the form of a series of photos, posted to Sina Weibo around midnight, contrasting Beijing’s flooded streets with images of sewer systems in other famous capitals, including Tokyo’s massive “Underground Temple” flood prevention system.

“Sewers are not a face-giving infrastructure project,” artist Li Yijia wrote in response to the images, repeating a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere on the site.

“Beijing’s glossy appearance can’t withstand the erosion of a bout of heavy rain,” wrote another Sina Weibo user. “In just a few hours, Beijing is washed back into the old days. The city government hasn’t stopped rebuilding this city, but they can’t even deal with getting waterlogged.”

Beijing isn’t alone on that front- as far as I know, Qingdao is the only Chinese city with a proper sewer system, a legacy of the old German Concession. The bizarre thing is that even these new cities that China is building in the middle of nowhere from scratch still utilize tiny water management systems, not proper sewers. Like the netizens are saying, sewers don’t seem to be face-giving enough to justify their construction as is.


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TibetWatch: April 26

Not as big of a day as yesterday, but a major protest in Derge is definitely news:

About 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans led by monks protested Wednesday in front of a township police station and government center in China’s Sichuan province, condemning a security crackdown on a local monastery and demanding the release of a nine people who had been detained, sources said.

The protester at the Zogchen township in Dege county in the Tibetan-populated Kardze (Ganzi) prefecture were angry at a series of raids conducted by security forces on the Zogchen Monastery from Sunday to Tuesday, during which monks were severely beaten, interrogated, and taken away, the sources said.

Wednesday’s mass protest was peaceful but protesters demanded that the crackdown should stop and all security forces in the monastery be pulled out.

“They told the officials that if there was no withdrawal, things could turn ugly,” one caller from inside Tibet told RFA. “The people were disgusted that the police could enter the monastery and assault the monks, including one 13-year-old monk,” said the caller, identified as Tashi.

Reuters has news about continuing unrest in Yushu and Jyekundo, where earthquake recovery plans look set to ignore the overwhelming Tibetan majority in the region:

For two years after a cataclysmic earthquake struck a remote and wild part of China’s northwestern Qinghai province, Baobao and 29 other homeless ethnic Tibetan residents occupied the area outside several government buildings to denounce a land grab.

But no officials in Gyegu – known in Chinese as Yushu – would listen to their pleas, said Baobao, 41, a burly Tibetan odd-job labourer, who goes by only one name.

“What we don’t understand is why the officials’ homes can be left alone, but the ordinary people’s homes have to be snatched away,” he told Reuters in the tent he set up next to his home that is still standing.

“There must be two kinds of policies: one for officials and another for ordinary people.”

Land disputes are common across China, but the issue takes on new ramifications in areas dominated by ethnic Tibetans.

An official with the prefecture government said he had no knowledge of the situation.

Officials had first promised Amdo a free house and money in 1995 in exchange for him giving up his herd and relocating to the nearest town. He moved but got nothing in return.

“I petitioned the government to solve my housing problem but there was no effect,” said Amdo, dressed in a sheepskin robe.

Trinley Palmo, 56, another nomadic herder, said the authorities tore down her house in the grasslands after the earthquake, citing safety concerns. Her family was moved into an 80 square-metre (850 sq.foot) brick home in a resettlement area on the outskirts of Gyegu – one of almost 70,000 such households.

An official with Gyegu’s Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Department said resettlement “should not have any detrimental impact” on the nomads’ cultural and religious beliefs.

“Most of the farmers and herdsmen are still in favour of resettlement,” the official, identifying himself by his surname Li, said by telephone.

Many residents said they had seen no benefits. Tashi Nyima, 35 and a former herder, worried about feeding his family.

“If the government policy changes, I would go back to herding,” he said, after trading goods outside a storefront.

After snowstorms last week, Jamdrol said life was tough in the two-room 20 sq. metre tent pitched outside his house. The interior was lined with wooden benches, with strips of carpet on them. His wife, Tselha, was chopping firewood for warmth.

The government may seize his land, but he says he is unafraid.

“I will persist in telling the government the land belongs to me,” Jamdrol said. “Even if they want my life, I’ll never give it up,” he said, moving his finger across his throat.

Finally, Beijing is trying to use the World Buddhist Forum it created to elevate the fake Panchen Lama it created:

China’s disputed selection as the Panchen Lama has espoused Buddhist philosophy in a speech that was his first appearance outside the mainland and showed greater efforts by Beijing to gain acceptance of its rule over Tibet.

The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest spiritual leader, but followers of the exiled Dalai Lama do not recognise China’s choice.

He spoke at the third World Buddhist Forum in Hong Kong, a showcase for China’s cultural diplomacy attended by more than 1,000 monks, nuns and scholars from 50 countries. China holds the forum every three years and the Panchen Lama’s attendance was aimed at burnishing his religious credentials.

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“China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects”

The Diplomat on why China urgently needs to address their building standards problems:

In July 2010, anger over shoddy construction erupted in an area hit hard by the Sichuan earthquake when a building intended to be a new home for earthquake victims collapsed (or was demolished, according to state sources) just a few weeks before completion.

In November 2010, 53 people were killed in a high-rise apartment building fire caused by an unlicensed welder. And last month, a car accident in Jiangsu Province revealed that a dam built atop of a Yangtze River tributary was filled with reeds instead of steel beams.

Why is the quality of some of these structures so poor? Corruption and graft undoubtedly play a role when project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship. Additionally, projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications. In January, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate disclosed that bribery and corruption cases increased in 2010, with urban development and rural election issues involved in the majority of cases. From January to August 2011, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that 6,800 officials had been prosecuted for corruption in infrastructure projects.

But there’s a reason the “tofu project” conversation should be restarted: new measures to combat this problem have recently emerged. After a State Council meeting on January 12 of this year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine announced that they would establish a “blacklist” of businesses reported for quality issues and “shoddy practices.”

Ultimately aside from the danger to human life, “tofu projects” create credibility issues for the government, undermining citizens’ belief in the reliability of government to create safe infrastructure.

And the issue also offers an interesting case study of center-local relations, since many of these issues arise at the local level. At this point, there are far too many counterincentives for rapid construction (mostly at the local level) for there to be an effective central response – officials are rewarded for growth, and large infrastructure projects give local governments status. Sadly it will therefore probably take more accidents like those I described to create sufficient political will to clean up and prevent so many of these projects happening in the future.

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“The Case of the Disappearing Shanghai Subway Apology”

A lot of reactions out today concerning the Shanghai subway crash. Luckily no one seems to have been killed, but some pictures circulating online show that many passengers were very seriously wounded. Coming so close on the heels of the Wenzhou crash this may well arouse more popular anger, which makes this story (via WSJ) interesting:

Shanghai’s subway operator was quick to post an Internet apology Tuesday after a subway accident that left about 250 people injured.

Then it was just as quick in taking it down.

Not long after the midafternoon subway accident in central Shanghai, Shanghai Metro, the operator of Shanghai subway system, issued an apology on Sina Weibo, the popular micro blogging service.

“Today is the darkest day in the operation of Shanghai subway,” the Weibo posting said. “No matter what the final reason or responsibility, [we] feel extremely ashamed and regretful for the harm and loss created for the city residents. … No matter how much we apologize, it only pales in comparison with the practical damage [the accident caused]. Still, [we] want to issue our deep apology.”

But the posting was mysteriously deleted shortly afterwards, prompting discussion–and anger–among Weibo users.

Other Weibo users were more cynical. Lawyer Yuan Yulai wrote, “The current [social] system won’t allow normal human feelings.” Another lawyer, Cui Xiaoping, said, “The original statement was deleted because it didn’t follow the [appropriate] propaganda style.”

A couple hours later, Shanghai Metro posted a positive-sounding Weibo message. It said operations will resume and further investigation into the cause of the accident will be conducted. Like most other official statements on disasters in China, it emphasizes how the victims helped each other and how the rescue workers and firemen came to the scene quickly. It ends by saying, “we did not do well. Please believe us, we’ll definitely do better!”

That posting was met with even more furious comments. Weibo user Zetongzhi sarcastically wrote, “Take back your apology. The subway did no wrong. It was the people [on the subway] who were destined for a bad fate.”

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“Land grabbing puts Tibetan lives in danger in quake-hit Kyegudo”

After the Yushu earthquake last year a number of people worried that the formerly Tibetan town would be erased in favor of a touristy Han town- according to Phayul, some of those fears are coming true:

Native Tibetans living in Kyegudo in eastern Tibet’s Kham Province, who were devastated by a powerful earthquake in April last year, are losing their land to a large number Chinese migrants.

Reports from the region say the mushrooming Chinese migrants across Kyegudo, including Jachukhog region, are seizing agricultural lands used by local Tibetans for the past many generations. The lives of Tibetans who survive on agricultural produce from their land are now in jeopardy.

Moreover, the Chinese migrants are hiring other Chinese workers for permanent job to work on their farm land, putting Tibetan residents in danger of completely losing their source of livelihood.

Despite the Chinese government’s claim of making a great reconstruction efforts in the region, the Tibetans have strongly protested the unjust construction plans and confiscation of plum land owned by the Tibetans. For consecutive days from 1 – 3 April this year, a large number of Tibetans gathered in the main town to vent their indignation raising slogans of “we own rights to our land”.

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“Chinese people show frustration over corruption”

American Public Radio has an interview with a correspondent in Shanghai, whose conversations with Chinese citizens about the Wenzhou crash rings extremely true:

Ryssdal: What are people telling you, Rob? When you’re out and about, what do you hear?

Schmitz: Well, two days after the crash, I was in a taxi, and he’s listening to the radio report from the scene of the crash, and he got so angry that he started just yelling at the radio. You know, you have these moments maybe when you’re in the car when you yelled at the radio. That’s what he was doing; he sort of was ignoring that I was there. And then I sort of asked him, I said, ‘Are you OK? What do you feel about this?’ And he felt relieved to be asked this: he just vented to me for about 15, 20 minutes about how corrupt the government was, how this was the government’s fault. And by the time we knew it, we had stopped about five, 10 minutes ago but he was still venting. It was like one of these — as public radio folks like to say — one of these driveway moments.

Ryssdal: Driveway moments, that’s right, except different context. But hang on a minute, because corruption’s nothing new.

Schmitz: No, corruption’s nothing new, but people talking about corruption all the time on the street with each other; journalists challenging officials, state-run press running with stories about this — that is new. Two nights ago, I was chatting with a Chinese friend and he told me he just read the news that the chief engineer for China’s high-speed rail embezzled 2.8 billion. I said, ‘How? Well 2.8 billion renminbi — that’s about $400 million, boy that’s a lot of money.’ He corrected me, he tells me, ‘No, it was $2.8 billion.’ That’s incredible. Later on, I saw it was reported this guy had just stashed the money into Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. And this Chinese official reportedly has run off with the amount of money equal to the GDP of Fiji. So this type of corruption is really unprecedented.

Worth noting, though, that the journalists challenging officials seem to have been reined in. Whether or not their sudden ferocity was approved by other factions in the government seeking to cut the Rail Ministry down to size is up for debate.

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“End of the high-speed myth?”

ChinaDialogue writes more about the problems at the Ministry of Rail here in China, and concludes with a summary of some of their biggest problems:

The results of this investment can be seen everywhere. Railway construction projects abound in China, costing hundreds of billions of yuan every year. The possibilities for profits through that spending are clear, and a complex web of interests has arisen as a result. Many individuals are profiting from high-speed rail. According to a report by 21st Century Business Herald, senior executives in some 10 listed firms involved in the supply of power, communications, signaling, monitoring, locomotive and carriage systems are part of the Ministry of Railways clique.

Liu wanted as soon as possible to achieve his dream of “flight on the ground” for all weathers. His team told the media on more than one occasion: “Chinese high-speed trains will not collide.” The day the Wuhan to Guangzhou line opened, with an average speed of 273 kilometres per hour, ministry spokesperson Wang Yongping again stressed that China’s high speed railways are “world leaders in comfort, safety and speed”.

This also led the railway authorities to believe high-speed rail could continue to grow at breakneck pace.

You can see this in China’s medium- and long-term plans for the rail network. By 2020, China is supposed to have 50,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines running at over 200 kilometres per hour, while all provincial capitals, except Haikou on Hainan island and Lhasa and Urumqi in the far west, are meant to be reachable from Beijing within eight hours.

These grand ambitions, which will see more high-speed tracks constructed than the rest of the world combined has built over the last 50 years, for a while put the ministry under pressure. But Liu pledged on several occasions that “China’s high-speed rail sector is operating very well overall.”

Five months after Liu was removed from his post, a fatal train crash has put his pledges in a very different light: the safety of high speed rail became uncertain on 23 July – and so did its future. This was reflected in the fierce reaction of the stock market on the first day of trading after the crash. Any company connected to high-speed rail saw sharp falls and even panic selling.

The Ministry of Railways made interest payments of over 40 billion yuan (US$6.2 billion) in 2009, according to a report on transportation development published last year by Minsheng Bank, who warned that in the future that figure could rise as high as 100 billion yuan (US$15.5 billion). The report also predicted that, by 2012, the ministry’s debt to assets ratio would be over 70%. After the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line opened, the Ministry of Railways decided to cut its speed from 350 to 300 kilometres per hour. Hit with unexpected events like July’s crash, and saddled with an ever-increasing mountain of debt, will the charge of China’s high-speed trains continue to slow down?

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