Copyright The new York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: February 4, 2008
SHANGHAI â€šÃ„Ã® 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 countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s power plants and stranded millions of Chinese on the eve of the yearâ€šÃ„Ã´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 â€šÃ„Ã® as many as 100 million people were directly affected â€šÃ„Ã® 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 countryâ€šÃ„Ã´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.
â€šÃ„ÃºThe main problem is lack of preparedness,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Luo Shihong, a relief volunteer in Guiyang, in Guizhou Province. â€šÃ„ÃºBy 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.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Xie Yonggang, a crisis management expert in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, had a similar explanation: â€šÃ„ÃºDespite the weather forecasts, the transportation department didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t realize how serious this was until all the roads were already blocked.â€šÃ„Ã¹
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.
â€šÃ„ÃºThe Railway Ministry has a tone that is different from that of Guangdong, whose attitude had been clear,â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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.
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Copyright The new York Times