A passenger stands in a Zhengzhou subway car, the floodwaters rising above his waist as floodwaters outside the subway doors surge past.
One story has dominated the hearts and minds of people across China today, as harrowing scenes of record flooding in the city of Zhengzhou have proliferated on social media. The scenes shared on WeChat and Weibo in the past 24 hours have been heart-wrenchingly human – passengers trapped in subway cars as the underground floodwaters swell up to their chests, and lifeless bodies lying out on the Shakou Road subway platform.
In rather stark contrast, the story in the Party-state media has been far more subdued, and in some cases backgrounded entirely, as the authorities have sought to downplay the images of chaos.
On the front page of the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper today scenes of flooding were not to be seen at all. Instead, coverage to the right of the masthead focused on the translation into “many languages” of Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Below the masthead, the focus was on revisions to family planning law to legitimize the three-child policy.
Only on page seven did the CCP’s flagship newspaper finally offer coverage of flooding in Henan, focusing on the all-out effort, the images depicting resolute action. The headline gave nothing away: “Henan Suffers Heavy Precipitation, Departments in Many Areas Take Countermeasures: In Rescue Efforts, All Parties Going All Out” (河南遭遇强降水，多地多部门采取应对措施 抢险救援 各方全力以赴).
At People’s Daily Online the focus today, in the large headline across the top of the photo slideshow, was on Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” concerning rescue efforts in Henan (more on that below). The images were again of rescue teams making preparations. The news stories to the right, however, all dealt with other matters, including the publication of Xi’s CCP centennial speech in foreign language editions, and the third article in a special series on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
On the website of the official Xinhua News Agency, this pattern of coverage was repeated. The top headline dealt with Xi’s “important instructions,” coming over the top of a tame image of passengers waiting outside Zhengzhou East Station.
Coverage to the right again dealt with Xi Jinping’s July 1 speech, and with other official matters, such as new regulations from the Cyberspace Administration of China on child internet celebrities (网红儿童) and changes to family planning policy.
At regional Party papers, coverage of the flood was either downplayed (usually, news of Xi’s “important instructions” only) or not visible at all. One might think that the Henan Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in the province most seriously impacted by the flooding, would be right on top of the story. On the paper’s website, however, the top story today was a propaganda piece for the CCP’s centennial called “A Century of Struggle, Setting Sail on a New Journey (奋斗百年路 启航新征程). This was followed by a special on Xi Jinping called “Keeping the Mandate in Mind, Advancing as Guided by the General Secretary” (牢记嘱托 沿着总书记指引的方向前进).
Did coverage of the flooding follow behind these these propaganda set pieces? No, it did not. The story that followed was about China’s first hybrid motorcycle rolling off the line in Luoyang. Next came a story about a ceremony held for the province’s first styrene project.
At Nanfang Daily, the CCP paper in Guangdong province, the translation of Xi Jinping’s centennial speech into foreign languages was the top story. Below that came another article about the Party’s “century-long struggle” for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Next came changes to the family planning policy, followed by an article about the response to a typhoon in Guangdong.
Xi Over Li
Between the lines of this toned-down coverage of the floods in Henan, however, is what is perhaps an important political story in the making – the complete sidelining of Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) in official reporting of the flood response.
It is general practice in the case of major disasters for the general secretary and the premier, the heads of the Party and the government, to jointly “issue important instructions” (重要指示) and “make written comments” (批示). We talk a bit more about these two important phrases in the CMP Dictionary. For example, following a deadly gas explosion in the central Chinese city of Shiyan last month, Xinhua and the People’s Daily reported both Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” and (in a smaller headline just below) Li Keqiang’s “written comments,” reflecting concerted action from these two top leaders.
It is quite unprecedented today to see Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” on flooding in Henan without mention of Premier Li.
The only mention we have at all of Li today concerns an Executive Meeting of the State Council, which dealt with financial sector opening (金融业开放), and at which the premier also mentioned flood relief efforts. On tonight’s official nightly newscast, Xinwen Lianbo, mention of Li’s meeting came only at around the 15 minute mark.
We would generally always expect Xinhua News Agency reports mentioned “important instructions” to also mention “written comments.” What we might be seeing in the case of the Henan floods is a change to this unwritten rule, which related to Xi Jinping’s dominating position within the Party.