The trouble with propaganda is that sometimes people believe it. On Saturday, July 21, Beijing saw its heaviest rainfall in 61 years, leading to massive -- and in some cases preventable -- flooding, forcing the evacuation of 50,000 people from neighborhoods and villages across the capital. Shortly after the rain stopped on Sunday night, the city government reported that a shocking 37 people had died: 25 had drowned, collapsed structures killed six, five were electrocuted, and one was hit by lightning. Chinese citizens were left wondering how their capital, the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the last decade and the seat of a government that claims to "serve its people with all its heart" still had a Third World sewer system.
More than 9 million people have so far commented on the storm on the Chinese Internet; many complained about a government response that they felt lacked thoroughness, especially in the hardest-hit area in the poorer southwestern district of Fangshan, and chided the officials for releasing what many believed at the time was an unrealistically low number of deaths, though no alternative credible counts have been released. On Tuesday, Beijing city government spokeswoman Wang Hui shot back against the claims. "We learned our lesson from SARS," she said, referring to the widespread criticisms of the government hush-up of the 2003 respiratory disease outbreak. "Everyone should know that we'll speak the truth." If it were only that simple.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media ran headlines saying that Guo Jinlong resigned from his post as mayor of Beijing to take over as Communist Party secretary, the highest-ranking position in the municipal government. Though the timing is strange, the move itself is not: Guo had been appointed party secretary in early July, and his resignation and appointment follows the pattern of the last few transfers of power in the Beijing city government. Indeed, in many ways, Guo has had it easy. Because the Communist Party controls the media, he can showcase positive images of rescuers helping stranded victims and put a lid on roving photographers publishing photos that show damaged infrastructure and official inaction. Likewise, while Sina Weibo users might gripe, the overly offensive content gets deleted. Guo's name is even blocked on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, making it more difficult to publicly criticize him.
Guo, wearing a button-down short-sleeve shirt (the garb favored by Chinese government officials who want to show they are men of the people getting things done), gave an interview at 1:35 a.m. on Sunday morning to state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) in which he said, "We're rushing to deal with this emergency with all of our strength." He forestalled criticism by acknowledging that the "storm tells us the city's infrastructure is still comparatively weak." And, of course, he didn't have to worry about answering any difficult questions.