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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

BEIJING — More than 400 Chinese tourists, many of them thought to be elderly, were still missing late Tuesday after a tour boat sank in the Yangtze River after being hit by a strong storm, possibly a tornado.

Thousands of rescuers worked all day to find survivors, including several reported to be trapped alive in the overturned boat. But by 7 p.m., only 14 to 18 people had been confirmed as safely rescued, with five confirmed dead, according to Hubei province officials and state media.

With a second night falling on the rescue site, the number of dead is certain to rise significantly in what could end up becoming China’s worst maritime disaster since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The boat, the 251-foot-long Eastern Star, was carrying 458 people when it went down — 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Two of the rescued included the boat’s captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody, according to CCTV, for reasons not immediately clear.
Cruising the Yangtze is a popular pastime for foreign and Chinese tourists, with many wanting to see China’s massive Three Gorges Dam and what is left of the gorges that were flooded when the dam was constructed.

The Eastern Star had started its trip Thursday from the eastern city of Nanjing and was traveling to the southwestern city of Chongqing. It sank at about 9:30 p.m. Monday near Jingzhou in Hubei province.

The boat’s captain and its chief engineer reportedly told authorities the ship had been hit by a tornado and had sunk quickly. At least one survivor confirmed that the boat had gone down fast.

“It capsized within a minute,” tour guide Zhang Zhui told China’s Xinhua news service from a hospital bed. Zhang said he survived by jumping through a window of the boat and holding onto debris in the water for several hours.

Government meteorologists confirmed there had been strong thunderstorms in the area, but could not immediately confirm a tornado had formed. Zhang Zuqiang, head of the emergency relief and public service office of China Meteorological Administration, said an expert team was heading to the accident site to evaluate reports of a tornado, according to a report in Caixin, an online Chinese magazine.

According to state media, there was no sign the tour boat was overloaded or had any record of trouble. China News Service reported the ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and could carry up to 534 people. It is one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Company.

As news of the sinking spread across China, relatives of those on board scrambled to learn of their loved ones. Chinese TV showed anguish scenes of tearful and exhausted relatives awaiting news in a Nanjing hotel.

Many in Shanghai gathered outside of the closed office of the Shanghai Xiehe Travel Agency, which had reportedly handled reservations for many on board. A sign on the office — which was posted on Twitter and Chinese social media — gave notice that the company’s president had traveled to the accident scene and urged people with questions to contact government authorities.

China News Service interviewed one woman, Cai Bin, who said her 67-year-old mother was on the boat but that she had been unable to find out anything from the travel agency or local officials. “We are very anxious and we still have slim hope in our heart. We need authorities’ response,” CNS reported Cai as saying.

Maritime disasters in Asia are not uncommon, and some of the biggest can have political ramifications. After the MW Sewol ferry sank last year in South Korea, killing 304 passengers, many of them young students, the country’s prime minister, Jong Hong-won, accepted responsibility and resigned.
On Tuesday morning, state media quickly reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had called for “all-out efforts in rescue work.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quickly arrived at the site and was photographed all day instructing rescue crews on operations. CCTV reported that Li specifically instructed crews to cut into the hull of the overturned boat to find survivors.

Despite such instructions, initial rescue work seemed to go slowly Tuesday, partly because of bad weather and also because of strong currents in the Yangtze. By the afternoon, People’s Daily had reported that three bodies — presumably from the shipwreck — had been found more than 30 miles downstream in Hunan province.

At the upstream Three Gorges Dam, operators held back water to assist in the rescue efforts.

Initial local media reports suggested that as many as 30 people had been successfully rescued, but those numbers were revised later in the day.

Cruising the Yangtze is a relatively inexpensive holiday. On Tuesday, the website of the Shanghai Xiexie travel agency advertised a 13-day cruise up the Yangtze for a basic price of 1,298 yuan, or about $209.

According to People’s Daily, half of those on board the Eastern Star were over 60 years old. One of the women rescued alive Tuesday was 65.
While thunderstorms and tornados are uncommon in northern China, they’ve been known to strike with deadly force in southern sections of the country.

In March 2013, at least 24 people died from a reported tornado and associated thunderstorm that dropped egg-sized hailstones in Guangdong and other provinces. The storm system overturned a ferry in the southeastern province of Fujian, killing at least 11 people, according to state media.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Rescuers save a survivor from the overturned passenger ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in central China’s Hubei Province on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The ship, named Dongfangzhixing, or Eastern Star, sank at around 9:28 p.m. (1328 GMT) on Monday after being caught in a cyclone in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]