Beijing raises death toll to 77 after long silence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am

Beijing authorities last night more than doubled the official death toll from last weekend's devastating storm in the capital to 77, following days of mounting public calls for a more accurate count of those killed.

The belated update was the first since Sunday, when it was said 37 had been killed.

However, the government maintained its strict censorship of media reports about the capital's worst deluge in decades, going as far as to invite Beijing-based reporters on Wednesday to 'have tea' with the city's propaganda chief until past midnight - a euphemism for a lecture from officials. Additionally, eight pages of reports on the storm in a leading liberal weekly were pulled at the last minute.

City officials updated the death toll at a press conference last night, saying that at least 77 bodies were found in Beijing, and 61 civilians had been identified among the victims - 36 male and 25 female, including an eight-month-old baby. Five officials were among the dead.

Most of the bodies were found on the outskirts of the capital, particularly in the heavily hit Fangshan district, where 38 deaths were reported. Seven people also died in the Chaoyang and Dongcheng districts in the city centre.

Additionally, Baoding city in neighbouring Hebei province announced that it had recorded 26 deaths from the storm, with 20 people still missing, as of last night.

While some people mourned the dead, others voiced disbelief.

'Seventy-seven people died in a rainstorm in a metropolis - a host city of the Olympic Games. Can you believe it?' Sina Weibo user Dazuihouye said.

Other commenters pointed to authorities' much criticised handling of the disaster and questioned whether anyone would take responsibility and apologise. 'Will the government lower the flag to half mast for the dead?' said another microblog user posting under the name Wangwengang.

Last night's announcement followed a dramatic official press conference a day earlier, after which there was intense speculation that the city government had intended to announce a higher death toll until a last-minute change of heart.

One reporter with CCTV reportedly saw a spokesman's prepared statement mentioning the deaths of 61 people, but the official never mentioned this.

Pan Anjun, from Beijing's Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, stumbled after reading 'the figures for injuries and deaths in the rainstorm' before stopping short and declaring instead that more than 1.6 million people in the capital were affected.

After the conference, more than 30 reporters from Beijing-based media outlets were invited to 'have tea' until about 2am with Lu Wei, Beijing's deputy mayor and propaganda chief, a reporter who attended the press conference and asked not to be named said. Lu explained to them that the authorities were still identifying bodies.

But the delay in revising the death toll stoked public anger. Even People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, ran a commentary yesterday lambasting the decision to not update the casualties. 'The public's concern about the deaths and injuries will not fade away [until] accurate figures are released,' it said.

The Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly pulled eight pages of detailed coverage of the storm, 'at the last minute', after seven reporters had travelled more than 2,000 kilometres to report on the disaster, one of the paper's reporters said.

The reporter said the censors told them they could not run a full-page obituary for more than 20 victims, but only one honouring the five civil servants killed.