News about China internationally this week has centered on deepening US-China tensions. Houston, we have a problem. But in much of China, it is disastrous floods, and not the dangerously ebbing relationship with America, that have stayed at the top of the headlines. Torrential rains have hammered central and south China this month, causing what state media characterized already 10 days ago as the worst flooding in more than two decades.

A Google News search today for “China” turns up article after article on US-China relations and the row over the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas.

As with the coronavirus epidemic that eventually commanded the news in January, upsetting long-laid plans for a 2020 focussing on happier and more triumphal themes, like victory over poverty and newfound economic wealth, the floods have challenged propaganda authorities with their torrent of bad tidings. How can the government make its rhetorical best of a bad situation, inviting the population to avoid gloomy thoughts and unwanted criticism?

In the case of the epidemic, China eventually did manage to turn the narrative around, focusing on such the heroism of the doctors and nurses on the frontlines, and the sacrifices of ordinary people for the country and for the Chinese Communist Party – all, of course, aided by a robust system of information control. By the end of February, Xi Jinping was claiming a glorious victory.  Along the way, however, many attempts to draw out and emphasize the positives – what in Xi Jinping-speak is called “spreading positive energy” – backfired horribly, drawing anger from Chinese who resented the exploitation of tragedy to distract from government missteps amid a loud chorus of thank you’s.

This week, as flooding continued to wreak havoc China’s south, “Poyang Notices” (鄱阳发布), an official WeChat account operated by the county leadership of Poyang (鄱阳), an area in Jiangxi province that is home to China’s largest freshwater lake, published a post urging people to think of the positives – and of course to be thankful. The post was reminiscent of the bright-side enthusiasm shown in kitsch coronavirus tributes earlier this year, perhaps epitomized by the nauseating poem, “Thank You, COVID-19.”

The original July 22 post by “Poyang Notices,” since deleted. In the image, local officials hoist red flags for the flood relief “Command Center,” for the provincial flood relief “Commando Unit,” and so on.

The post, titled “The Flood is Not Completely a Bad Thing,” began with this summary of the ongoing floods: “Major flooding has done great injury to the people of Poyang and amounts to a grave disaster, but it has also catalyzed many moving stories in the lake city, where there has been rebirth in the midst of disaster . . . . It can clearly be seen that the evils of the flooding are not completely bad.” It then offered the following verse (only partially translated) to encourage positivity:

So bad and so fierce has been this historic flood,
which has torn our homeland to pieces
and upset the rhythm of our lives.
We grit our teeth in hatred of the spirit of the flood,
But rational and tenacious, do not curse the world,
for it has stirred our high-spirited resistance.
Poyang Notices has truly witnessed
in the roiling currents, not just the teeth and claws of the evil waves,
but flashes of the brilliance of humanity.

Further down, the third passage of poem came to the inevitable moment of thanks, with an image that painfully (and quite insensitively for local people, one would think) invoked at once the real floods and the metaphorical surge of gratitude. “The heart’s voice of thanks drifts at every moment through the land of Poyang.”  

Like other sickening tributes to the emotional positives of tragedy in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, the “Poyang Notices” post quickly drew the wrong sort of attention. It was shared across social media platforms to the embarrassment of Poyang’s propaganda authorities. Before long, the post had been deleted, but not before social media users and the media had weighed in.

One voice of criticism was this one from The Beijing News, which urged “serious consideration” of the post’s twisted logic:

This article has now been deleted, but the logic behind it still deserves our serious consideration. Looking at the form of the article, I am willing to believe that the author feels what they set to writing, that many bright and moving points have emerged in the fight against the flood. But a number of lines, such as “Can you say it is completely a bad thing?” and “The evils of the flood disaster are not so bad,” twist the article away from its sound intent, and instead invite discomfort . . . .

Praising the anti-flood spirit and affirming the contributions of personnel fighting the flood is a separate matter from the treatment of the disaster itself. If the refinement of the anti-flood spirit is achieved by beautifying the disaster and forcing on it notions of ‘positive energy,’ then this is an insult to the anti-flood spirit. I am confident that those personnel on the front lines of the anti-flood effort are also none too happy to see this ‘inappropriate’ attitude of affirmation.

A disaster is a disaster. In the process of fighting the flood, the inspiration offered by the spirit of cooperation within social groups and the sparks of radiance in human nature, are a form of the precious spirit of human society, and also an effective way of facing disasters. But to say that this is the benefit of disaster, this is obviously very wrong.

Another post at Pincong, a Chinese online forum for discussion of political issues, was dumbfounded by the tone-deafness and insensitivity of the “Poyang Notices” post:

I don’t know what happened to the editor at “Poyang Notices.” “The evil of the flood disaster isn’t all evil, but also gave rise to good”? What are those who became victims of the flood supposed to think? My friend is in Anhui. The flood has inundated his home. The houses in the countryside will not be structurally sound after soaking up so much water, to say nothing of all of the furniture and electrical appliances. If you were to show him this article, how could he restrain himself from leaping up and cussing his brains out?

Writing on the question-and-answer platform Zhihu (archived here), another user sarcastically encouraged the author of the “Poyang Notices” post to continue seeking out good in the most unlikely places:

I’d really like to invite the little brother (or little sister) who wrote the “Poyang Notices” piece to visit a prison and circulate freely among the murderers and rapists there. I’m sure they would find that those on death row are not all evil, but can also give rise to good.

Once again, CCP propaganda authorities have fallen afoul of their own positivity. These are sensitive times, indeed — when negative news and positive energy alike harbor the potential for undermining the leadership’s standing.

[Featured Image: Flooding in a Chinese city in 2016. Image by Paul Gonzalez available at Flickr.com under CC license.]