Flood Buffer

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For 60-year-old Li Ailian, life along that stretch of the Yangtze River is a gamble. Before this year’s monsoon hit, she decided to defy the odds and went along with her usual planting regiment of corn, soy bean and cotton in her tiny patch of land. If nothing had gone wrong, she would have earned about 20,000 RMB for the year, not too bad for a farmer like her. But a climate event that started in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean called El Nino messed with her dice this time. Her field got inundated before she could harvest her crops.

The village where Li lives is located in a “flood buffer zone” that is specifically designated to protect downstream urban centers like Wuhan. When water levels further down the Yangtze become too high, the authority would order the evacuation of entire villages in the zone before it blows up dikes to let in the flood, relieving the pressure on downstream lines of defense. The buffer has been there for as long as 4 decades. The constant threat of floods severely constrains economic developments in the region. No major developments requiring substantial capital investment would go into a place where being submerged is an annual possibility. It is one of the poorest corners of Hubei province, right in the middle of the Yangtze.

Amidst an outburst of national concern about one of the severest floods in decades, a story about vulnerable communities and their sacrifice is apt for a press that values social justice and pursues progressive improvement of governance. If it were 10 years ago, such reports would have filled the pages of those newly liberalized, progressive newspapers. But this time, the story is more of an exception than norm. By the time it emerged on Tencent’s in-depth news platform Prism, national attention on the flood had largely waned.

So what were people reading while massive downpour in early July was paralyzing towns and cities along the Yangtze? Pigs.

On Jul 4, a piece of news report about 6000 stranded pigs in an Anhui province farm suddenly became the focus of Internet sympathy. The picture of the pig farm owner crying in waist-deep water got more than viral on the Internet, it went live. The Anhui website that broke the news outdid its national competitors by bringing a full crew to the farm and live-streamed the scene through the web. It was a sensational success: at one point more than 20 million people linked in to watch how rescuers moved the pigs to a safer place. The phenomenon raised eyebrows all across the observers community. People lamented the pathetic fact that pigs got more attention than humans: at almost the same time, a People’s Daily Weibo post about 16 thousand people being dislocated by the flood received just over 700 retweets.

While conventional wisdom may place the blame on the shallow curiosity of the public, we can also advance a more daring thesis that the pigs have simply occupied a vacuum left by the absence of more dominating narratives that are supposed to guide and channel public sentiment.  

One such narrative, the authority-challenging, justice-pursuing, right-defending line of inquiry was subdued this time, but not by its usual counter-force, the nation-glorifying, unity-championing, Party-praising narrative that often trumps everything else at moments of crisis, through the state-controlled propaganda machinery. Ironically, the latter also found itself in an inhospitable environment in this episode of natural disaster. And curiously, the forces that tore it apart were not the usual suspects of liberal intellectuals.  

As soon as the flood situation in Hubei province got critical, the military was mobilized, as usual, to save the day. Pictures of the heroic PLA quickly began to spread through state media. These are usually good raw materials to erect the monument of national strength and determination. Yet pictures of soaking wet soldiers eating cold, mud-stained buns on the front line of flood fighting triggered a slightly different emotional response than its disseminators had intended: not a sense of awe and gratitude, but indignation. The online community most agitated by this picture turned out to be the most unlikely: military fans.

In terms of fan base, the online military/weaponry sub-culture is probably only outnumbered by the sports fan community, especially among young males. Their jaw-dropping erudition about all aspects of the armed forces can be read as an alarming sign of the militarization of the country’s young minds. But this time, the obsession with anything military turned around and became a source of frustration with the nation state. Opinion leaders in the online community openly questioned why in the 21st century, Chinese soldiers were still fed with cold buns in the field. One of them wrote a comprehensive analysis about how the national propaganda apparatus repeatedly brought embarrassment to the military due to a misguided urge to highlight the “suffering” of disaster relief efforts. “Our people need to see a well-equipped, highly-trained modern armed force.” 

To drive home their point, military fans even researched Russian military food service and showcased the impressive collection of ready-to-eat self-heating full meals available to Russian soldiers in battlefield. Feeling the heat, the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account tried to defend the practice, claiming that eating cold buns was the soldiers’ spontaneous response to an emergency situation, and that “buns were more delicious than pre-prepared meals full of preservatives”. The explanation was heavily ridiculed by the army’s online supporters, who saw the lame response as doing more damage than good.

If narratives run like rivers, their currents wind and swerve following the shape of the terrain. When their main arteries are clogged, the water linger and find other outlets. Pigs and military foods are the buffer zones of the flood of public opinion, as its massive torrents need a space to spread and stay after more consequential destinations are blocked from being pursued.

The debates over the Three Gorges Dam or the myth about magical century-old German sewer systems left in Tsingtao are other futile, distracting buffers that consume public attention and energy. Even though the intensive downpour happened in the lower stream areas unregulated by the dam, it does not stop people from tossing old insults at it, provoking the same old response from the dam’s defenders. And media had to spend serious time busting the groundless myth of the German sewers. 

Occasionally, the pool of trapped water cut off from its journey to the ocean carries an interesting tinge, a tinge from 1998. During the days when Wuhan was besieged by water, people circulated posts about the legendary flood that hit the same region 18 years ago, and how the leaders of that generation, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, presided over a flood-fighting campaign that decided the life and death of tens of millions of people. Nothing in the posts was brand new information. Yet their appearance at the particular moment had subtle effects on the undercurrents that ran deep in the national psyche. 

There is this episode about Wen Jiabao’s decision not to blow up the dikes and harness the flood buffer areas upstream of Wuhan to reduce downstream risks of breach. As Vice Premier delegated with full authority to make such a decision on the spot (and urged to do so by subordinates), he had all the indicators in front of him (including a pre-designated water level by a State Council decree) pointing to opening the dike. However, his order was continued fortification of the dike at all cost, until water level finally started to drop. In the end, no breach happened downstream, and the 330 thousand people in the flood buffer zone were saved from death, losses and displacement.

In the WeChat post that described this episode in great detail, Wen was depicted as risking his political career for that consequential decision. No one would have blamed him if he opened up the dike and sacrificed the people in the buffer zone, as he had all the justification needed. Even if downstream defense still got compromised, he would have the cover of having exhausted options. But not doing it would put him in politically disastrous circumstances if flood did overcome the dikes of the lower Yangtze. For a Chinese Vice Premier, taking care of the marginal and vulnerable is an act of compassion elevated to historic altitudes. 

The complex, ambiguous undertones of such posts provide opening for multiple interpretations. By somehow linking the current situation with the 1998 campaign, which was preserved in the national memory largely as a monument of national unity and struggle untainted by the whines and ridicules nowadays, they introduce the positive elements of state strength and legitimacy into today’s discourse that is facing increasing difficulty of erecting that kind of narratives. On the other hand, highlighting the historical feat of a previous administration always invites comparison and contrast. And when public narratives about party leaders are infested by the frame of power struggle among cliques, boosting the legacy of one former leader often has the effect (intended or unintended) of jeopardizing, if not outright undermining, the stature of their successors.

Like the yearly monsoon of the mighty Yangtze, the din of argument, bicker and question about the flood will ultimately pass. Life in the flood buffer zones, literal and metaphorical, will have to continue. The Li Ailians will need to cope with a new landscape changed, once again, by something that is at once the source of life and its destruction. While spectators like us will need to tell if the winding waterways of a national story about flood is changed permanently or only temporarily by the clogs and breaches that redirects its currents.

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