China flooding kills a dozen people in important industrial centre

Severe flooding has killed at least a dozen people in Zhengzhou, the central Chinese city that is home to the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant, as record rainfall threatened to burst through nearby dams.

The torrential rain was described by the local weather authorities as being a “once in a millennium” event that surpassed anything recorded since 1951, submerging streets and stranding passengers in subway cars.

From Saturday evening to Tuesday, 671.1mm of rain fell on Zhengzhou, more than the annual average volume of 604.8mm. On Tuesday afternoon, 201.9mm fell in a single hour.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, is an important industrial hub. Its iPhone assembly plant is operated by Taiwan-based Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city’s metro system was shut down on Tuesday evening after part of a wall to keep water out of the tunnels collapsed. Videos shared on social media showed a subway car full of people standing in waist-high water waiting to be rescued.

Twelve people died and five were injured on the subway alone, according to an initial count released by Chinese state media on Wednesday. 

A series of dams on the city’s outskirts were at risk of bursting, forcing authorities to alleviate pressure by discharging water.

Zhengzhou ground to a standstill as flights and trains were cancelled and power outages struck large sections of the city. 

Family and patients at the Zhengzhou university-affiliated hospital, one of the largest in the city, sent out cries for help after the ground floor flooded, cutting off electricity. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping on Wednesday called the situation “extremely severe” and ordered officials to “lead the charge” to protect lives and property.

Shock and anger online was mostly directed at Zhengzhou’s weather forecasters for failing to sufficiently warn residents, as well as at the city’s state media outlets that downplayed the seriousness of the floods.

One widely shared article noted how local state media had initially said people trapped in subway cars were not at risk. 

“Even if it was a once in a millennium downpour that caused the Zhengzhou floods, it may not be a natural disaster,” the article said. “If the dam discharge . . . caused the flood, then that’s definitely a human-made disaster.”

Social media users also forwarded a recent clip from CCTV, the state broadcaster, in which a news reader praised China’s use of “scientific methods” to launch a “comprehensive and systematic” response to heavy rains, in what appeared to be a veiled dig at the severity of recent flooding in Germany

Zhengzhou sits in the low-lying and flood-prone North China plain on the south banks of the Yellow river. The city has invested billions renminbi in building defences for when the river bursts its banks. 

In 2018, the city government said it would spend Rmb53bn by 2020 to turn a fifth of Zhengzhou into a “sponge” city, capable of absorbing heavy rains with waterways and permeable construction materials.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou, Sherry Ju and Sun Yu in Beijing

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