Typhoon Fitow in China

A makeshift raft joins the traffic on a flooded street in Yuyao, China. At least 10 people were killed and five missing after Typhoon Fitow hit eastern China. (ChinaFotoPress / October 10, 2013)

BEIJING -- When natural disaster hits, China’s need to maintain social order can at times overwhelm its humanitarian efforts.

State security dispatched thousands of riot police and security officers to Yuyao, a badly damaged city in Zhejiang province after Typhoon Fitow hit the eastern coast last week.

Post-typhoon flooding overwhelmed the city several days after the storm, with some reports saying 70% of the streets were flooded. Roads were left so impassable that residents couldn't leave and food supplies could not get in.

After a week of coping on their own, facing critical food shortages, people took to the streets as tempers flared.

Residents said two separate protests involved a total of about 10,000 people. Some Yuyao residents demanded the removal of the city’s mayor and vice mayor, while others demonstrated against a local television station, seeking truthful reporting.

“The government ignored the real needs of ordinary people,” Lao Jianfeng, 31, a primary school teacher in Yuyao said in a phone interview. “We did not get any supplies or assistance from the government.”

“Everyone was on their own trying to escape and people were also helping each other,” Lao said. “Actually there were enough supplies from donations, but we could not get any. No one sent the supplies to us.”

Lao said residents were uncertain about why the supplies were held up.

Flood damage made it difficult to reach the town. Photos of riot police, protesters, floodwaters inundating streets and sidewalks, and skirmishes hit China’s Internet in recent days. The photos showed residents ripping the “Serve the People” slogan from the front of the local government building and smashing government vehicles. Some protesters in the photographs had blood streaming from their foreheads.

Online posts, particularly on the social media site Sina Weibo, were quickly pulled down by censors. Still, videos continued to emerge of the devastation and tense standoffs between crowds of flood-stricken residents and riot police protecting government offices.

China often takes a heavy hand in controlling information about natural disasters, with official media typically limited to positive stories about rescue efforts.

In Yuyao, residents said they felt the truth had been covered up. They voiced suspicion of government reports that nobody had died in the typhoon or subsequent flooding and said they believed more could have been done to warn the city of rising floodwaters and prepare emergency plans.

State media said 10 people were killed in Wenzhou and more were missing, but there have been no casualty numbers provided for Yuyao, which was hit the hardest.

The Yuyao Daily newspaper called on residents to “express their rational demands at an appropriate time, and in a reasonable manner.” The paper urged residents to refrain from protests, which it said might harm recovery efforts by damaging “social stability.”

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McLaughlin is a special correspondent.