China's Snows Have a Chilling Economic Effect

Unusual winter weather across 14 Chinese provinces has stranded millions headed home for the Chinese New Year. Heavy snows are making a serious energy shortage worse and affecting the economy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to China, where the worst winter storms in half a century have crippled the nation's transport system during the busiest travel season of the year. Widespread power outages have left millions of workers stranded as they try to head home for the Chinese New Year. That starts next week. Some roads, airports and railways are reopening, but the situation has exposed an infrastructure system that's not keeping up with China's rapid economic growth.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: The storms have now hit 17 of China's 31 provinces and affected more than 70 million people.

(Soundbite of railway station)

KUHN: Many southbound trains out of Beijing's main railway station were delayed or cancelled. Graduate student Yao Mau Yun(ph) just arrived at the station to find her train cancelled. She says she'll spend her first Chinese New Year's away from home in her dorm room.

Ms. YAO MAU YUN (Student): (Through translator) We are not that bad off, At least we're not stuck on some road with children or old folks. The government really ought to help those people out. At least we have a place to stay and aren't cold or hungry.

KUHN: Nearby, a grizzled band of construction workers are sitting glumly on their luggage. Among them is 59-year-old Wong Duo Hai(ph), a former peanut farmer from Central Hunan Province. For migrant laborers like him, the journey home is never easy. This year the snows have made it extra hard. Wong says he's fed up with Beijing and won't be coming back after the New Year.

Mr. WONG DUO HAI(ph) (Construction Worker): (Through translator) We're so old, and yet the bosses here curse at us and dock our pay. It's so hard just to make a little money; you're at the mercy of whoever you work for. After the Chinese New Year, we'll try looking for work at Shanghai.

KUHN: The storms have caused food prices to spike and aggravated inflation that's running at the highest level in 11 years. China's leaders are worried about public unrest, and Premier Wen Jiabao has visited stranded travelers in two cities this week. On Wednesday, Wen appeared that the railway station in the southern city of Kwangju, where about half a million travelers have been stuck for days.

Premier WEN JIABAO (China): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: I've come here to visit you all, he said. You've had a hard time and I know you're eager to get home. I completely understand how you're feeling.

While state media have praised the government's relief efforts, many Chinese are critical of the government's lack of preparedness for the storms and power shortages. Downed power lines and transportation bottlenecks are not the only problems. The government has kept coal prices low and so coal companies have been unwilling to sell at a loss. Many Southern cities are down to their last day or two of coal reserves.

Jung Da Jun(ph) is an independent Beijing-based economist. He says that too often China's economic growth emphasizes quantity over quality.

Mr. JUNG DA JUN (Economist): (Through translator) This whole storm thing (unintelligible) the credibility of the electricity and railway ministries. What do these railway ministry people do all day? They keep making the trains go faster and faster, but what use is it if they don't prepare for risks and disasters like these?

KUHN: Snow or not, Chinese New Year's still the most important holiday of the year here and the only vacation many Chinese take all year. Besides, when a nation of 1.3 billion people takes a vacation all at once, life is bound to get a bit chaotic.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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