China's Forecast Remains Grim

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Gu Yuanzheng / ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images

Chinese wait in line to get water from a streetside pump in Wuhan, in Hubei province, Feb. 1, 2008

China's winter storm crisis is now more than two weeks old, and despite a nationwide mobilization and a "war on snow havoc," as state-run media called it, serious problems remain. In some hard-hit interior provinces, residents have now been without power for more than a week. The transportation woes that left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded ahead of the Chinese New Year Holiday have gradually improved, but not quickly enough for people's expectations. On Saturday, a young woman died after being trampled to death by a crowd pushing toward the train station in the southern city of Guangzhou. Police said that 18-year-old Li Hongxia, part of a group of workers at a Guangzhou watch factory hoping to return to their village in Hubei, was crushed after a crowd of 260,000 people converged on the station after hearing reports from the Railway Ministry that the northbound route had returned to service.

The severe storms have affected an estimated 100 million people, and more than 60 have been killed so far in weather-related accidents. The Ministry of Civil Affairs reported that snow and ice destroyed 223,000 houses and caused $7.5 billion in damage. More than 300,000 soldiers have been deployed to manage the crisis along with more than a million reservists and military police. News footage showed tanks being used to clear ice from a highway in Anhui province, and flamethrowers were used to de-ice power lines.

By Monday, the government reported, the main north-south highway through Hunan was finally cleared. But the latest meteorological reports indicate more harsh weather is expected. "The most difficult period is still not over yet," China's State Council warned after a meeting Friday. "The situation remains grim."

While China's leadership has generally done well managing the crisis, says Joseph Cheng, who heads the Contemporary China Research Project at City University of Hong Kong, poor, rural areas have been without heat or electricity for days. Yongli township in the southeast corner of Guizhou, a poor province in south central China, has been without power for two weeks now, according to Yuan Zhanhua, secretary of Yongli's political and legislative affairs committee. While villages have sufficient stores of rice, they don't have enough diesel fuel to mill the unprocessed grain. So far just one of the township's 13 villages has power restored. "We are restoring the collapsed power-line poles as fast as we can," says Yuan. "We hope to have all fixed after the Spring Festival holiday."

Ensuring the holiday isn't tainted by crisis is important for China's leaders. "Even during the most difficult year in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, when materials were in short supply, leaders like Mao and others made sure the people had a supply of pork, Tianjin cabbage, freshwater fish and maybe chicken," Cheng says. "This is the benchmark. Leaders who do not deliver during the Chinese New Year, the people judge very harshly."

Small wonder then that China's leaders appeared as if they were in the middle of a political campaign last week. With power plants facing record shortfalls of coal, President Hu Jintao visited a coal field in Shanxi province and shook hands with miners. Last week Premier Wen spoke to travelers stranded at train stations in Hunan and Guangzhou. After a short return to the capital, he was back on the road on Friday, visiting residents of Chenzhou, a Hunan city of 4 million that has been without power for 10 days.

One Chenzhou resident, who posted to a blog using a mobile phone with a dying battery, wrote about being urged to buy candles before the city's supply ran out and about the possibility of getting electricity before the New Year holiday begins on Feb. 7. "I don't mind not watching the New Year TV gala, but I really want to know how NBA games are doing," the blogger wrote, under the name Cricket. "My biggest wish is to have a hot shower before the Chinese New Year. It doesn't matter whether I have money or not, but I have to spend the New Year holiday clean."