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February 21st, 2008:

Winter Debris Exposes China’s Woes

Asia Times – By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG – Now that China’s worst winter in 50 years has eased, officials are breathing easier as millions of migrant workers return to their jobs following riotous scenes at rail and bus stations during the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday.

Traditionally, this is one time of year when workers can go home to visit their families in often distant provinces, yet severe storms crippled large segments of the nation’s transport system, making it impossible for many to travel. For those lucky enough to find a seat on a train or bus, the annual pilgrimage home turned into a grueling epic of breakdowns and delays.

A month of snow and ice storms, beginning January 10, left 107 people dead, killed 69 million head of livestock and destroyed 354,000 homes and nearly 62 million acres of farmland, according to state media. Widespread damage was caused to China’s fisheries, with an estimated 2,300 acres of aquaculture affected across 13 provinces.

The effect will be to further drive up already rising food prices, likely pushing inflation even above last month’s 11-year-high of 7.1%. In total, the severe weather caused 111.1 billion yuan (US$15.5 billion) in direct economic losses to the country.

Blame the weather, right? That’s what Chinese meteorologists, no doubt prompted by officialdom, would like the world to believe. According to them, the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is the chief culprit in this winter’s disaster. La Nina creates unusually low temperatures across the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, bringing extreme weather. Indeed, this winter has been uncommonly bad, and there is nothing the Chinese leadership could have done to prevent that.

The government response to the weather emergency, however – from President Hu Jintao to Premier Wen Jiabao at the top all the way down to local officials in the 19 provinces affected by the storms – proved woefully inadequate, revealing critical weaknesses in China’s ability to deal with future crises.

Just as the country is burnishing its image in preparation to host this summer’s Olympic Games, the prolonged bout of nasty weather served to point out that the nation still has a long way to go when facing pressing problems that require a coordinated national response. In hindsight, it is clear the severity of the storms could have been anticipated by weather forecasters and the disastrous effects considerably mitigated by a better disaster management plan – which in this case seemed to consist mostly of handing snow shovels to legions of People’s Liberation Army soldiers.

Moreover, the national infrastructure failed a big test, and the wanton environmental degradation that has accompanied China’s breakneck growth over the last 30 years no doubt contributed to the weather catastrophe.

The storms also served to point up flaws in economic policy as the central government’s system of price controls on electricity led power companies to cut their fuel stockpiles, creating an energy crunch in a time of extreme need. In many ways, then, the severe winter weather amounted to a perfect storm for revealing how far China still has to go to join the first tier of nations.

Consider the continuing consequences of the storms. Power supplies in parts of the eastern province of Zhejiang and in southern Guangdong, a key industrial area, will not be restored until next month. In Zhejiang, more than 600 villages still have no electricity.

Food prices continue to rise because of crop damage and transport hitches, and the nation’s coal supply is dangerously low because of a price-control system that discourages production. But there is good news – spring is coming, along with its warmer weather, and all of these concerns can then recede into the background as Olympic hysteria builds.

The lessons of this winter’s disaster, however, should not be ignored – similar catastrophes are likely to occur again. One encouraging development was the openness and speed with which Beijing provided information on the economic costs of the storms. Unlike in so many other situations – coal-mining disasters, bird flu outbreaks, the SARS epidemic – there has been no cover-up this time. Officials have been frank, straightforward and expeditious in reporting the bad news.

That said, however, the government was ill-prepared from top to bottom for such a disaster. That lack of preparation greatly exacerbated the damage wrought by the severe weather. By this time next year, let’s hope that the central government has a legitimate disaster management plan in place that goes far beyond handing out shovels and dispatching Wen, the so-called “people’s premier”, to particularly hard-hit areas with messages of cold comfort and empty encouragement.

In the end, the central government committed 2.7 billion yuan (US$376 million) to disaster relief, but the lack of any effective disaster management plan was a glaring omission in central-government planning.

Another obvious area for improvement is meteorology. The storms were a natural, forecastable phenomenon, but Chinese weather forecasters clearly were looking out the wrong windows. In consequence, a series of other calamities kicked in. Key roads and rail lines were blocked, without any coordinated plan to clear them. As a result, tens of millions of migrant workers were stranded or painfully delayed in their quest to return home for the new year. The roads and railways on which they will journey again next year are in dire need of an upgrade.

The policy of price controls on electricity also needs a rethink because it discouraged power companies from keeping adequate stockpiles of fuel for emergencies such as the one China has just passed through.

Finally, there is no question that the environmental degradation caused by China’s meteoric economic rise has contributed to extreme weather in the country. This winter of devastation and discontent should also serve as a painful reminder that it is past time to balance economic growth with environmental protection. And, of course, the choking pollution likely to greet Olympic athletes in Beijing this summer will be yet another reminder.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at