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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008

Crises cast light on China's problems


HONG KONG — More snow, even blizzards, are expected this week, but for the most part, China has weathered the crisis brought on by weeks of unusually bad weather, including severe snow and ice storms that affected most of the country, paralyzing transport systems just when millions of people were trying to get home to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Millions spent New Year's Eve in darkness.

"We have won a partial victory against the disaster of rain, snow and ice," said the State Council's Disaster Relief and Emergency Command Center on Saturday. "From today on we must continue to guarantee transport, electricity and basic livelihoods."

The storms, described as the worst in more than half a century, affected the supply of electricity to tens of millions of people as power transmission towers collapsed from the weight of ice and snow.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of migrant workers mobbed train stations during their only holiday of the year in an attempt to be reunited with families and friends during the new year. Ultimately, most of them did get on trains after waiting in the cold and rain for days, though hundreds of thousands had to give up their only chance to see their family.

While the crisis was caused by the inclement weather, it also exposed many of the weaknesses of the country's infrastructure and the contradictory policies of the government, often caused by contrasting needs.

One problem, for example, was the country's reliance on coal to fuel its power plants. Several years ago, the government shut down thousands of unsafe mines because thousands of people were dying in mining incidents each year. Mining fatalities dropped to about 3,800 last year — still the highest in the world — but coal production fell and prices rose.

Because state policy dictates that the price of electricity cannot be raised, coal stockpiles fell as managers of power plants waited for warmer weather when coal prices would drop.

The problem is that while coal prices are allowed to rise and fall, the government — despite its insistence that China has adopted a market economy — fixes electricity prices for political reasons, making it impossible for power plants to pass on price increases to their customers.

When the coal shortage led to power cuts, miners were then told to work through the new year holidays to ensure adequate supplies. President Hu Jintao personally inspected a coal mine in Shanxi province and encouraged miners to increase coal supplies in the battle against the cold weather.

The annual pilgrimage home on the part of migrant workers is aggravated by China's "hukou" policy, which condemns anyone born in the countryside to live there for life. If the policy were more flexible so that family members can join the breadwinner when he or she moves to a new city in which to work, the problem would be eased somewhat.

Overall, the crisis reflected problems in the country's emergency response mechanism. The crisis was brewing for weeks but the government was slow in responding. With a press that only reports good news, it is understandable that Beijing did not immediate realize the enormity of the situation.

Premier Wen Jiabao, in an unusual gesture, publicly apologized for the government's failings before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers at the Changsha railway station in Hunan province. "I apologize to you all," he said. "We are currently trying our best to repair the system. First, we need to get the electricity running, then it won't take much time for everyone to be able to go home and pass the New Year."

The Communist Party took this crisis seriously as it could potentially have proved extremely destabilizing, with tens of millions of people in over a dozen provinces affected.

With the economy growing by leaps and bounds, the people expect the government to respond to their needs. And with millions of people left stranded, literally, in the cold, the government had to nip in the bud any protests that could destabilize the country.

The disaster this year reflects the changes that China has undergone over the last three decades, though it also underlines the reforms that remain to be made. In 1976, when China was struck by a devastating earthquake in Tangshan with a loss of 600,000 lives, the country proudly refused to accept any outside assistance.

This time, the Foreign Ministry publicly thanked countries that had provided emergency relief assistance "for their friendship and support to the Chinese government and people."

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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