Chinese officials arrested for concealing true scale of flood death toll

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Officials in a Chinese province deliberately underreported or concealed 139 deaths from last year’s devastating flood disaster, the country’s central government has said, amid arrests of some of those involved.

Record-breaking rainstorms hit Henan province in central China between 17 and 23 July, overflowing reservoirs, breaching riverbanks, and overwhelming public transport systems and roads in major cities. In the city of Zhengzhou, more than 600mm of rain, equivalent almost to an average year, fell in just three days, flooding metro stations and a cross-city tunnel.

At least 12 died in a Zhengzhou metro station after the tunnels flooded, with alarming footage on social media showing the water level inside carriages reaching passengers’ head-height. Another six were reported at the time to have died in a road tunnel where more than 100 cars were trapped and submerged.

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China’s highest government body, the state council, said it had reviewed an investigation into the disaster, and determined local and provincial officials and authorities to be “guilty of negligence and dereliction of duty, especially considering the casualties in the subway and the tunnel that were not supposed to take place”.

In the weeks following the floods the death toll sat at 99 for several days before officials announced a toll of 302 dead and 50 missing.

But in a statement posted online late on Friday, the state council accused city officials of having “deliberately impeded and withheld reports of up to 139 cases”. The officials were supposed to make daily reports but had “concealed or delayed the reporting of those killed and missing in the disaster”, it said.

The report gave an official final death toll of 398, with more than 95% occurring in the city of Zhengzhou. It did not give details of how many were new cases.

In a separate news conference, investigation officials said the concealed cases included 75 in Zhengzhou city, 49 in the counties, and 15 in townships.

The investigation lead said 23 people died in mudslides and flooding in Xingyang, and five in an explosion caused by the floods at Dengfeng power plant. Local party and government officials “did not truthfully report the real cause of death, and illegally used post-disaster reconstruction subsidy funds to compensate the families of the decease”, the official said.

“Although the disaster was triggered by extreme weather, many problems and deficiencies were exposed,” it said.

“The weaknesses also exist to varying degrees in many parts of the country, [the investigation] noted, urging close attention and solid deeds to rectify them.”

Eight officials have been detained by police and another 89 disciplined, it said.

The flooding of the station and road tunnel were “liability accidents”, with the disaster exacerbated by lagging construction of urban drainage infrastructure and weak links in the emergency management, early warning and response systems.

“They failed to take the primary responsibility in flood prevention and disaster relief, and seriously lacked risk awareness regarding extreme-weather disasters, according to the investigators, who also pointed out problems such as the practices of formalities for formalities’ sake and bureaucratism.”

The overflowing of the Guojiazui reservoir was a law-breaking incident, the report said, but did not provide details.

The statement, posted in English on the state council’s website, is a rare admission of officials’ failure.

In the aftermath of the disaster there was widespread suspicion the death toll was higher than reported, as residents posted of missing loved ones online and authorities blocked access to disaster sites, including for temporary memorials.