China orders Henan flood probe after death toll surges to more than 300

ZHENGZHOU: Men stand on a vehicle on a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, on July 23, 2021. Aly Song/Reuters

China's State Council has decided to launch a probe after the death toll from the flooding in Henan province surged to 302 from 99, according to official media reports.

The State Council decided to carry out a "comprehensive and objective assessment" of Henan's disaster response, which will be led by the Ministry of Emergency Management, in a bid to improve disaster prevention and relief, according to the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The probe will also "hold anyone responsible for dereliction of duty," according to the report.

The majority of deaths occurred in the provincial capital city Zhengzhou, where 292 were killed after torrential waters led to landslides, buildings collapsing and the flooding of underground spaces, the official Henan Daily reported, citing the local government. Fifty people were missing across the province, including 47 in Zhengzhou. According to the official tally, 14 people drowned in submerged subway cars, while another six were killed in a swamped tunnel.

The deaths prompted local residents to question if the city government had failed to warn the public, shut down transportation in advance and provide timely rescue efforts. Zhengzhou, a city of 10 million, received a year's worth of rain in just three days last month starting July 20. Across Henan – a hub for agricultural and food production, coal and metals as well as heavy industry – more than 14.53 million people were affected, and direct economic loss reached $17.7 million (114.3 billion yuan), according to the provincial government.

The floods and its aftermaths also added to the tensions between China and the West after the provincial branch of the Communist Youth League, an official arm of the ruling party, used social media to urge members of the public to confront a BBC reporter over his coverage of the disaster, the New York Times reported. Later, a correspondent for German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle was confronted in Zhengzhou by a crowd of people that may have confused him for the BBC journalist.

The incident prompted the U.S. to express concern over harassment and intimidation of foreign correspondents in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the comments "distort facts, confuse right with wrong, and aim to pressure China with unfounded charges," adding that rights of foreign journalists were "fully protected."

Officials have warned that China can expect more extreme weather events amid climate change. The flooding in central China was followed by a heat wave, while a typhoon struck Zhejiang province south of Shanghai last month.

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