Last year, China's media were packed with stories lauding the country's stirring struggle against record-setting floods. Operas were penned about heroic soldiers tossing themselves into the breach; revolutionary ballets featured brave soldier-dancers lobbing sandbags to uplifting strains.
For a second year in a row, floods are ravaging the Yangtze River valley. But this time, China has changed its tune. A series of government reports trickling out in the state-run press are quietly indicating that corruption, not Mother Nature, is largely to blame for the disasters.
The reports, often two paragraphs in a local newspaper here, a few sentences on a small TV channel there, come at a sensitive time for China. In recent weeks, the ruling Communist Party has claimed that the biggest threats to its rule are the popular Falun Gong spiritual group, which it has outlawed, and the demands of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that Taipei should be treated as an equal partner in negotiations with Beijing.
What the flood reports indicate, however, is that away from the capital, corruption within the party might be causing more instability than obscure Buddhist groups or separatist rumblings from Taiwan.
In a speech on July 13 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Premier Zhu Rongji said there was "no room for optimism" about this year's floods because of early rains and uncompleted or mismanaged water control projects.
"Some leadership officials . . . show paralyzed thinking and self-satisfaction," he said. "They think that because there were major floods on the Yangtze last year, there may not be any this year."
Last year, in the worst flooding in four decades, the Yangtze and major rivers in northeastern China broke their banks, killed more than 4,100 people, left millions homeless and affected one-quarter of China's 1.3 billion people. China's leaders promised a massive campaign to reinforce the dikes and dams along the Yangtze flood plain. Millions of dollars were appropriated for huge projects--as has been the case each year for almost a decade.
So far, this year's floods have been milder than the deluge of 1998. Three provinces--Hubei, Anhui and Hunan--have recently declared flood alerts. More than 400 people have died, and an estimated 60 million people in the Yangtze River basin have been affected.
But, according to Chinese reports, large sums of the flood money have been pilfered, leaving a potentially perilous outlook for later this summer. Already this year, shoddy work has been blamed for the collapse of several dikes.
One project involved repairing a 60-mile-long dike system that protects the teeming central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan and the rich rice-growing region around it. According to a recent broadcast, the government spent several million dollars to contract with an engineering company owned by Hubei province to bolster the system. That firm then subcontracted the work to a company owned by a small city government and took 20 percent of the fee without doing any work. The second company did the same thing, subcontracting the job to a private businessman and swiping 35 percent of the fee.
A television reporter tested the dike's sturdiness by poking at it with a metal pole. It sunk in three feet. "Once the big waters come, this thing will be wiped out," a local farmer told the reporter.
Corruption is not confined to the local level.
According to a report issued in late June by China's National People's Congress, the Ministry of Water Resources for the last few years has diverted millions of dollars earmarked for flood prevention into stocks and real estate.
From 1994 to '98, the report said, the ministry and its subsidiary organizations diverted more than $40 million from specific water projects, including flood control infrastructure and dredging equipment, into the stock market and investments in office and residential buildings. Of that, $8 million was placed into a secret bank account to collect interest. Another $18 million was used to build a "water project monitoring building," which, the auditors discovered, is really a luxury hotel, office and restaurant complex in Beijing.
Partly because of this malfeasance, Zhu fired the minister of water resources, Niu Maosheng, late last year. The Ministry of Water Resources is responsible for construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which is also plagued by corruption. Officials at the ministry declined a request for an interview, saying they were too busy preparing for this year's floods.
Another issue that was a hot topic last year was logging. Last summer, as floods raged, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued an order banning logging in Sichuan province and other parts of central China. Clear-cutting has contributed to flooding because it causes massive soil erosion. The Yangtze used to be a clear river, but now is muddy year-round.
While the logging ban seems to be working in Sichuan, in other areas it is violated with impunity, another government report found. That study, by the Forestry Department this month, found that attempts to stop illegal logging in seven provinces had been endangered by corruption. Checks in 12 districts in Hebei province, for example, showed that only 20 percent of the logging companies had the necessary permits. Checks in other areas revealed that logging companies were using bogus or expired certificates to log in restricted areas.
Officials often claim that low-level corruption is China's worst. A report in the Southern Weekend newspaper earlier this month detailed widespread misuse of government funds in a district of Wuhan. Last year, 370,000 people from the Paizhouwan region were forced to flee their homes because of the floods.
Local officials submitted fraudulent claims to the government about the damage caused by the flooding in the region, pocketing $65,000, the report said. Contracts to do repair work in Paizhouwan were handed out to relatives of local Communist Party officials. And no engineer worked on any of the projects to strengthen the area's dike.