Fri, Feb 01, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Snow storms stoke inflationary concerns in China

PROPAGANDA BARRAGE Beijing has launched a media campaign to reassure people that the authorities can handle the weather crisis in a bid to douse any spark of unrest

AGENCIES , BEIJING, SHANGHAI AND GUANGZHOU

A top agriculture official warned yesterday that snow battering central China has dealt an "extremely serious" blow to winter crops, raising the likelihood of shortages driving already surging inflation.

Regions hit by the worst winter storms in 50 years provide the bulk of China's winter fruit and vegetable production, said Chen Xiwen (陳錫文), deputy director of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) leading financial team.

The full magnitude of the losses was unclear and much depended on the weather, he said.

"The impact of the snow disaster in southern China on winter crop production is extremely serious," Chen said. "The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic."

Chen said the overall effect on agriculture depended on how long the storms lasted and whether they moved into northern China, which produces most of the country's wheat and oil crops.

"If it heads northward, then the impact on the whole year's grain production will be noticeable," Chen said.

Cabinet and party officials have ordered plans into place to deal with an emergency, he said.

Chen gave no figures on economic losses, although the Civil Affairs Ministry put the figure at 22 billion yuan (US$3 billion) since the storms began on Jan. 10.

Transport delays have already driven up vegetable prices nationwide, with those in the hardest hit areas more than doubling. Wholesalers in Beijing were quoted as saying only about 20 percent of the usual supplies of fresh vegetables were reaching the city.

Fuel prices have also increased, with anthracite coal for household heating rising by 75 percent to 1,500 yuan per tonne from before the snow.

Officials have ordered a priority given to coal and food shipments, with all tolls, fees and restrictions waived. On Hainan, transport bottlenecks maxed out refrigeration capacity, with large amounts of fruit and vegetables at risk of simply being left to rot.

Meanwhile, Beijing has turned its battle against the weather into a propaganda push to try to comfort millions of cold, stranded and dismayed citizens. The government has launched an intense media campaign to tell citizens it can handle the hardships and prevent dismay from turning into unrest.

"After 30 years of reform and opening up, we've accumulated a strong material foundation and as long as we're vigorously organized, we will be fully able to vanquish the current hardship," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) told officials in Guangzhou.

"When one place suffers misfortune, aid comes from all directions," the People's Daily said. "That is the traditional virtue of the Chinese nation and even more it is a vivid portrait of the superiority of the socialist system."

"It's nice to know that the state is thinking about us, but I am not optimistic," said Quan, a real estate salesman who was trying to find a train in Guangzhou to his home in Hunan Province.

Officials in Hangzhou, have taken a more pro-active approach -- sending a team of 16 psychologists to provide "crisis intervention" counseling to travelers stranded at the city's train station.

Also see: Weather delays Wang Hsuan-jen's return from China

Also see: Trains back on track in China

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