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New round of storms threaten China




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Monday, January 28, 2008
By WILLIAM FOREMAN, GUANGZHOU, China, AP


A new round of blizzards threatened Chinese provinces Monday that were trying to dig out from snow and ice storms that have stranded hundreds of thousands of people during the nation's busiest holiday travel season.

About 500,000 people -- most of them migrant workers -- were stuck in the southern city of Guangzhou, railway officials said. Heavy snowfall in provinces to the north had cut off parts of the busy railway line that starts in the city and ends in Beijing.

Officials were scrambling to prevent riots in Guangzhou and find temporary shelter in schools and convention centers for the crowd, which was swelling each day as more workers tried to return to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year.

The holiday, which begins on Feb. 7, is as important in China as Christmas is in the West. For many migrants, it's their only chance to visit their families, and they stay away for weeks.

But many looked set to be disappointed as Chinese forecasters on Monday issued a new alert that more heavy snow and freezing rain this week would hit the central provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Henan, as well as Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu to the east.

The storms, which have killed 24 people since they began Jan. 10, have already caused economic losses of 18.2 billion yuan (US$2.5 billion; euro1.7 billion), the Civil Affairs Ministry said.

At Guangzhou's main train station, a massive outdoor plaza was packed with people pulling luggage or hefting it over their heads. The crowd eventually spilled out onto a major thoroughfare in front of the station, and the busy road was blocked off to create more space for the travelers.

The workers created small camps with their suitcases, bundles and plastic bags full of snacks. They littered the ground with chicken bones, sunflower seed shells and cigarette butts as they patiently waited for their trains.

Radio announcements told people to stop going to the station, which ceased selling tickets until Feb. 7. State-run newspapers ran headlines urging the migrants to seek ticket refunds and stay put for the holiday.

Li Moming, a construction worker, said he spent the night on the street, enduring a bone-chilling drizzle. The train that was to take the 48-year-old man to his village in central Henan province -- 20 hours away -- was canceled. He said his next move might be to scuttle his travel plans and spend the holiday in his dormitory room at his work site.

"I thought about taking a bus but the highways are shut down, too. Oh well, what can you do?" said the jovial Li, dressed in a mud-splattered brown pinstriped suit for his ill-fated homecoming.

Nearby, four women who work together in a digital camera factory in the city of Foshan, just outside of Guangzhou, were taking turns holding a co-worker's 7 month-old daughter. The child, bundled up in a fleece jumper and knit cap, spent the night with them on the street outside the station.

The baby's mother, who would only give her surname, Yang, said her morning train was canceled. She and her friends were hanging around and hoping they would get on a later train to their hometown in neighboring Jiangxi province.

"There's no reason to get upset about this or blame anyone," said Yang, wearing a puffy red parka. "It's just the weather's fault."

Other migrant workers were just as stoic -- an approach to life they've learned from living on the rugged bottom rung of China's society, with constant hardship, long delays and disappointment.

But the authorities were prepared for the worst. Hundreds of police and soldiers set up barricades and controlled the flow of the crowd. They blew whistles and barked orders at the travelers with megaphones.

In recent years, the workers have become savvy about organizing strikes and protests. A great number of them carry mobile phones and text messages can whip up a crowd quickly. Many already have grievances about work conditions or wages, which often go unpaid. Growing frustration about the transport snarls could inspire some to riot.

The great effort put into managing the crowd didn't surprise Susan Shirk, whose recent book "China: Fragile Superpower" discusses how domestic unrest poses a serious threat to the communist regime.

"When large numbers of people are upset about the same problem at the same time, there is a risk of large scale collective action that could threaten Communist Party rule," said Shirk, who's also a professor at the University of California, San Diego. "Will the travelers blame the weather or the government?"



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