Chinese towns were sacrificed to floods to save Xi’s pet project


Satellite imagery using sensory aperture radar revealed the vast extent of flooding south of Beijing in early August. (Video: The Washington Post/Satellite image © ASF/ESA)

When the remnants of Typhoon Doksuri battered northern China this month, dumping the most rain on Beijing since records began in 1883, it wasn’t only the capital that was threatened. The extreme weather also posed a severe risk to Xiong’an New Area, a sprawling development more than twice the size of New York City.

Xiong’an is a pet project of Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, who declared that it would be a “city of the future” — a “socialist modern metropolis” far beyond the imagination of Western capitals.

Officials jumped into action, pledging to protect the capital and Xiong’an — under construction for the past six years — at all costs. Authorities began using a network of dams and reservoirs starting July 30 to discharge water from overflowing rivers into seven designated flood zones in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing. It was the region’s largest effort to control flooding in 60 years.

Hebei’s Communist Party secretary said the province would “resolutely serve as the moat” for the capital. Officials also pledged to protect the port city of Tianjin, population 15 million, to the east and the new Daxing international airport to the south.

Visual evidence and firsthand accounts gathered by The Washington Post show that, while the effort diverted water away from Xiong’an and other urban areas, it directly contributed to the devastation of rural villages in Hebei, destroying homes and livelihoods. Satellite images reveal that authorities’ actions led to a dramatic increase of water across those areas, covering at least 95 square miles — almost 46,000 football fields. In one of the clearest examples, more than 20 square miles of farmland near Xiong’an’s high-speed railway station were still underwater on Aug. 5.

The idea that rural areas are better suited to take the brunt of flooding dates to as early as the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the country’s flood zones — areas that are deliberately flooded to absorb excess water — were built. But such areas are no longer as sparsely populated as they once were. Local governments have allowed towns in designated flood zones to grow, despite regulations meant to control the number of residents living there.

“Is it the government’s fault or is it the people’s fault for moving back to these places?” said Wang Weiluo, an engineer and expert on China’s water system who is based in Germany. “It’s the government’s. All those people were given approvals to build their homes there. They’re the government’s rules and they didn’t enforce them.”

These areas would have experienced some degree of flooding, given the historic amounts of rainfall last month. But experts believe it was made worse by the authorities who opened floodgates on dams, releasing more than 1 trillion gallons of water — equivalent to 1.6 million Olympic swimming pools — into nearby villages and farmland.

“They chose to protect some so-called important areas and abandon some so-called not important areas. It’s a political decision,” Wang said.

Some residents in these areas interviewed by The Post said they weren’t aware that they lived in flood storage zones. Others said government flood control staff didn’t notify them before their homes were inundated and all their belongings destroyed.

It may never be known how many people died or were displaced as a result of these decisions, but at least 29 people in Hebei perished during the flooding. About 1.75 million people were relocated, including more than 900,000 from zones where houses were flooded. The economic damage totaled $13 billion in a province where rural incomes are less than a quarter of incomes in Beijing.

China’s Ministry of Water Resources and the Hebei Water Resources Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Authorities knew of risks to villages

As the rain hammered China’s northeast at the end of July, waters surged down the Baigou and South Juma rivers toward Xiong’an. Hebei flood control authorities quickly shut the Baigouyin Gate, stopping the deluge from reaching a lake in Xiong’an. Hundreds of workers, toiling in the rain to reinforce levees and dams, vowed not to let “a drop of water” enter the development.

Other dams were opened to push floodwaters east toward farmland and villages in the county of Bazhou — the “vegetable basket” of the region. They were soon submerged.

“My home is gone. My factory equipment is destroyed. Many people still need to pay mortgages and car loans, and their children’s tuition fees,” said a factory manager in Renzhuangzi village in Bazhou county, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from local authorities. “Of course I’m angry.”

A wider analysis of the Bazhou area showed approximately 55 square miles of additional surface water remained in the area near Bazhou on Aug. 5, according to imagery analyzed by Samira Daneshgar Asl, a remote sensing scientist with the geospatial research firm ESRI.

The following week, Hebei’s party secretary, Ni Yuefeng — the same one who pledged to use his province as a moat for Beijing — visited the diversion system by the Baigouyin dam and held a meeting on the flood efforts. Applauding the cadres who protected Xiong’an, he said that “under the strong leadership” of Xi, they had protected the “project of the millennium,” he said.

Public documents reviewed by The Post showed that central and local government water officials should have been well aware of long-standing problems in Hebei’s flood management system that may have added to the damage.

As many as 70 percent of the dikes in the Hai River Basin, which encompasses Hebei, are prone to collapse, according to a report released in April from the Haihe Water Conservancy, part of the central government’s Ministry of Water Resources.

A 2021 Hebei government document said the “slow progress” building emergency safety structures like flood barriers, shelters and elevated platforms would cause “serious losses” if the flood zones were to be used.

Video from Aug. 4 shows floodwaters inundating China’s agricultural centers, forcing many to evacuate. (Video: AP)

Residents have made their anger as clear. Dozens of people gathered outside Bazhou government offices on Aug. 5 in a rare protest. They unfurled a long red banner with white writing that read: “Give back our homes. It was clearly water being discharged yet you still said it was the rain.”

Protesters outside government offices unfurled banners reading: “Give back our homes. It was clearly water being discharged yet you still said it was the rain.” (Video: Storyful)

Sacrificing part for the whole

Upstream from Xiong’an, in the village of Dongmaying, which was suddenly flooded on Aug. 3, residents were confused — and later angry — about why their homes were suddenly drenched when it had stopped raining two days before in that area.

“This wasn’t normal waterlogging. It was water being discharged. We live in a flood storage zone so we are expendable if it means protecting Beijing and Xiong’an,” said Zhang, a resident, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used.

“There used to be no Xiong’an New Area. Now, we could be flooded at any time,” she said.

About 31 square miles of additional surface water remained in Dongmaying on Aug. 5, according to SAR imagery analyzed by Daneshgar Asl. At least 113,000 people had to be evacuated from the wider area.

Others, unaware their villages could be intentionally flooded, said they weren’t given any advance warning. One 70-year-old resident and his 64-year-old wife living in Zhuozhou, in another flood zone, had no time to prepare when floodwaters reached the second floor of their house on Aug. 2. The couple escaped to the roof and waited six hours until a neighbor passing by in a fishing boat rescued them.

“Even as the water was coming into our home, we didn’t hear a word. The government here isn’t doing anything,” said the resident, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used out of concern for his security for criticizing authorities.

The Chinese Communist Party has set out a clear pecking order in the case of flooding. During floods in Hebei in 1996, the provincial party secretary said Beijing and Tianjin were top priority, then came railroads and oil fields. Last were the people, who would “absorb the danger and losses” for their country.

It seems little has changed. As these areas flooded on Aug. 1, a newspaper operated by China’s Ministry of Water Resources said, “It’s inevitable that you sacrifice one part for the sake of the whole.”

“The principle of flood control is to minimize losses,” Zhang Jianyun, director of the Climate Change Research Center of the Ministry of Water Resources, told a state-affiliated outlet this month. “It’s necessary to protect big cities because the cost of flooding is very high. After the flood recedes, farmland can be replanted and the loss is relatively small.”

But the losses are no longer small. Both Bazhou and Zhuozhou are home to more than half a million people, and they have been allowed to expand despite regulations stipulating growth be controlled and residents from frequently used flood zones be relocated. The population of Bazhou is now 45 percent higher than in 1996, while in Zhuozhou, it’s up one-quarter.

The episode has created a challenge for the Chinese leadership as it faces the country’s worst economic prospects in four decades, with residents demanding to know why they were deemed less important.

Weeks after the floods, protesters were still gathering in Bazhou, demanding compensation from the government. Online, people continue to vent: “To protect the big cities, you sacrifice the towns. To protect the cities, you sacrifice the countryside,” one user wrote recently on the microblog Weibo. “This is privilege manifested.”

Kuo, Chiang and Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Kelly reported from Washington and Tabrizy from New York. Theodora Yu in Hong Kong, Imogen Piper in London and Evan Hill in New York contributed to this report.


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