BEIJING – 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.
The Beijing city government said 77 bodies of victims from Saturday's downpour had been found in the city as of Thursday, 66 of whom have been identified. Nearly half of the victims were found in worst-hit Fangshan district, a rural community in the city's mountainous outskirts, the government said on its microblog.
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.
Previously, no new death toll figures had been issued since Sunday, the day after Beijing's biggest downpour in 61 years overwhelmed drainage systems, swamped downtown underpasses and sent flash floods roiling through the city's outskirts.
Officials have kept a tight lid on information, mindful that any failure to cope with the flooding could undermine the country's leadership as it undergoes a once-a-decade transition, with Beijing city leaders a part of that reshuffling. China's communist government has justified its one-party rule in part by delivering economic growth and maintaining stability in the face of bubbling unrest and periodic mass disasters like Saturday's flooding.
In explaining why it has taken days for the authorities to update the death toll, flood prevention officials said mudslides that were triggered by the heavy rains hindered rescuers' searches for bodies, the government said. Identifying victims requires repeated investigation and verification, it said, adding that search efforts were ongoing.
The jump in the death toll could reflect the normally arid city's general unpreparedness for heavy rains, said Dong Liming, a professor at Peking University's College of Urban and Environmental Sciences. "Beijing has long been preparing for drought and not floods, so when a major flood hit the city, it resulted in big losses," Dong said.
Earlier Thursday, residents in Beijing's worst-affected Fangshan district were compiling their own death toll online using both public and private chat rooms on the popular Baidu website. The toll was not being posted publicly, but some online accounts said the number was more than 300. There was no way to independently confirm the tally.
A woman with the information office of the Fangshan district government said of that figure, "I don't know where those numbers came from." She would only give her surname, Xu, a common practice among ordinary Chinese officials.
Calls to the information office of the Beijing municipal government rang unanswered.
Li Chengpeng, a writer based in the southwestern province of Sichuan, said he was collecting names of the dead from flooding in Beijing and elsewhere. The official Xinhua News Agency reported at least 95 were killed after weekend storms hit 17 provinces and cities, a toll that was not adjusted after Beijing's new tally was released.
"We need to commemorate the people who have died in tragic events," Li said. "But there are so many of them now, and they go uninvestigated, unaccounted for. Nothing happens after these incidents, and the people die and no figures are given to the public? No acknowledgment? No explanation?"
"We know we cannot expect the government to do this work, so we have to do it. Civil society needs to do it," Li said. "Now people are using the Internet ... to do the job the government does not want to do."
Although China can be tight-lipped when it comes to mass casualties from natural and manmade disasters, it has improved since 2003 when its lack of transparency during the SARS outbreak was blamed for public panic. Death tolls are usually released in a more timely fashion, but the government still routinely withholds the names and biographical details of the deceased, making it hard for citizens to check their accuracy.
The death toll disputes were playing out against the backdrop of an ill-timed power shift, with both Beijing's mayor and vice mayor resigning on Wednesday. Some speculated that the outgoing mayor, Guo Jinlong, who is expected to join the central government's top 25-member politburo in the fall, might have been shedding his mayoral duties in order to avoid further taint from the scandal. But that seemed unlikely since Guo has actually moved into the city's most senior post, Beijing's Communist Party secretary.
The reshuffle was not unexpected but the timing was likely to deepen the public's frustration over the city's lack of leadership and accountability.
More rain was expected for much of north China Thursday, the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said.