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Millions struggle for tickets as China battles weather

Weather disaster lands China with 7.5 billion dollar bill
Massive snowstorms and freezing rain in China have caused 53.8 billion yuan (7.5 billion dollars) in damages and forced 1.76 million people to leave their homes, the government said Friday. At least 60 people have died as a result of the unusually fierce weather, said Zou Ming, the vice head of disaster relief at the civil affairs ministry. "This disaster has hit hard, has been wide in scope and has continued for a long period of time. It has caused destruction to an unusual degree," Zou told reporters at a briefing in Beijing. "The task of evacuating and taking care of victims that have seen their homes destroyed or damaged has been very difficult." Zou said 223,000 buildings had been destroyed and 862,000 others damaged. He described the damage to the electrical grid and telecommunication services as serious, and said the emergency evacuation of people stranded on roads and along railways had been an arduous task. At least 460,000 troops from the People's Liberation Army and paramilitary forces have fanned out across parts of China worst affected by the worst storms in 50 years. The weather has effectively paralysed the country's transport system since last weekend, leaving millions unable to travel home for the Lunar New Year holiday. Zou said the central government had allotted 331 million yuan in disaster relief funds, while regional and provincial government have also been ordered to contribute relief money.
by Staff Writers
Guangzhou, China (AFP) Feb 3, 2008
Millions of Chinese workers battled for a precious train ticket home Sunday as authorities flew in emergency food and medical supplies to areas stranded by the worst weather in 50 years.

China's top leaders warned that the country faced a grim relief task as supplies were airlifted to the snowbound southwestern province of Guizhou and neighbouring Hunan where many people have been without power for more than a week, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The warning came after President Hu Jintao chaired a meeting Sunday of top Communist Party leaders to examine the relief effort.

"We have to be clear minded that certain regions in the south will continue to undergo icy weather caused by rain and snow and severe disasters will continue," they said in a statement afterwards, according to Xinhua.

"Relief work will remain very grim, posing a tough task on us," they said, adding that getting stranded people home and ensuring transport and power supplies were the top priorities.

State television showed workers handing out food to travellers along snowed-in highways and at trains stations where millions have been stranded for days with no way to get home ahead of Lunar New Year, China's most important holiday.

The savage winter snows and freezing temperatures that have brought much of the nation to a standstill have transformed transport hubs into seething masses of frustrated humanity.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, 2,000 riot and army police fought to hold back crowds of hundreds of thousands of mainly migrant workers surging forward at the merest hint of an opening to a train platform.

For many, Lunar New Year -- which falls on February 7 this year -- is the only chance to escape to their families from their toil in the factories of southern China.

Premier Wen Jiabao urged people to be brave amid the worst winter in 50 years, as they waited exhausted and desperate amid growing piles of rubbish and human waste.

Li Kuochun, a 28-year-old stuck among the massive crowds trying to leave Guangzhou Railway Station, said people were pushing out of sheer frustration.

"I'm quite worried there will be a stampede," said Li, who was hoping to get home to Hunan province.

"I just try to walk slowly but people keep pushing. You're squeezed between people and can hardly move or breathe.

"But I think it's worth the danger and risking my safety to go home and see my family. They are all back there and I really miss them."

One woman was killed in a stampede at Guangzhou. Police were unable to control a crowd surging to board a train and in the chaos she fell and was trampled to death, Xinhua said.

The blizzards and icy temperatures that have lasted nearly three weeks now have stranded millions of people at airports, railway stations and bus depots in China's south, central and eastern regions.

The weather has destroyed crops, hit industrial production, disrupted coal and food supplies and led to power blackouts, for a bill estimated at around 7.5 billion dollars, according to official figures.

At least 105 million out of the country's 1.3 billion population have been affected and more than 60 have been killed, the government says.

One official in Hunan reportedly collapsed and died of exhaustion after not sleeping for days, a report said.

China's leadership has been working overtime as it tries to project concern for the millions of stranded passengers, and Wen urged courage in the face of the national disaster.

"We have the faith, courage and ability to overcome" the disaster, he said in a radio address from a train in Hunan province, where a usually temperate climate has caught the region unprepared.

The crisis has prompted China to dispatch more than one million troops and 65,500 medical workers to deliver relief. So far, the medics have treated more than 200,000 ill and injured people, the health ministry said.

Army tanks dispatched to clear roads in eastern Anhui province only arrived last Saturday after the fierce weather delayed them for days.

Along the Zhuhai to Beijing expressway, sections of the key north-south artery were reopened Sunday as soldiers and police in armoured vehicles worked to clear the icy road, Xinhua reported.

Many drivers have been stranded for more than a week.

earlier related report
Chinese travellers tell of 'scary' train crush
In a crush so tight it was difficult to breathe, Li Kuochun said he was ready to risk the danger to return home to his family for China's biggest holiday of the year.

Like millions of others, he was caught up in the paralysis that has gripped China's transport network amid the worst winter weather for half a century.

At Guangzhou, the danger was not so much from the weather -- the sun came out Sunday, bringing relief and slightly warmer temperatures -- as the chance of getting trapped in a stampede.

It happened with fatal consequences at the weekend, when police were unable to control a crowd surging forward toward a train. A woman fell to the ground and was trampled to death.

Now Li, one of more than 200,000 people massed outside the railway station in Guangzhou, a transport hub for the millions of migrant workers who toil all year in the factories of southern China, awaits his deliverance.

"I'm quite worried there will be a stampede," said Li, 28, trying to reach Hunan province.

"I just try to walk slowly but people keep pushing. You're squeezed between people and can hardly move or breathe."

"But I think it's worth the danger and risking my safety to go home and see my family. They are all back there and I really miss them."

After the woman's death, China's railway watchdog pleaded with passengers not to swarm into the nation's desperately overcrowded train stations, Xinhua said.

Chen Pakqing, a 22-year-old graphic designer, described a similar scenario that highlighted the dangers.

"We were stuck right in the middle of a crowd, we couldn't move an inch. My friend and I tried to leave but couldn't get out," Chen told AFP.

"When we were allowed to move nearer to the station, a girl in front of me dropped her bag on the floor and wanted to pick it up. Just as she bent down, her crowd surged and was on the verge of trampling her."

He got himself in the way and managed to hold the crowd back.

"It was really scary," he added. "Once you slip there's danger."

The winter weather has effectively blitzed much of China's already creaky transport system. In many area, trains and buses are running again -- but the problem is catching up with the huge backlog.

The Lunar New Year holiday is the biggest on the Chinese calendar, and an estimated 200 million people are expected to make trips home to see loved ones in what is reputed to be the biggest annual human migration in the world.

Army and police have been dispatched to keep order among the exhausted and angry crowds, many of whom have been stranded at rail stations throughout the nation's south, southwest and east for more than a week.

At Guangzhou army and riot police often appeared hopelessly outnumbered by the seething crowds, whose frustration was exacerbated by a complete lack of information.

Police cordoned off portions of the crowd and strictly controlled access to the station itself.

Railways staff handed out pot noodles and hot water to a lucky few. From a highway flyover, police threw down noodles packets to those sheltering below, and elsewhere offered to help carry children or families' luggage.

But the crush goes on.

"People pushed so much that I had to shout and tell them to stop sometimes. We saw a lot of belongings being left on the road because of the pushing and shoving," said Li Zhichang, a 24-year-old computer technician.

"Shoes were everywhere. We were really nervous about it and try not to lose our cool."

"It's very dangerous around here," said a fashion company employee aged 36 who gave his name as Chen. The train that was to take him and his four-year-old son back to their home should have left six days ago.

"We were here a couple of days ago and the situation was quite serious," he said.

"People wouldn't listen and kept pushing us to go forward. So we decided to leave and came back today. I wasn't going to risk my family's lives for it."

earlier related report
China's army of migrant workers stranded in winter freeze
For Luo Qingming, returning to his village in central China for the New Year holiday is the one bright spot in a year full of back-breaking work and low pay.

But this year, instead of heading home, the 42-year-old factory worker is one of thousands of migrant labourers stranded at the main railway station in the southern city of Guangzhou, a victim of China's worst snowfalls in decades.

"I have no money to buy myself a blanket to keep warm at night. I've spent days sleeping rough at a bus station," Luo said as he puffed on a cheap cigarette. "I don't have money to buy myself a proper meal, let alone rent a hotel room."

China's enormous army of migrant workers -- many of whom are already downtrodden -- are among the hardest hit by the heavy snow and freezing conditions that have wreaked havoc across large swathes of the country.

A fixture of the nation's economy for millennia, the workers are credited with constructing the Great Wall of China and rebuilding the capital Beijing, under orders from ambitious Ming emperors in the early 15th century.

Today, numbering between 100 and 200 million, this anonymous mass of factory and sweatshop workers have played a vital role in China's transformation into a modern, booming, export-driven economy.

"To me, these people are the muscle that powers China's economic growth," said Alexandra Harney, whose book on the workers, "China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage", is to be released next month.

"They are the real pistons driving the country, making up the majority of construction workers, coal miners and people working in factories," she said.

Their contributions, however, often go unrecognised, and many suffer discrimination and a lack of rights. Working mostly for low pay in often poor conditions, they are often denied access to basic services such as medical care and schooling for their children.

"In busy periods, they will work all the way through the night," said Robin Munro, director of research at Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which campaigns for improved workers' rights on the mainland.

"The workers are treated as second-class citizens in the cities, who see them as dirty and the cause of crime," said Munro.

"They cannot bring their families to the city. They often have no health care, even though it should be supplied by the factory."

For some, separation from loved ones is the hardest part.

Lured by the promise of much higher incomes than those offered in poor rural areas, most pack up and move hundreds of kilometres away to work in booming areas, such as the industrial hub of Guangzhou.

Many return to see their families just once a year, usually at New Year, the most important holiday in China.

With snowfalls disrupting rail lines and highways and closing airports ahead of this year's holiday, the frustration, and at times desperation, of workers trying to get home was evident at Guangzhou Railway Station.

"I only have 10 annual days off each year, and I must use all of the days to see my family as I don't see them enough," said Wang Hesan, a worker at a factory in nearby Shunde, as he waited for a seat on a train.

"I have friends, family, my children, and parents back home. I have to go back. I will wait here as long as I can. I have no family here. It's meaningless to stay here. It's no fun being on your own."

A recent survey of 30,000 migrant workers, conducted by Shanghai's Fudan University, showed less than eight percent were satisfied with their lives, mainly because they thought there was little hope of improvement.

The average monthly wage for a migrant worker reached 1,200 yuan (165 dollars) in 2007, up 200 yuan over the previous year.

But 22 percent said they were unable to save anything, their wages only enough to cover living expenses.

Despite the bleak results, experts argue that the nation's booming factories and industries have lifted many Chinese, particularly from rural areas, out of desperate poverty and sent much-needed money home.

"The money that makes its way back to the countryside funds schools. They have lifted the standard of living for so many people in rural China," Harney said.

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Beijing's disaster response too little, too late: travellers
Changsha, China (AFP) Feb 1, 2008
Many of the millions of Chinese hit hardest by a run of severe weather are venting their anger at what they see as an inept government response that was too little and too late.

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