Why you won’t hear a peep from China about climate change despite heaviest rain in a millennium

Gushing water turned streets into rivers in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, with levels so high that cars were floating at the same height as traffic lights.

People waded through, looking for their children and belongings, with many displaced as homes were destroyed from severe flooding, caused this week by the heaviest rain "in a millennium".

Such freak weather occurrences are increasing globally due to climate change. And the world is in store for even more intense storms in the coming years. As the atmosphere warms, it also holds more moisture – so when the clouds break, more rain gets dumped.

But unlike Germany, where leaders were quick to use the floods as an opportunity to stress the urgency of tackling climate change, Beijing has been keeping mum about the wider context.

An invitation for criticism 

Leader Xi Jinping himself – in his only public statement since the floods began – has instead spoken in platitudes, calling on local officials to handle the emergency response and “strictly prevent” further disaster.

Chinese authorities have also been quick to characterise the weather disruptions – upending the lives of millions – as a black swan event.

Being silent so far is at odds with Mr Xi’s own ambitious goal – for China to be carbon neutral by 2060.

But being vocal now would complicate the situation for the Communist Party.

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon – and thus the biggest culprit at the moment for global warming.

Publicly linking the floods to climate concerns means admitting that perhaps catastrophe could have been prevented, or at least mitigated, had the government, along with other nations, acted earlier on the environment front.

In other words, it would possibly invite criticism and perhaps provide an opening for the public, and the world, to hold China accountable.

The impact of urban expansion 

The Chinese government has also yet to admit that an overreliance of dams and urban expansion has increased the impact of severe weather instances.

Years of development have put millions of Chinese in low-lying areas prone to flooding, and near poorly maintained dams that are no longer able to keep water at bay.

At least one article posted online linking the collapse of a nearby dam to subway flooding in Zhengzhou has already been scrubbed off the internet by censors.

Paramilitary police officers clear debris on a street affected by floods due to heavy rainfall in Gongyi city, Henan

Credit: REUTERS

A damaged bridge in Gongyi

Credit: Why China will remain silent on climate change despite heaviest rain in a millennium /AFP

Rescue workers evacuate residents on a boat past stranded vehicles in Zhengzhou

Credit: REUTERS

In past summer floods, farmers with ruined crops and families with nowhere to live have had little avenue for recourse – as is often the case in China.

The Communist Party is consistently worried that such gripes could threaten its legitimacy, leading local officials to get people to drop related lawsuits and complaints, as they did with those upset about the government’s cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic.

State media has also already begun accusing foreign media for reporting that dams collapsing had exacerbated the impact of the floods – at times a telltale sign that journalists are indeed barking up the right tree.

But as with most things involving China’s opaque elite leaders, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly how they may be thinking privately and behind closed doors.

Perhaps the devastation of millions of citizens will prompt the government to begin moving more aggressively on the climate front – despite Beijing continually politicising the issue by saying that it won’t cooperate with major countries like the US unless Washington caves in on human rights issues. 

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