Chinese officials intentionally underreported the number of people who died or went missing in severe flooding in Henan province in July, China’s central government said, a rare acknowledgment of officials concealing the true death toll in a disaster.
Local officials in Henan either concealed or delayed the recording of more than 100 cases of people who died or went missing, with some officials “intentionally obstructing” the reports, the State Council, China’s highest government body, said in a statement posted on the main government website late Friday. It said a number of officials would face disciplinary consequences.
According to Friday’s report, 398 people either have been confirmed dead or remain missing following the floods, the most in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. In August, Chinese authorities said there had been 302 confirmed deaths, with 50 people still missing.
The State Council didn’t make clear how many deaths or cases of missing people were reported for the first time on Friday, but said that officials in Zhengzhou, who were supposed to make daily reports of casualties, had at different stages either concealed or delayed reporting 139 cases of deaths and missing people, the statement said.
The statement followed a monthslong investigation by the State Council and widespread doubts about the true death toll after nearly a year’s worth of rainfall poured down on Zhengzhou in the span of three days in late July.
In the weeks after the floods, locals posted online about their missing ones, especially those whose family members were believed to have been among victims trapped in a flooded subway train or a highway tunnel. Many locals have said the official number of deaths didn’t seem to add up.
A memorial to flood victims at a subway station in Zhengzhou. Fourteen people trapped in a flooded subway train died.
Friday’s report didn’t add to the number of those who died on a subway train trapped during the evening rush hour on July 20. There were more than 500 passengers on the train; 14 of them died.
However, initial reports had said six people had died in the water-filled highway tunnel that trapped nearly 250 vehicles; the Friday report now put the number at eight.
One Zhengzhou resident, who had voiced doubts around the death toll, said on the Twitter-like Weibo platform after Friday’s news that the government should release names of the people missing or dead on social media. “Without the names, the numbers are just hollow numbers,” said the resident, who identified himself as a young man, in his post.
Friday’s report blamed local officials for not responding to extreme weather conditions in a timely manner, saying they ignored days of warning by weather authorities and didn’t initiate an emergency-response mechanism until after the majority of casualties had already occurred.
“There was an apparent disconnect between the response system and the weather forecast releases,” the State Council said.
Record rainfall in central China triggered flooding that swamped subways and forced about 100,000 people to relocate. Henan province is a major base for industry and home to one of the world’s biggest iPhone-manufacturing sites. Photo: AFP/Getty Images (Video from 8/2/21)
Eight officials, including those in charge of the construction of the subway line and the highway tunnel, have been detained by the police, while another 89 officials are facing Communist Party disciplinary action, the State Council said.
One commenter on social media wrote after the report: “It’s finally being exposed. Hopefully it can comfort the dead and bring closure to the survivors.”
Since the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, when Chinese officials faced accusations of covering up the true number of infections, Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned officials not to cover up or delay reporting of deaths and cases.
In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the original center of the pandemic, Premier
repeated the warning after reports that local officials had obstructed local doctors’ efforts to disclose an outbreak.
There have been suggestions of underreporting of deaths during the chaos of the Wuhan outbreak, when hospitals were overwhelmed and there was no quick testing. The Wall Street Journal spoke to one woman in Wuhan who said doctors told her Covid-19 likely killed her father, but that like many people he was never formally diagnosed or included in the official tally of cases.
Write to Liyan Qi at email@example.com
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