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Zhengzhou post-disaster: When a city suddenly loses all internet access

Written by Du Qiang Published on     10 mins read

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What happens when a torrential downpour in a Chinese city cut off water, power, and even the internet?

In post-flood Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million people in central China, a person who has access to water, electricity, and the internet at the same time is considered extremely fortunate.

Water outages were particularly prevalent in the city during the flood. Gallons of bulk water were snatched up in supermarkets, with smaller bottles sold out as well. Customers gathered around the front desk of a motel near the Erqi Memorial Tower to complain, “It truly stinks!” “Fill it up and flush it with that,” the owner said, pulling a large plastic bucket from beneath his feet and pointing to a deep waterlogged trench outside the entrance.

Large swaths of Zhengzhou city were blacked out, with the already run-down neighborhoods bearing the brunt of it due to aged circuits. Numerous businesses along the streets were closed, and those that remained open sold unrefrigerated fish and milk at a discount. However, the checkout could not be completed because cash had been absent from daily use for an extended period of time, banks remained closed due to power failures, and some people had even resorted to bartering.

The owner of a fresh food supermarket along the Qili River sat fretfully at the entrance as a middle-aged man came out of the pitch-black store, holding a bag of onions and little winter squash that totaled roughly 20 yuan (about 3 dollars) after being weighed on a scale.

“Cash only.”

“Can I use Alipay?” The customer asked.

“Can you open Alipay?”

The middle-aged man didn’t have cash. He fished out a pack of cigarettes from his black handbag—a blue pack of Xuanhemen, priced at roughly 19 yuan (USD 2.94). (This is like Germany during its economic collapse after the Second World War, when people used storable, easily distributable cigarettes as “currency.”)

While disruptions to water and electricity are relatively uncommon throughout generations, Zhengzhou was unprepared for the loss of internet connectivity. What’s disturbing about the post-disaster Zhengzhou is not only the horrific picture of automobiles floating in tunnels filled with water but also the fact that the old order before the internet failed to pick up the slack after the city went offline.

After July 20th, it was as though Zhengzhou had returned overnight to the year 2000. How could the people of Zhengzhou find a haven of digital civilization in a city without the internet and electricity?

The region surrounding Zhengzhou East Railway Station was cut off from water, electricity, and the internet. The turnstiles at the station’s exit all failed, forcing passengers who needed to swipe their ID cards or tickets to evacuate to squeeze through the gates. And when they finally made their way out to the station plaza, they saw that the city’s primary modes of public transit had become shared bicycles and ride-sharing services.

Several major online ride-hailing firms have ceased operations in Zhengzhou due to safety concerns. Additionally, the majority of bus routes halted service. Passengers dragging luggage stopped delivery trucks, trying to hitchhike. The crossroads southwest of the station have devolved into a lawless trade zone, with passengers swarming to empty cabs approaching and seeking rides at any price, with no meter required.

But the drivers didn’t care about the price. Instead, they were asking, “Do you have cash on hand? WeChat and Alipay are no good now.”

Occasionally, cab drivers would purposefully inflate the fare and invent the most believable justification for it—”I’m driving an electric car. There is very little electricity remaining, and I have no idea where to charge it. All of the charging piles have been destroyed.” Furthermore, according to municipal Zhengzhou data, more than 80% of the city’s taxis have been replaced with new energy vehicles.

Around noon on July 21, hundreds of passengers were trapped at the crossroads in front of the station. The fleet of Kuaigou Taxi cars and Huolala vans shuttled through the crowd, scattered bags, and submerged cars. Passengers didn’t care whether the vehicle was a Wuling Hongguang or a Jinbei (both minivans), or whether they had to sit on the lap of a complete stranger, as long as they could get a ride.

I stopped in front of a Kuaigou Taxi van. The driver was a forty-something man with a buzz cut and worn face. When I inquired about the cost of a one-way trip, he appeared hesitant and responded, “How much do you want to pay?” From the following back-and-forth, I learned he was unaware of this newly burgeoning “business.” “Let me check the distance on the map first,” he said, pulling out his phone. However, he said a minute later, “There is no network.”

City dwellers have grown accustomed to the new order shaped by internet technology, as it redefines how transactions take place and even helps re-establish trust between people through the mechanism of internet products—no more swindling by online merchants, unnecessary detours from cab drivers, or even stolen or lost cell phones (because you can easily track its location). However, on July 21, in Zhengzhou, the Kuaigou Taxi driver and I were tentatively sounding each other out as if looking for a skill lost for many years.

This unprecedented circumstance put the people of Zhengzhou to the test. They have acted in a quite civilized way, in my opinion. Under the faulty traffic lights, cars were respectful in yielding the right of way. When a cab pulled over near East Station Square, the passenger got out of the car and discovered he had no cash. He repeatedly apologized, but the driver simply waved his hand and drove away.

There are undoubtedly instances of impatience and rage, but given the circumstances, these are forgivable. On East Station South Road, a man wearing a camouflage backpack attempted unsuccessfully to unlock a Meituan shared bicycle by scanning its QR code, and he was already sweating. He raised his phone to the sky and made two signal-searching circles in vain as if he were the African migrant attempting to catch a weak mobile connection on the shores of Djibouti city in John Stanmeyer’s Photo of the Year photography masterpiece. After a few moments, he vented his frustration by slamming the QR code with his hand, twice.

Almost a hundred shared bicycles were strewn along South East Station Road. Over 30 people attempted to scan the QR code in less than a half-hour, but only two got the feeble signal. Following the successful unlocking of a bike by a young man who appeared to be a student, he joyously hummed a song with the lines, “Riding my darling little bike…” More people had to find faulty internet products—a bike with a broken lock—for this dysfunctional occasion.

In such an extreme case, newer may not necessarily mean better. In Zhengzhou, Meituan bicycle has introduced a new generation of bikes that do away with traditional locks. The new electromagnetic locks require scanning when unlocking and returning, and the system assesses whether the vehicle is parked in assigned spots. However, this new internet-enabled function added to the annoyance for Zhengzhou residents at the moment.

Like Zhengzhou, a city in the central plains that is unprepared for daily precipitation over 500 millimeters, the majority of internet technology companies did not see this day coming either. Instead, they were preoccupied with piling increasingly sophisticated and complicated designs on top of the network communications’ underpinnings but neglected to anticipate what would happen if the foundation broke.

The internet is the new infrastructure, eclipsing water, electricity, and coal as the defining feature of our era. This is especially true when you observe disturbed crowds around East Station South Street holding out their cell phones.

The majority of businesses along the street have closed, particularly large chain stores such as McDonald’s, and the only remaining establishments are corner shops.

“Hello, I made a reservation on Ctrip (a multinational online travel service headquartered in Shanghai),” I said to the receptionist at the small inn of a hotel chain called Elan.

“Ctrip? I don’t have power or internet right now,” she said, gesturing toward the computer in front of her. “How can I check if you’ve booked it?” she asked. A paper board with thick horizontal lines drawn on each room number was pressed beneath her hand. Customers continued to arrive, many of whom approached the front desk, glanced at the yellow and green types of shared rechargeables, and walked away.

The power was restored three kilometers to the west. The owner of a mutton soup diner informed me that I could not order takeout at this time. “It’s not like Meituan has been shut down. We manually suspended the service. Orders were received, and we processed them, but after 40 minutes with no sign of a single delivery worker, the customer was forced to cancel the transaction. By then, the meal had already been prepared, and we had to shoulder the loss on our own. So, we simply closed the service.”

When you lose internet access, you have to re-adjust to life on all fronts. However, until they experience it themselves, people appear unable to comprehend what it’s like to be disconnected from the internet.

Meituan sent out a text message on the evening of the 21st, “To provide convenient access for the public during inclement weather, Meituan bicycles will be free to ride in Zhengzhou from the 21st to the 28th, costs paid during the period will be refunded to your account. As a special reminder, check road conditions prior to riding, maintain clear vision while riding, and avoid wading through water on submerged roads. Fair weather or foul weather, we are with you, Zhengzhou!”

I wanted to offer my pals at Meituan a tight hug and express my gratitude for their thoughtfulness, but I also wanted to whisper in his ear, “Dumbass, the problem wasn’t the money at all.”

That nightfall, Zhengzhou was once again drenched in rain. As I rushed to a motel on Zhengxing Street, I noticed that all streetlights and traffic lights were down, and the visibility and road conditions were quite poor. I passed over a dozen shared bikes on the road during my 40—minute trek, but there was still no network to unlock any of them.

I used the flashlight on my phone to see the road while navigating through the offline Amap app’s downloaded map (also known as Gaode Map in Chinese). Following the floods, Amap launched a storm assistance function that displays a red marker on the map in areas where an emergency exists. However, if you are not in an oasis with an internet connection, you have no way of using it. It is available to people in Beijing who do not need it.

I walked to the vicinity of the Erqi Memorial Towers, as indicated on the map, and was stopped by someone.

“Stop right there, man. A large puddle awaits ahead. You can’t get through.” Although it was too dark to tell, I believed he appeared to be older than me.

“Take a detour there. Keep an eye on the puddle and avoid stepping in it,” he went on saying.

I expressed my gratitude and asked if he was a government employee.

“No. I live nearby and am aware that there is a large pit here. I’m able to alert others about it. I’ve been here for a while,” he said, then noticed the map on my phone and said, “Don’t just stare at it. It’s not working right now. ”

There is no doubt that the city of Zhengzhou’s gradual recovery, prior to the restoration of power and internet, is dependent on every ordinary person, whether it is a delivery truck driver, a street cleaner, a traffic cop, or a hotel employee who is gracious enough to open a network hotspot for passers-by for free. It is rooted in our innate empathy, sense of responsibility, and even self-interest, which we developed long before internet technology permeated every facet of our life. Not to be sentimental or to defend these old things, but to be honest, I have forgotten about them at times due to the rapid advancement of technology and society.

I met Zhang in the afternoon of the 21st, in a little square near Chengdongnan Road. He hadn’t been outside in two days and sat on the steps for some fresh air. He described the hardships of water and electricity outages in the neighborhood, as well as the car floating in a nearby culvert, but concluded with, “Henan people are fearless; we’ve seen worse.”

For two days, Zhang was nervous about using his cell phone, “It’s got only about 20% of the power left. Since there is no internet, the power can last longer.”

“So, how do you get the news and the government briefings?” I asked.

“Neighbors would inform me of those, like where there is going to be a flood discharge. We are close here.”

Since the deluge and flooding, the city government has communicated the majority of information over the internet and on television. Nonetheless, the same old problem persists—a lack of electricity and internet. It’s probably difficult to quantify how many people have been cut off from the latest and most important news as a result.

For the time being, Zhang was concerned about how he would contact his family back home if his phone died. He intended to drive back but was concerned about road safety.

He is originally from Xuchang (another city in Henan Province) and has spent many years working in Zhengzhou. His eldest daughter is just three years old. He has only returned to the family home twice over this entire period. “I’ve always wanted to return and introduce my child to her grandparents. However, my wife thinks that traveling with children is too bothersome and that WeChat video calls are just as good.”

“So, how can it be just as good?”

“It’s definitely not,” he replied.

 

This story first appeared on Story Hardcore, and was translated by Qianyu Han.

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