Chinese Brace for More Bad Weather After Lunar New Year Chaos


2008.02.01
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GUANGZHOU—The central Chinese province of Hunan has been pummeled by unrelenting snow and icy rains since the middle of January, shutting off water and paralyzing the region’s power grid for seven days in a row. Elsewhere, millions of migrant workers trying to get home for the Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 6 have been stranded in makeshift accommodation or at railway stations.

Footage from the Dongguan service station sent by a passenger, as traffic began to move again Thursday.

“Only hospitals have electricity, and I really want to take a shower but that isn’t possible,” a resident of Chenzhou city surnamed Chen told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“The city at night looks bleak because you can only see car headlights. How can you lead a normal life with no electricity?” said Chen, whose home has been without power or water for five days.

First snow in 100 years

This part of China hasn’t seen weather this harsh for about a century.

The disaster has happened, and now these people have nowhere to go, and everyone is getting very uptight.

The blockage of major roads and railways by snow and power failure has thrown millions of rail passengers into chaos and sent the price of daily goods sky-high as distribution networks come to a standstill in some areas.

An official who answered the phone at the Chenzhou water supply company said the power shortages were causing problems delivering water to customers. “We can’t resume the water supply because there’s no electricity, so we have to wait for that to come back online.”

“People living in houses downhill of the tower are getting water through natural pressure,” he added.

But the power cuts have extended even to the officials in charge of the electricity shortage.

An official who answered the phone at the Chenzhou municipal power bureau said: “Even we at the power bureau haven’t got electricity. I am not optimistic about ending the blackout in the next few days.”

China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV reported Wednesday that 70 percent of the water and electricity supply in Chenzhou city had returned to normal, sparking a flurry of protest in chatrooms and forums online.

Backlash against media reports

One netizen commented on the local forum of Baidu that 80 percent of Chenzhou residents were without power, while another said the television news was less reliable than listening to people complaining.

We understand why there's a blackout, but we can't accept lies.

“We understand why there’s a blackout, but we can’t accept lies,” one person commented.

The railway authorities announced in the early hours of Thursday that trains would soon be running normally out of Guangdong railway station, where tens of thousands of people have been stranded ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Most of them are migrant workers trying to get home for the all-important festival.

“It’s been really tough,” one woman told Cantonese service reporter Lee Yong-tim. “We started queuing the moment we got here two days ago and we have been waiting ever since. We haven’t really slept. I only got about two hours’ sleep last night.”

One man said: “I just pushed my way into the station by following the press of the crowd. It took me about half an hour. I think maybe other people haven’t been so lucky.”

Incentives not to travel

“I have a headache, and a stomachache. I feel dizzy and as if I’m going to faint,” said a woman who had queued for several days to buy a ticket.

A police officer interviewed by RFA was evidently feeling the pressure. “You say it’s not OK, and you are asking me where it’s OK to go, in what areas the authorities could be working harder to make things happen, but there is nothing to be done, don’t you see? The disaster has happened, and now these people have nowhere to go, and everyone is getting very uptight. What’s to be done? What do you mean by asking this?”

Crowds periodically came charging out of the nearby exhibition center and other centers where they had been billeted overnight by the authorities, causing a stampede on the streets.

Scuffles broke out as police and armed police took a snap decision to close the railway station to the crowds, for fear of a crush. The scenes were repeated many times over as would-be travellers tried to reach their destinations.

The authorities have pledged to get everyone home who wants to go within five days. Others are being offered free bus rides back to their factories, to give them the opportunity to abandon their journeys if they choose.

More bad weather forecast

One factory manager from the southern industrial boomtown of Dongguan said his employees were being offered incentives to stay put through Lunar New Year.

“We are trying to persuade workers to stay,” he said. “Our company has arranged entertainment activities for workers who stay during the holiday season.”

“If you stay, your pay will be doubled or tripled,” a factory worker from Dongguan said. “The government is paying the factories to provide catering services and entertainment like movies and so on.”

In Shanghai, queues had begun forming outside rail ticket offices three weeks earlier, one listener told RFA’s Mandarin service call-in show, although their situation had been glossed over by state-run media, he said.

“I don’t know if they were covering it up or if they didn’t know about it, but I have seen it with my own eyes. In the past 10 days, around 20 people have been queuing from about 8 p.m. every evening. Every single day this has happened,” the caller said.

He said he believed the tickets had run out too soon because of too many "backdoor sales" to ticket touts and people connected to railway employees.

China’s meteorological bureau has forecast more snow next week in beleaguered Hunan, Guangdong, and Jiangxi.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders were out showing solidarity with those cut off by the snows.

President Hu Jintao on Thursday toured coal mines in Shanxi province to encourage them to boost production in the wake of the storms, which had affected coal stores in some major cities.

Railway transportation in Guangzhou and Changsha is gradually resuming following a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao Wednesday. Wen promised central government assistance with repairs to the national power grid, crucial to resuming train services.

He also toured railway stations in Hubei and Hunan.

Original reporting from Guangzhou in Cantonese by Lee Yong-tim, and in Mandarin from Hong Kong by Qiao Long and Yan Xiu. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Chen Ping. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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