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Wicked winter weather tests, strains China

China tackled its snow crisis with a striking — and uniquely Chinese — display of communist mass mobilization, propaganda and state control.
Image: China weather, mobilization
Soldiers from the People's Liberation Army help clear snow off roads in Nanjing on Jan. 29 in eastern China's Jiangsu province. China mobilized its army to aid relief efforts in areas hit hardest by intense winter weather that froze transport and affected millions of people.AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

China tackled its snow crisis with a striking — and uniquely Chinese — display of communist mass mobilization, propaganda and state control.

But for the host of the summer Olympic Games, the weather blitz also laid bare its weaknesses, stretching its transport and energy systems to the limit.

Still, the crisis has wound down just in time for the Lunar New Year holiday, and illustrates the strengths of a one-party system struggling to manage an ever more complex society.

"The essential thing is that the central government has very substantial mobilization powers," said Joseph Cheng, chairman of the City University of Hong Kong's Contemporary China Research Center. "Once it sets its priorities, it can really act."

Snarled transport had returned to normal on Wednesday, and the China Meteorological Administration lifted a severe weather emergency alert issued Jan. 25 that had required regional offices to remain staffed around-the-clock.

Repair crews were scrambling to restore electricity to the last few affected areas, while power had been restored to 162 counties Wednesday, including the city of Chenzhou in hard-hit Hunan province, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The city's 4.5 million people had been without power or water for nearly two weeks.

President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao declared that "no disaster could vanquish the great Chinese people," even as estimates of losses to agriculture and the economy rose to $11 billion.

Crisis worsens
The worst winter storms in half a century hit as millions of migrant workers were heading home for Thursday's holiday, the only chance most have to visit family all year. More than 80 people were killed, 300,000 homes destroyed and some 220 million acres of crops ruined.

As the situation grew worsen, inertia and a weak initial response were overcome by an all-out assault, urged forward at every step by propaganda designed to inform and inspire while defusing rising frustration.

Premier Wen Jiabao toured some of the worst-hit regions, pressing officials to deliver the goods while reassuring stranded travelers that the government felt their pain and was working on the problem.

In a typical scene, state TV on Wednesday showed Wen climbing a snow-covered hill in Guizhou province to pep-talk work crews over a bullhorn.

Separately, party chief Hu was shown taking off his coat and joining army troops who were passing large bundles of supplies into an airplane.

'Revolutionary martyrs'
In a throwback to the era of Mao Zedong, six electrical workers who died doing repairs were posthumously declared "model workers" by the Ministry of Personnel. Officials hailed them as "revolutionary martyrs."

The government poured in huge resources, including hundreds of thousands of troops from the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army. Draconian enforcement powers kept price-gouging under control, and there were few reports of crime.

The disaster showed how China has changed over 30 years from orthodox communism to market economics.

Under the doctrinaire communist economy, there was little travel and few manufacturing jobs to attract rural migrants. Industrial production was so low and public utilities, such as heat, so minimal that power outages would have barely registered.

Nowadays capitalism, reflected in booming industry and services, keeps millions of migrant workers on the move by air, rail, road and river.

The propaganda campaign also reflected new realities. While the party keeps a tight lid on bad news, its controls must now vie with cell phones and the Internet.

"Local media can simply no longer cover these things up," Cheng said.

Workers faced to stay behind
But authoritarian advantages may now become liabilities. Fixing the weather damage will fall to corrupt and inefficient local officials under no voter pressure to perform. Temporary price freezes may drive down production and create longer-term inflation pressures.

Authorities will also need to appease the throngs of migrant workers whose cherished trips home were disrupted.

Chen Manyu, 34, said he canceled his trip home to the western province of Sichuan, but added that the cosmetics factory that employs him laid on a banquet Wednesday night — a possible reflection of the pressure managers feel to retain workers amid a growing labor crunch.

"Of course it would have been nicer to go home," he said. "But so far things are OK here."