Having brought the coronavirus pandemic largely under control, China’s leaders are now struggling with a surge of floods that have killed hundreds of people and displaced millions across the central and southwestern parts of the country.
Flooding on the Yangtze River peaked again this week, in Sichuan Province and the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing, while the Three Gorges Dam, 280 miles downstream, reached its highest level since it began holding water in 2003.
This year’s flooding has unfolded not as a single natural disaster, with an enormous loss of life and property, but rather as a slow, merciless series of smaller ones, whose combined toll has steadily mounted even as official reports have focused on the government’s relief efforts.
“The Chinese nation has fought natural disasters for thousands of years, gaining precious experience,” the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, declared Tuesday after a visit to Anhui, another flooded province downstream from the Three Gorges Dam. “We should continue to fight.”
Public appearances in flood-stricken areas by Xi and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, underscored the severity of the crisis, which has delivered another blow to an economy still struggling to rebound from the pandemic.
Li visited Chongqing, where the Yangtze spilled over its banks for the fifth time this year and Thursday afternoon breached the historical high reached in 1981. The leaders have tried to reassure people that the government was doing everything it could, but some might have doubts.
“I believe that the Chinese public will question Beijing from this year’s continuous natural and man-made disasters, and even question China’s governance model and its effectiveness,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing.
The floods had already caused at least $26 billion in economic losses before this week. At a briefing in Beijing last week, Zhou Xuewen, secretary-general of China’s flood control headquarters, said that at least 63 million people had been affected and 54,000 homes destroyed. At least 219 people have died or disappeared, he said.
In Sichuan on Friday, a landslide caused by heavy rains killed at least six people in a village near Ya’an. Another in the same region left five people missing.
Heavy rains are normal in southern China during the summer, but this year’s fell harder and longer than usual, inundating crops and entire communities over the past two months. Perhaps not coincidentally, Xi announced a campaign against food waste against the backdrop of the flooding, although officials have insisted there is no impending food crisis.