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Cold Chinese Grow Angry Over Lack of Preparation

Old 02-04-08, 04:17 PM
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Cold Chinese Grow Angry Over Lack of Preparation
February 4, 2008
News Analysis
Cold Chinese Grow Angry Over Lack of Preparation
SHANGHAI — For two weeks running, much of this country, long known for its capacity for mass mobilization, has been tied in knots by a series of major snowstorms.

Although the snowfall has been described as the worst here in 50 years, it has been nothing like the deep cover that blankets parts of New England or the upper Midwest in many winters.

But its crippling effect seems to have been mostly because of surprise. The storm knocked out electricity and water supplies, threatened the coal supply that fuels the country’s power plants and stranded millions of Chinese on the eve of the year’s most important holiday.

Many of the worst effects have been in parts of east-central and southern China, which are largely unaccustomed to serious snowfall.

Many victims, however — as many as 100 million people were directly affected — equate surprise on such a huge scale with lack of preparation.

For migrant workers unable to take their annual leave for the Lunar New Year, or for others stuck at home without electricity, water, regular supplies of food or even reliable news, the government, instead of an unpredictable weather system, increasingly appears to be the culprit.

In the last week the Chinese government has worked as hard at public relations over the crisis as it has over crisis management itself.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has traveled around affected areas almost nonstop, went early in the week to the southern city of Guangzhou, where as many as 800,000 people had gathered at the train station at one point seeking to begin their annual vacations.

President Hu Jintao went to a coal mine in northern Shaanxi Province to encourage miners to redouble their efforts, including forgoing New Year celebrations, to spare the country’s power grid from further brownouts. Mr. Hu, who is known for his circumspection in public, was quoted as saying he was unable to sleep because of the scale of the emergency.

But in many badly affected areas the government seems to have almost disappeared, so overwhelmed it has been by the demand for emergency services. In other areas poor coordination between levels of government and among various agencies has seriously complicated matters.

“The main problem is lack of preparedness,” said Luo Shihong, a relief volunteer in Guiyang, in Guizhou Province. “By late January both the government and people thought the sky would clear up in a couple of days and it would be over. The officials had a lot of confidence initially, then a day or two later they discovered how unprepared they were mentally, physically and in terms of manpower.”

Xie Yonggang, a crisis management expert in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, had a similar explanation: “Despite the weather forecasts, the transportation department didn’t realize how serious this was until all the roads were already blocked.”

In Guangzhou, the capital of southeastern Guangdong Province, which has the largest concentration of migrant labor, these crossed signals may have narrowly missed causing disaster among the desperate crowds stranded at the train station.

Provincial authorities have worked hard for days to convince would-be travelers to abandon their plans to spend the holidays with family in faraway provinces, arranging ticket refunds, setting up shelters and offering nonstop propaganda about the money-saving virtues of staying put. Several hundred thousand people were gradually persuaded to leave the area of the train station.

On Thursday, though, a spokesman for the Railway Ministry said anyone wishing to travel home by train from Guangdong Province would be able to do so within five days. That brought a new surge of passengers, worsening the potentially explosive scene at the station.

Two people reportedly died at the station on Sunday, one crushed in a stampede and the other electrocuted as he tried to jump aboard a train.

“The Railway Ministry has a tone that is different from that of Guangdong, whose attitude had been clear,” said Wen Yunchao, a freelance Internet journalist. It would have been better to hold back as many people as possible so that some could go, instead of telling everyone they could go, he said.

The crisis in Guangdong has been made worse by other contradictions, as well. Although the provincial government has tried to encourage workers to remain at their dormitories, nobody seems to have coordinated with the factories.

“Many factories in the Pearl Delta are already closed or have laid off workers,” said Mr. Wen, the journalist. “The workers at those places have to go home, and they have brought all of their belongings and a few days’ cash out with them. They don’t plan to return to Guangzhou and don’t have a way back home, and we’ve seen no government arrangements directed at this group.”

Transportation is far from the only problem. China’s entire power system, from its extensive reliance on coal to its use of a high-tension power grid spanning the country, has proven surprisingly vulnerable. Agriculture, too, has suffered.

With train service badly affected, the authorities have faced the awkward choice of ferrying passengers or ferrying coal to power plants with the locomotives still in service. By some estimates, China’s coal reserves at power plants had dwindled to a historic low, with only a two-day supply remaining in many places.

Liu Xinfang, a spokesman for the national grid, said that as of Saturday 2,000 transmission towers and about 24,000 miles of transmission cables were still down in central and eastern China. “The wires have been frozen into huge ice sticks,” he said. “Some towers are bearing four times their weight.”

Others said the high number of collapsed transmission towers was a result of the fact that in southern China they are spaced far apart, largely as an economy measure.

One of the worst-hit areas for power has been Chenzhou, a city of four million in Hunan Province, where many have lacked water, electricity, heating or commercial food supplies for 10 days.

“Our power grid system was seriously damaged, in fact torn to pieces, and it is very hard to repair,” said Li Yufang, chief of the city’s emergency operations center. “When one part of the grid is fixed, another suddenly collapses, so power can only be transmitted intermittently.”

In southeastern Guizhou, another hard-hit area, officials said there had been extensive loss of winter crops, like wheat. Power has been out there for weeks.

“In towns and villages life now depends on primitive means,” said Lu Jiang, a spokesman for Southeast Qian Prefecture. “We get light from burning pine, and families grind grains with stone mortars. It’s not difficult to survive, but to live the way we did before the snow began, we will have to wait until the next season.”
As usual, it will be up to the US to help.

We'll air-drop the Congressional Black Caucus in to organize the complaining. Ray Nagin, too, maybe.

Thank God for Global Warming. Maybe we'll airlift Gorebot there too.
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