- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

Snow in China has killed at least 60 persons, sent fuel and food prices soaring, snapped power lines, blocked roads and rail lines, closed mines and airports, shaved a few points off economic growth for the year, and prevented millions of travelers from getting home on one of the biggest holidays of the year.

But the most long-term damage from the two weeks of winter storms may be to the reputation of the central government in Beijing.

More bad weather was in the forecast for the country’s beleaguered southern and eastern regions as China’s communist leaders struggled to dig out from a natural disaster that has exposed glaring domestic weaknesses in the globe’s emerging economic superpower.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao yesterday made his second trip south to inspect relief efforts — a visit heavily covered by the state-controlled television networks. The government in Beijing, estimating the storms have done $7.5 billion in damage to date, announced an emergency $700 million loan fund for farmers in the devastated regions.

Zhu Hongren, a top official with the National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters in Beijing that the economy’s “underlying fundamentals” remained sound.

“If we take a long-term view, such a disaster will be a temporary one, and therefore its impact on the economy will be short term,” Mr. Zhu said.

But the storm damage — and the government’s uncertain response to the gathering crisis — have been hot topics on Chinese Web sites, which have been far more critical than the mainstream press.

“We are almost totally cut off from the outside world, with no water and no power,” wrote one blogger quoted by Reuters news agency. “Please wake up the Guizhou government!”

The southern province of Guizhou has been one of the most affected by the winter storms, said to be the most severe the country has seen in a half-century. Local prices for gas, candles and basic staples have quadrupled.

China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency reported yesterday that residents in stricken area are living in what they call “dead cities,” with no food, no water, no power and no relief in sight.

Southern boom towns are now largely dark at night because of the lack of electricity. With water supplies cut, residents boil snow, Xinhua said.

The timing of the storm has also underscored the wide gulf between those profiting from the country’s current economic boom and those — primarily from the rural interior provinces — who have yet to feel the effects of recent growth.

Many of the millions stranded this week at train stations and bus depots in the south are low-income migrant workers heading home for next week’s Lunar New Year holiday — for many workers the only chance they will have all year to visit their families.

China’s state press reported yesterday that train service was beginning to return to normal and emergency coal shipments are getting to the hardest-hit regions.

There has also been only scattered reports of violence, including a scramble for seats at jammed train stations, as the government has deployed about 250,000 soldiers and police to keep order.

But President Hu Jintao, on his own public relations trip to the coal port of Qinghangdao on Thursday, said he has been losing sleep over the crisis and appealed to local miners to keep working through next week’s holiday to overcome shortages.

China’s gross domestic product last year grew at an 11.2 percent clip, and economists now project that the storm losses will only shave a couple of tenths of a percentage points from this year’s figure.

But China’s stock market fell yesterday on growing worries that the economic hit could be larger than anticipated, with more snow predicted for four central and eastern provinces. Investors feared in part a surge in inflation from the soaring prices caused by the storm.

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