Rescue workers give out food to local residents in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province on October 10, when 70 percent of the urban area was flooded. Photo: IC
The formerlly obscure city of Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, has been at the center of more than one kind of storm this week, as a natural disaster turned into man-made chaos.
Over the last few days, as many as 5,000 residents, according to one eyewitness estimate, descended on local government buildings to protest against whitewashed media reports and the slow relief work after a severe flood.
On Tuesday a Global Times reporter witnessed over 1,000 of Special Forces and armed policemen turning out to greet them. Earlier that day, angered residents had thrown bricks at the buildings and police had arrested a number of residents for acts such as tipping over police cars.
Part of their outrage was triggered by reports from the local Ningbo Television network which they believe showed an overly optimistic version of the recovery effort. This on Friday evening prompted locals to besiege a satellite van owned by the network. Hundreds of residents, some seemingly affected by alcohol, flooded on to the street to mob the van.
The van's windshield was broken and police were called in to calm down the situation, but a police van was attacked and overturned. Police later issued a press release asking the public to remain calm.
"My house was flooded with water when the report was broadcast. The water did not recede until Monday. It was definitely a false report," Fangfang (pseudonym), a local resident, told the Global Times via Weibo.
During the live broadcast by Ningbo Television, a female reporter said, "Some water has receded on the street. We still splashed our way to some roads. As opposed to yesterday, the communication network is becoming smooth and ordinary people's lives are getting back on track. The power supply has also been restored for some families."
On October 7, Yuyao was hit by its most severe flood since 1949. The flood was caused by torrential rains brought about by Typhoon Fitow, which had been hammering sections of China's east coast in previous days.
Once-in-a-century precipitation of 500 millimeters hit the area, and the water level of the Yaojiang River, which flows through the city, later reached 5.33 meters, its highest in 64 years.
About 70 percent of the urban area in Yuyao was flooded and water and electricity supplies were cut off in most parts of the city, which left more than 800,000 residents suffering from shortages of food and power.
The flood caused the city financial losses of nearly 7 billion yuan ($1.14 billion), with the urban area suffering a direct economic loss of 1.51 billion yuan as of October 8, said statistics on the Yuyao government website.
Besides major businesses, individuals also suffered. The Global Times reporter in Yuyao observed economic losses of at least 2,000 yuan for every household in Lubu township, one of the most severely affected regions in Yuyao, where water levels were so high that a grown man could not pass.
The Global Times reporter in Yuyao also found that the level in downtown Yuyao had been receding on October 8, while some parts of the downtown area were still flooded with the water up to a man's waist - in line with the television report.
Despite the fact that the report was not technically wrong, residents reached by the Global Times did not hide their discontent toward local media for prioritizing good news yet overlooking bad items. Significant blame was also put on the Yuyao government as many believed that authorities had not done enough in terms of disaster relief work.
Some residents told the Global Times that the food disseminated by the government made them feel like "beggars" when they either had to ask for help or scramble with others for a mere packet of biscuits.
Instead of relying on the government, many residents said they tried to persevere on their own. People could be seen on the street wading their way through the water to bring home daily necessities from the reopened markets.
"We kept expecting someone to check on us, but they never came. I could not sleep well and didn't know whether the water level was rising or not. I didn't dare check the information via my cell-phone because of the power shortage," Fangfang said, adding that the warning from the government came too late for them to be adequately prepared.
The Yuyao Daily, a newspaper affiliated with the Party committee of Yuyao, published an article on Wednesday saying that the public had overreacted. "We have achieved significant success so far … the public should be more rational and focus on the relief work."
No news is bad news
The dissatisfaction from locals is understandable, given how little attention was paid to Yuyao after the flood took place, said Yu Guoming, a vice president of the Journalism School at the Renmin University of China.
"The nationwide indifference to their plight disappointed them, and local media reports became the fuse that ignited public anger. Reporters should carry out their broadcast after gauging public opinion and shouldn't go against it," Yu said.
As the siege drew attention to Yuyao, the media industry in China was blamed for holding back unpleasant information. "The media should be the watchdog for public opinion and society. But now we have seen too many good news reports and too few about events or people that endanger our society," Yu said.
He was echoed by Geoffrey Murray, a former foreign correspondent and now a journalism teacher in Beijing, who pointed out that there is a prevalence of negative news as well, and both sides need to be balanced. He said that there was for a very long time an official determination only to report the good news and now younger reporters seem determined to offset that by focusing on negative issues.
"It will take time before we can achieve balance. There's always room for good, inspiring news but we have to deal with the ugly side, too," he said. "China will emerge stronger from this openness if the media can maintain a sense of balance, not over-sensationalizing but certainly telling it like it is."
Yang Hui contributed to the story