Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Torrential Rain in Beijing Brings Out Best and Worst in China's Capital

A Beijing car pulled from the flood. Its driver drowned

On the night of July 21, Beijing encountered the heaviest rain ever since meteorological records were available. Ninety five sections of the Chinese capital’s roads became flooded, caused traffic jams all over the city, and stranded tens of thousands. Thousands of vehicles were stuck on the roads and, as seen in many pictures posted on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, some were even submerged. Ten deaths were reported over the night, including one police officer who died in the line of duty.

In the face of disaster, Beijing citizens showed an exceptional capability for self-rescue and mutual support. Many passengers stuck on the streets reported that they were picked up by private cars for free. @江湖酒吧69 recounted on Sina Weibo: “Around 11 pm, I waited for a taxi in desperation for nearly an hour, until a private car picked me up. The driver drove me for free and also picked up a couple of disabled foreigners and another couple along the way. He told me he had already picked up 27 people, and would continue till 2 am.” 

More than 30 residents in the Wangjing community, near Beijing’s airport, voluntarily teamed up to give free rides to and from the airport, according to @网络新闻联播. “The driver’s report from the front lines: A team of more than 30 vehicles has picked up stranded passengers. Many thanks! The number of passengers stuck at the airport has gone down, so there is no need for other netizens keeping coming. All the volunteers, you showed the love of Beijing!”

Of course, Weibo also became an important frontier for information sharing. Over the course of the evening, Weibo was flooded with tweets asking and giving help. Netizens tweeted weather forecasts, traffic updates and safety tips. Some even offered their apartments to those who could not get home. @书盟 is one of them. “I have a car and an apartment that can accommodate five people. I can provide food, drinks, Internet access and a change of clothes all for free.” He also tweeted his address and cell phone number.

Many said that they were moved by and proud of the love and bravery shown by citizens. Xu Xin (@徐昕), a legal scholar,comments: “I’m sleepless tonight thinking about the heavy rain, the lives lost, the injured people and the police’s rescue efforts; I’m also thinking about so many asking for help on Weibo, and so many offering their help. The spirit of Beijing is not reflected by grand, meaningless words but by the pictures of Beijing tonight. The carrier of the spirit is Weibo, on which energy of kindness is being paid forward. ” 

Beijing citizens chip in to pull a car to safety

Columnist Zhao Chu (@赵楚) believes that such mutual support forms the basis of a civil, democratic society. “When you see people voluntarily show love for others and extend a helping hand, you have a civil, modern society,” he wrote.

However, the story also had a dark side. Irresponsible and inhumane actions were also in evidence during the disaster. It was reported that some taxi drivers refused to take passengers or charged sky-high prices. Some cars that broke down because of the rain were given  traffic tickets by the police for parking violations.

After the disaster, netizens started to think about the lessons learned . Columnist Lian Peng (@连鹏) tweets: “I’m most afraid that a happy ending would be artificially added to the tragedy–the government would convene meetings to praise the police and firemen for being timely and responsible and the people for helping each other. And then? Nothing. No officials would be held accountable, no lesson would be learned, and no improvement made. And after that? The tragedy will be repeated again and again.”

A great number of netizens questioned the lag in government reaction and the lack of experience shown in the face of such natural disaster, urging that a comprehensive emergency response system should be established. The Shengda Literature CEO Hou Xiaoqiang (@侯小强)’s comment is representative: “The government could look into the weakness of the emergency response system and find solutions. 1. how to publicize information about the disaster effectively; 2. how to give self-rescue training; 3. how to handle the traffic during disasters; 4. how to open public facilities to accommodate stranded crowds; 5. how to prevent blockage in the drainage system; 6. how to respond to victims’ need on and offline.”

"This," one netizen wrote, "is true public service."

The drainage system was the target of harsh critics, one of which is from Duan Xingyan (@段郎说事), a police officer in Jiangxi province. “Just because the drainage system is not an image project, mayors pay little attention to it, so that the city is submerged every time there is heavy rain. It’s not a natural disaster but a man-made one!”

From some netizens’ perspective, the disaster is a microcosm of the problems generated by the speedy urbanization in today’s China, where the development of infrastructure, ancillary facilities, government management and social welfare cannot catch up the fast growing scale of cities. Poet and scholar Ye Kuangzheng (@叶匡政)’s provides this insight: “Beijing represents the half-urbanization phenomenon in China. The life in cities is incomplete both in terms of underdeveloped political, econimic and cultural benefits and the disparity of resources distribution within a city. The lack of public facilities, a fragile social welfare system, backward management, environmental pollution and segregation based on residential permits are obvious in Beijing.” 

Please see below for more amazing images, captured from Weibo.


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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.