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In flooded China town, students cling to tractors to get to college entrance exam

A man paddles by a sculpture submerged by floodwaters along the riverside park on Sunday in Wuhan, China. (AP)

First the coronavirus pandemic, now flooding is upending life across China.

On Wednesday, as the critical “gaokao” college entrance exam began, students in one town clung to wheel loaders — tractors with front-end shovels — to cross waist-deep water to their test site.

“Don’t worry students! We are coming!” read the caption of a video released by local police officers ferrying the students across rushing water.

The gaokao was already delayed a month because of the virus outbreak. On Wednesday, high school students braved the worst flooding in decades to vie for a place in college.

The floods across China’s heartland and south are a blow to the country’s recovery efforts after the coronavirus pandemic. The heavy rains are causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage to cities, homes and businesses. Officials have not confirmed a nationwide toll from the current crisis, although local media have reported two fatalities in Anhui province.

While the rain has come down in historic volumes, the damage may have been exacerbated by failures in safeguards. On Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, ordered officials to heighten vigilance.

“Some smaller reservoirs have no one looking after them,” the commentary said. “In each place, there needs to be designated people responsible for flood prevention policy, technology and inspections.”

Fearing political dangers, China spent years preparing for this economic crash

Economically, the floods will make it more challenging for China to deliver growth this year, after the virus stalled factory production for months. Politically, it’s another crisis facing leader Xi Jinping, who is already juggling the pandemic, hostile U.S.-China relations and global backlash over Beijing’s moves in Hong Kong.

Beijing set up its new national security office in Hong Kong on Wednesday, after fast-tracking a contentious law last month.

For high school seniors in Hubei province’s Huangmei County, the floods came as a nerve-racking complication to the most important test of their lives. The gaokao is the key determinant for college entry in China, unlike in the United States, where other factors such as extracurricular activities and personal essays carry significant weight.

Classes had already been disrupted this year across Hubei as officials locked down the province. Huangmei County lies to the southeast of Wuhan, the provincial capital where the virus outbreak was first detected.

With heavy rain forecast, Huangmei’s government ordered businesses across town to delay the start of the workday on Wednesday and Thursday to ensure students could make it on time for the two-day test.

“You only need to make sure you brave the wind and waves. Huangmei’s police will protect your ship,” said a police announcement posted on Tuesday.

But Wednesday morning, several hundred high school boarding students in Huangmei found themselves stuck in their dorm with five feet of water outside, according to an online post by the town’s police.

Photos posted by police showed students in white-and-navy school uniforms being ferried in inflatable rafts and wheel loaders, before they were rushed to the test site on buses.

The 500 students received extra time for the morning part of the exam and were able to take the afternoon part normally, according to an online post by the People’s Daily.

The heavy rains also flooded farmers’ fields around Huangmei and resulted in a local dam leaking, according to official notices.

In the first half of 2020, 119 people died or disappeared in China because of flooding, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management.

On Tuesday evening, the ministry upgraded the response level to the flood and sent emergency response teams to 11 provinces.

Wang Yuan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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