The death toll from last weekend’s torrential rains in Beijing has jumped from 37 to 77, confirming what many residents had feared that the toll could be higher.
Beijing authorities explained that the toll increased as more bodies were recovered from the parts worst hit by the unusual downpour. At least 46 died of drowning as areas across the city got suddenly flooded.
An official assured that a further sharp increase in the death toll was unlikely because the search for missing persons was drawing to an end.
Popular social networking sites had been buzzing since the rains on Saturday that the toll was much higher than what the government was claiming it to be; worse authorities were withholding the actual statistics, some commented.
Many internet users recalled the SARS epidemic in 2003 when city authorities had taken the controversial decision to play down the impact of the fast spreading fatal fever.
Subsequently, the then health minister and Beijing mayor was sacked for covering up information about the epidemic.
This time, citizens reacted to what was perceived as slowness on the part of the government in updating casualty figures.
Even state-run news papers and agencies commented about the public’s erosion of faith in the government about sharing the correct picture about the impact of the rain – the heaviest in 61 years.
“Information transparency has become another big test for the Beijing municipal government after it failed to respond to street talk over "withheld updates" on the death toll from the heaviest rain in 61 years,” admitted state-run news agency, Xinhua.
At an earlier briefing, according to Xinhua, the city government said the rainstorm inflicted a direct economic loss of 11.6 billion yuan (1.8 billion U.S. dollars). “But it did not provide the update on death toll -- a question that mostly concerned reporters at the press conference as well as the general public.”
An article carried in Thursday's edition of The People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), said though the city government pledged no cover-up of the death toll after the SARS case, but the public's concerns couldn't recede until the final figure was out
Information disclosure is a dynamic process rather than a static product," it said. "Only by responding to public concerns through various channels in a timely manner, can we better guarantee people's right to know and to a larger extent win the recognition and support of people from all walks of life."