A flooded street in central China province of Henan | Facebook: @XinhuaNewsAgency
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The worst rainfall to hit China in 1,000 years also brought a storm of conspiracy theories and targeted attacks on foreign journalists. The flooding in Henan province in central China, which has killed at least 69 people so far, ignited a social media backlash against some foreign journalists based in the country, while a few academics used the tragedy to level allegations against the United States.

In a Weibo post on 23 July, Jin Canrong, Associate Dean, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, suggested that the Henan flood was a “weather weapon” created and deployed by the US. Prof Canrong is a famous media personality in China with over 2 million followers on Weibo.

“If the US military really has such powerful meteorological weapons, to tell the truth, there is no possibility of unifying Taiwan by force. When the US military intervenes in the war in the Taiwan Strait without sending out aircraft carrier battle groups and strategic bombers they can use this weather weapon against the PLA,” said a Weibo user while responding to Jin Canrong’s post.

Other users mocked Jin’s claim. “You are a professor at a national university?” asked a user. “There are really people like you who talk nonsense on the internet every day and disrupt the public environment,” another responded to the original post.

The rainfall, which started Tuesday, had submerged Henan’s capital city Zhengzhou by Friday. Zhengzhou, the manufacturing hub of Apple iPhones housing the company’s largest factory in the world, is estimated to have incurred economic losses worth $10 billion. A spokeswoman from the World Meteorological Organization said Zhengzhou received a year’s worth of rain in just three days. “This is extremely serious,” she said. China’s National Meteorological Center said Zhengzhou received 617.1mm rain in just three days.

The centre said that the excess rain resulted from subtropical high-pressure created by Typhoon In-Fa about 1,000 kms away. Before moving over Taiwan, Typhoon In-Fa started in the East China Sea and made landfall in Zhejiang province Sunday.

According to South China Morning Post, local authorities in Henan have said more than three million people have been affected by the floods. But Chinese state media outlets have kept the number low.


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Journalists become targets

Local residents around the Henan province turned good samaritans, putting their lives in danger to help save many citizens. Several videos and clips of people in groups saving those trapped, including animals, were widely circulated.

But amid all this, some also used the situation to target foreign journalists who were out covering the floods.

Journalists from the Los Angeles Times, Alice Su and Mathias Boelinger, were targeted by people in Zhengzhou who accused them of “rumour-mongering”. Boelinger and Su were mistaken for BBC journalists. Boelinger tweeted that a group that accosted him and Su thought he was BBC’s China correspondent Robin Brant.

Boelinger was followed around the city while reporting on the floods. The locals confronted both journalists, and a video was widely shared on Weibo. One user posted in a group encouraging its 400 members to “kill Boelinger.” The post said they would become “heroes if they killed Boelinger.”

Crowds also followed journalists from German news outlet Deutsche Welle in Zhengzhou on Saturday.


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Citizens speak up

On 20 July, Zhengzhou’s subway station’s Line 5 was flooded with rainwater, and several videos of passengers floating neck-deep inside the train were widely shared. According to Chinese state media posts on Weibo, 14 people died in the subway station flooding. Over 500 passengers were said to have been trapped in the subway station.

On 27 July, a small memorial for the victims was held outside the Shakou Road Station. But the flowers kept by residents had been later barricaded.

Zhengzhou Metro said in a statement on Weibo that the incident on Line 5 of Shakou Road Station resulted from a “rare heavy rainstorm”. But families of the victims demanded answers from local authorities. “Why didn’t you close the station immediately when water began to seep in between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.,” said a social media post reported by Nikkei Asian Review.

In another flooding incident at the Jingguang road tunnel in Zhengzhou, there was widespread condemnation from local residents who alleged ‘slow response.’ According to Emily Feng of NPR, over 200 cars were stuck inside the tunnel – at least two people died. A notice to censor foreign media’s reporting of the Jingguang road tunnel was issued on WeChat and leaked to China Digital Times.

“Henan storm” hashtag began trending on 20 July, and was viewed 6.93 billion times on Weibo. The hashtag “Henan good luck” was viewed 660 million times.

The rain resulting from the Typhoon has disrupted life in Shanghai city as well. On 26 July, Shanghai residents worked from home, and even those jobs that weren’t affected by Covid-19 restriction had to move to a work from home arrangement. On 25 July, Shanghai’s two airports had to be shut down because of Typhoon In-Fa, and all international flights were cancelled. Social media users say the actual death toll may be higher than the official figure of 69 reported by Xinhua.

The government in China has used propaganda to control the spread of information about the Henan floods. But the targeting of foreign journalists is a troubling trend that will further alienate China.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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