北京暴雨给中国人的启示 – Beijing rainstorms, a revelation for Chinese people – English

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On an ordinary week-end, big storms fell on Beijing. This heavy rain suddenly turned the capital into a water city: roads collapsed, water accumulated in the subway, cars turned into boats, but couldn’t move on the stagnant water, pedestrians were blocked by the floods, and many manhole covers burst up, leaving in their place either a whirlpool or a “fountain”. Many internet users have started exchanging jokes “让我们荡起又浆,小车儿推开波浪, the sea’s come to Beijing today.” “The most romantic thing I can think of is to go with you to Beijing, and watch the sea.” As of today, 22nd July 5pm, 212 mm of rain have fallen on the Beijing urban area, killing 37 people, and causing 14,500 to be displaced.

This summer, we’ve already heard many stories of the “seven armies of the flood”, and many cities have reproduced the awkward landscapes of June last year, with “sea views” in the city centres, and “fishing” on the streets. Whether in the South Yangtze country or North of the Yellow river, it seems that, with just some heavy rain fall, all cities can become another little Venice. Before the spring flowers started blooming, the Forbidden City was already facing an ocean; Wuhan University graduates took their graduation shot in the water; Hangzhou has taken a step towards fulfilling the prophecy of ‘the water man stealing the mountain of gold’ ;even the mountain city of Chongching can’t escape its fate and became a flood plain. We can say that some cities in China are already facing “recurrent post-rain paralysis”, but rain turning into an ocean has become a recurring problem for Chinese cities.

A rainstorm reveals two completely different Beijings.

Beijing after the storm has produced endless numbers of moving stories. That night, many weibo users offered shelter to people who could not reach their home, or offered to transport stranded passengers to the airport, many taxis offered free rides and many public servants accompanied other people to their house, more people even went out on their own and saved people, and so on the scenes of rescues, sometimes just a voice was heard and ten people, twelve people, all strangers, standing in waist-deep water, caught that potentially life-saving rope, and pulled vehicles in distress from the deep. We’ve probably lost count of all the touching things that happened.

We have to remember the most lovely people, those who kept us warm among the disaster: a mother stuck in the car while starting labour; an old man lying in the water to clear the sewers; a brother who died on second ring road ; a police lieutenant sacrificed in the front-line rescue; a group of sanitation workers standing in front of the drains that has lost their cover, a group of traffic police drenched by the heavy rain, a group of well-intentioned friends carrying passers-by, and a group of men who invited overnight those who couldn’t return home! These were the most moving scenes in this city ravaged by the floods.

But in the face of disaster, we have also seen faces that fully lacked humanity. For instance, many highway toll stations still paid close attention to fees and charges, a lot of parking inspectors still made “efforts” to ensure that the flooded vehicles got a ticket, and not one government building or hotel opened free of charge for the people affected. If we say that there is no way to compensate for the significant dangers of urban construction in the short-term, couldn’t there still be a bit of humanity in the way things are managed? And so, this rainy night, I have been moved by Beijing, but also sorry for Beijing.

Who will “pay” for the lives lost?

In recent years, over the summer, rainstorms like this have been a frequent occurrence in our cities, and because of poor urban drainage systems, we got used to getting waterlogged. Whenever floodings occur, the government departments in charge like to say: “storms only happen once in a decade, or once in several decades”, what they mean by saying that is, the events are a natural disaster, and they wanna put the blame on old man heaven. But over the past two years, extreme weather events have been a common phenomenon, if a once-in-fifty years or once-in-a-hundred years rainstorm occurred in July, can you guarantee that it won’t occur again in August? And if it occurred this year, can you guarantee that it won’t happen again next year? Even if its a rare occurrence, it’s no excuse for stalling the upgrade of urban water distribution networks.

Why can a city successfully host the Olympic Games, but not withstand a heavy rain? You’ve got the tallest buildings, but your sewers are not wide enough; you’ve got the largest squares, but your roads are not safe enough; you’ve got the largest numbers of traffic control inspectors, but you don’t have good municipal management. And so, when you reach a new country, how do you tell if it’s developed? The writer Long Yingtai replied, the best test is a three hour downpour. If you stroll for a while under an umbrella, and find out that your trousers – though wet – are not dirty, that the traffic – though slow – is not blocked, and though the streets are slippery, there’s no stagnant pools forming, this is probably a developed country; but if you find that there is water everywhere, and the teapots from the stores have drifted to the middle of the street, and children are fishing at the crossroads, this is probably a developing country.

We can assess that half of the damage caused by the rainstorms in Beijing can count as natural disaster, but another part has a human cause. In countries overseas, once government negligence has been proven, officials in charge immediately resign. In China, we’ve never seen anyone courageous enough to stand up. Some people say, 如果把中国官场的这些官员送去世界杯,代表中国队出征,想必是可以进入前三名的,因为他们善于推诿和互相踢皮球. But this time, we hope that some people will be held responsible for the sacrifice of ten lives.

Don’t build taller skyscrapers, just build wider sewers

Compared to developed countries, we’re not doing bad with money now, nor with technology, but what we’re doing bad with is having city planners with a sense of responsibility. Many of our cities are now competing to develop into global metropolises, we can describe them as bubbling up, if you want to repair subway stations, the city will sprint and run, because it will increase the land price. What they’re looking at is short-term gains. Most public funds will go to visible “image projects” and “politically performing projects”, but governments will neglect improving urban water management systems, and “projects buried in the ground”.

It’s been written in the Hong Kong paper “Da Kung Bao” that Chinese people are particularly good at doing big things: the big avenues are luxuriously built, clean and beautiful, but the sidelanes are in bad conditions, primitive and messy; they built dams on the Yangtse river, so the waters of the south can be used in the North, but the city sewers are badly repaired; from the plains of Dongbei to the deserts of the North-West, they’ve developed major oil-fields, but couldn’t keep the small coal mines. There is a majesty and brightness to doing big things, and these can serve to fame and image. The result is the coexistence of major hydraulic engineering with water pollution, and magnificent cities experience energy shortage. Renovating the sewers in the cities’ underground, is that a small thing to do then?

We spent a lot of money to build venues for the Olympic Games and Asia Games, but most of these are ‘disposable’, and when the Games were over, they’ve become waste, utterly useless. So why is the government not willing to spend money for the long-term plan of rebuilding sewers? Why? Some people say, because it won’t increase the GDP, because noone will notice underground repairs, and it won’t count towards leadership performance! If we say that only by paying with lives will authorities consider sewer renovation, then I hope the sacrifice of ten people’s lives in the Beijjng floods was worth it. One Sun Zhijang was enough to change asylum law – won’t the lives of ten Beijingers suffice to increase the safety of our national sewer system?

- This article would like to acknowledge the death of 37 people in the Beijing storms.

Source: 1510, July 23 2012 – http://my1510.cn/article.php?id=81508

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org