BEIJING – The storm that ravaged Beijing nearly a week ago and killed at least 77 people remains a sensitive topic in China, with a newspaper ordered to cut its coverage and online discussions curtailed.
Directed by propaganda officials, mainstream media have been focusing on positive aspects of the storm, such as rescue efforts, heroic civilian acts and sacrifices by uniformed officials. But those who want to raise questions on the city's handling of the disaster and its drainage system have come under pressure.
Southern Weekly — an influential newspaper known for its edgy reporting — canceled four pages of storm coverage this week, and the newspaper itself — together with Beijing's ex- and acting mayors, and the deaths in Fangshan — the hardest-hit district in Beijing — were all blocked on China's most popular microblogging site, Sina Weibo, on Friday.
The censorship comes during a personnel reshuffling in the city government of the capital as China braces for the once-in-a-decade power handover to the next generation of leaders. That takes place when the Communist Party holds its congress later this year, with banners around the city already calling for the creation of a stable environment for the meeting.
Officials have kept information tight, mindful that any failure to cope with the flooding could reflect badly on the country's leadership. China's communist government has justified its one-party rule in part by delivering economic growth and maintaining stability and acting quickly to manage disasters like the June 21 flooding.
Chinese officials usually limit coverage of disasters, but one media analyst said authorities may have expanded that for the floods because the questions about death tolls are happening against the backdrop of an ill-timed city power shift, with both Beijing's mayor and vice mayor resigning Wednesday.
The outgoing mayor, Guo Jinlong, who was promoted to the city's most senior post of Communist Party secretary, is expected to join the central government's top 25-member politburo at the fall congress.
"It's kind of a perfect storm in terms of press control," David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong-based China Media Project, said of the timing of the disaster so close to the party congress.
A journalist close to the Southern Weekly told The Associated Press that the newspaper killed four pages of storm coverage this week after provincial propaganda officials and corporate management intervened. He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The unpublished articles include an obituary page for 25 storm victims, an analysis of the flooding on a Beijing highway — where at least three people drowned and a story on Beijing's drainage system, the journalist said.
A photo of the proof of the obituary page circulated online, showing big crosses in red ink over the stories of the dead. Chinese online users noted the page might have offended the authority because it identified the victims when the government had not done so. Southern Weekly hits the newsstand on Thursdays.
The news that Southern Weekly was forced to cancel some of its storm coverage caused such a big reaction online that the newspaper itself became an unsearchable phrase late Friday on China's three most popular microblogging sites — Sina Weibo, Sohu Weibo and Tencent Weibo.
In another sign of stringent control, the journalist said the newspaper group that publishes Southern Weekly on Friday issued new rules banning its journalists from speaking to the foreign media.
On Friday, Guo, acting mayor Wang Anshun and Fangshan death were also banned search terms on Sina Weibo.
Chinese Internet companies employ censors to scrub their sites clean of posts that may offend the authorities. They also make certain topics unsearchable to stifle online exchange of information.
Chinese authorities on Thursday raised Beijing storm's death toll to 77 after the public questioned the days-old tally of 37, with some residents even compiling their own totals in a reflection of deep mistrust of the government's handling of the disaster.
In a rare expression of humility, Beijing's flood and drought prevention headquarters offered condolences to the families of the victims and pledged that it would "conscientiously sum up and reflect and learn lessons from" the flood and improve the city's resilience against disasters, the city government said.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Guo and Wang mourned the victims of the July 21 downpour, when they went to Fangshan on Friday to inspect relief work.