China plan to flood villages to spare Beijing sparks clashes in Hebei province

Residents guard local levees for fear officials will inundate their homes in the middle of the night.

Rescue workers and boats congregate along a flooded road at an industrial development zone, following heavy rainfall in Zhuozhou, Hebei province, China, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

Residents of northern China's Hebei province have been taking to the levees protecting their homes to prevent excavation teams from breaching them, amid criticism that official decisions about who gets flooded are highly political.

Video clips of scuffles, lengthy altercations and clashes with police have emerged on social media in recent days, showing embattled rural residents facing off with officials who want to flood their homes and farmland to protect Beijing, as well as ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's pet project -- Xiong'an New Area.

In one Aug. 2 clip posted to X by the citizen journalism account "Mr Li is not your teacher" residents of Ci village in Hebei demand an official letter from a demolition team leader getting ready to breach a dyke to allow floodwaters to inundate their village.

"This guy was trying to dig through our dyke sneakily," one villager says on the video. "We've been sitting out here protecting it through the night," says another. 

Another adds: "You don't actually have an official document, right?"

"On whose orders are you digging a hole here?" says another resident. "Who ordered this?"

They also complained they haven't been able to eat anything lately, and that they lack drinking water.

Scuffle over dyke

A later video from the same dispute showed villagers piling aboard a police bus, shoving and shouting.

In a similar dispute near worst-hit Zhuozhou city, a video clip shows a number of police vehicles on a road in the dark and rain, with the commentary: "The police have suppressed the villagers who were trying to stop them from breaching the dyke – they say that the dyke has to be breached."

"They're about to breach it now," the person shooting the clip, also dated Aug. 2, says.

People stand on a front loader as they’re evacuated from a flooded residential compound after flooding brought by remnants of Typhoon Doksuri, in Zhuozhou, Hebei province, China, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Another social media video showed a similar dispute in Zhuzhuang village near Zhuozhou.

"We are here watching the levee so they can't come here and dig through it," one villager says on the clip. "If they do, it will destroy several villages."

"The excavator is parked right there, so we villagers have to protect ourselves."

A Hebei resident who gave only the surname He for fear of reprisals said public trust in the authorities is at a low ebb.

"We've seen so many disasters in our lives, whether it be earthquakes or floods, and nobody trusts them any more," he said. "Anyone with any sense knows [what they're like]."

"Somebody could just breach the dykes at any time with no regard for danger to people's lives," he said. 

Buffer for Beijing

The disputes came as China's water resources minister Li Guoying called for flood control measures to prioritize protecting Beijing, Daxing Airport and Xiong'an New Area, while Hebei provincial Communist Party secretary Ni Yuefeng called on officials to treat the province as a buffer zone for Beijing.

A water conservation expert who gave only the surname Sun for fear of reprisals said both statements were political rather than based on best practice.

"The second flood peak is hitting Zhuozhou now, and the water is nearly up to the level of the traffic lights at its deepest point," Sun said. "Basically [allowing the city to flood] will ... put pressure on the Haihe River basin downstream, around Tianjin."

"They should just come out and say why they want to protect Beijing at all costs," he said.

A man sits on a partially submerged vehicle in Zhuozhou, Hebei province, China, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

A compilation of clips from Zhuozhou showed the city and surrounding farmland under water on Friday, with residents walking along railway tracks from which the embankment had been washed away, and hundreds of residents of a tower block stranded, awaiting rescue.

The flooding of Zhuozhou comes after China's water resources minister Li Guoying called in an emergency meeting for the protection of Beijing, Daxing Airport and Xiong'an New Area to be prioritized, according to the official news website.

"As the flood peaks in the Daqing and Yongding rivers ... move downstream, some designated flood storage areas have already been flooded, and some river embankments are in danger," Li was quoted as saying. "This is a critical moment for our flood defenses."

"We must take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the capital Beijing (including Daxing Airport), Xiong'an New Area, and the safety of those living in the flood storage areas," he said.

Politics in command

Meanwhile, Sun said there is still ongoing pressure on reservoirs upstream of Beijing's flooded western districts, and Zhuozhou, further downstream.

"The Shisanling Reservoir in Changping started raising the sluice gates this morning to free up storage capacity and protect Beijing," he said.

"Everything in this flooding crisis is being decided first and foremost by political considerations," he said.

Germany-based water conservation expert Wang Weiluo said the flooding that hit the western Beijing suburb of Mentougou earlier this week had barrelled down the Yongding River, while the flooding that hit Zhuozhou had come down the Juma River from the western Beijing district of Fangshan.

"It was set up this way because the highest priority is to protect Beijing, and it also protects Tianjin," Wang said.

Rescue teams work in a flooded village after heavy rains in Zhuozhou, Baoding city, in northern China’s Hebei province on Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Jade Gao/AFP

Social media comments have complained in recent days that the Communist Party secretary and mayor of Zhuozhou haven't been seen in public for days.

"Desperately seeking the mayor and party secretary of Zhuozhou city," said a satirical "missing persons notice" circulating on social media.

"Someone needs to take charge of the situation and the people need to know what's really happening," it said.

Repeated calls to the volunteer flood hotline went unconnected, while repeated calls to the Zhuozhou municipal government hotline and flood control headquarters rang unanswered on Thursday.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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