China's response to snow crisis: greater openness, support

Going beyond deploying troops to manage crowds, officials have fanned out across snowstorm-hit areas to reassure residents.

Daniel Chan/Reuters
Crowd control: Soldiers in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 3 blocked hundreds of thousands of people outside a railway station hoping to travel before the Chinese New Year. Many trains have been canceled due to snow and cold weather.

As southern China enters its third week of freak snowstorms and plunging temperatures, government leaders have been falling over themselves to be seen on the front lines of disaster relief, consoling victims and encouraging repair men.

In a highly unusual concerted display of public concern, four members of the powerful Standing Committee of the ruling Communist party, led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have fanned out across the affected areas in recent days to assure residents that the authorities will soon restore power, water, and transport.

"I want to tell everybody that we have the confidence, courage, and capacity to combat this severe natural disaster," Mr. Wen said Feb. 2 while visiting the badly hit Hunan Province for the second time in a week.

"It is an important political gesture," says Steve Tsang, a China watcher at Oxford University in England. It altered the tone of the government's initial reaction to the disaster, which had been to deploy the army to control potential unrest among millions of stranded train passengers.

And it appears to be paying off, for the time being. Despite those travelers' anger and disappointment and the extreme discomfort of millions more living without electricity, the government appears to enjoy a general sense of understanding among the citizenry.

"The government is the victim of some very bad luck and very bad timing" as 150 million Chinese jam the railroads on their way home for Chinese New Year," says one Western diplomat. "People are frustrated, but they understand that it is the weather, not the government, that caused the problem."

The authorities' approach to the current crisis, meanwhile, compares favorably to its response to the last major public emergency to confront Beijing, the outbreak of SARS in 2003, say a number of analysts.

"During SARS the government tried to hide and block all information about the crisis," recalls Yang Fengchun, a professor at Peking University's School of Politics and Public Administration. "This time, right from the start, the government has published information in a very open way."

"We will offer timely information so as to win public support for our efforts," the deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Zhu Hongren pledged at a press conference on Feb. 1.

The NDRC has set up an "emergency management command center," grouping 23 ministries and government agencies, Mr. Zhu announced, to coordinate the government's attempts to restore normal services in weather-stricken southern and central provinces.

He defended his agency against accusations it had gotten a slow start by citing what he called the "unprecedented scale" of the disaster and the highly unusual weather conditions. Southern China is experiencing its heaviest snow and coldest temperatures in more than 50 years, he said, and "it takes time for essential goods to be delivered to affected areas."

At the same time, critics charge, the Chinese government's poor disaster readiness is partly to blame for the large number of victims. "This is a failure of governance," says Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at People's University in Beijing. "The public service sector runs under a vertical management system that suffers from bad coordination and bad communication."

Some of the underlying causes of the scale of the suffering go to the root of China's 30-year economic miracle, suggests Prof. Yang.

If there had not been 150 million migrant workers trying to reach their homes for the New Year for their annual holiday from jobs on the booming east coast, "even heavy snow would not have caused big problems," he says.

"The heavy flow of migrants," unable to find jobs in their inland native provinces and drawn to factory work on the coast, "is the main factor," Yang argues. "That is a result of imbalances in China's economy. This is not just a crisis management problem; it reveals a lot of hidden problems."

The chaos of roads blocked by snow and railroads shut down by signals failure comes at an embarrassing time for the Chinese government, with international eyes turned to its preparations for the Olympic Games in August.

The difficulties that the authorities have had coping with the current crisis, however, offer little indication of how they will handle the games, says the Western diplomat.

"They can plan, and they have been planning, for people flows and extra demands for services. They know the games are coming," he points out. "Government resources will all be ready and available. These snowstorms came out of the blue."

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