It takes a lot to bring a country in perpetual motion like China to the brink of a grinding halt, but some of the worst weather for half a century is proving more than the authorities here can deal with. And the weather has arrived a week ahead of the biggest holiday of the year, when hundreds of millions of people travel home to be with their families.
Bitter cold and unusually heavy snowfalls in regions of southern China accustomed to a milder climate have paralyzed road and rail links and downed power lines, leaving large swaths of the country without electricity.
More than half the country is short of electricity, the official Xinhua news agency reported Sunday, quoting Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan as saying that the crisis "had seriously affected normal operation of the national economy, people's lives, and production."
Subzero winter temperatures are routine in northern China, where some cities even revel in their frosty reputations. Harbin, for example, not far from the Russian border, draws tens of thousands of tourists every year with its festival of extravagant ice sculptures.
And though Beijing has been freezing cold for the past week or so, the capital generally enjoys dry winters. In the wetter south, however, what would normally be rain has this year fallen as snow, collapsing electricity pylons. Heavy accumulations of ice have weighed down and broken transmission lines.
This would be bad enough at any time of year, but coming just a week ahead of the Spring Festival, the biggest date in the Chinese calendar, when hundreds of millions of people go home to be with their families for the new year, power outages that close railroads are potentially catastrophic. Last New Year's, 156 million people took trains home, according to the Railroad Ministry.
Only the luckier Chinese citizens have begun the annual transmigration; the new year itself does not fall until Feb. 7. Yet weekend train cancellations at Guangzhou, a magnet for millions of migrant workers who return home only once a year, left 150,000 people camped outside the station.
"I have been waiting here for three days. I don't know when I can go back home," Li Yajing told Xinhua. "After arriving, we learned that the train was delayed. We have no solution. We can only wait here and see what we can do."
Thousands of others found themselves stuck on trains that broke down en route. The railway authorities ferried 22,000 pounds of rice, vegetables, meat, and edible oil, along with 20,000 boxes of instant noodles and drinking water, to relieve them, Xinhua said.
The prospects are equally dim for millions more who will be pouring into railway stations in the coming days on China's booming east coast in search of transport to their homes inland.
"There is no room for optimism about this abnormal rainy and snowy weather across the country over the next week," China's top weather forecaster, Yang Guiming, told the official China News Service.