China Moves to End Gridlock
Snowstorms Strand Millions of Migrants Traveling for Holiday

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 1, 2008

BEIJING, Jan. 31 -- Trains finally started moving Thursday and the Chinese government pledged an all-out mobilization to get millions of stranded migrant workers home for the Lunar New Year holiday despite devastating snows that have blocked roads and rail lines across the center of the country.

The government's show of concern reflected the growing political dimensions of the crisis, with hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded in railway stations and many blaming officials for their plight.

Liu Jianchao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the effect of the storms "historically unprecedented" and said the People's Liberation Army had been ordered to help clear the tracks, in addition to the thousands of transportation workers already deployed.

Premier Wen Jiabao, in a visit to the southern factory belt around Guangzhou, where millions of young Chinese work on assembly lines, was shown on Guangdong provincial television Wednesday apologizing to those who could not get home. Tens of thousands of people were forced to wait at the Guangzhou station in an unusually chilly rain -- some for days -- while railway workers struggled to get the trains running again.

The migrant workers, totaling nearly 200 million, have been a vital part of China's swift economic growth over the past three decades, working long hours for low pay far from their families. But the Lunar New Year holiday, or Spring Festival, has remained an important part of their lives, the time to return home with gifts and cash for loved ones they see only once a year.

Chinese authorities estimated that more than 178 million people would be traveling for the holiday this year. The high point is Wednesday -- New Year's Eve, the time for all Chinese to sit down with their families and share a meal. But as economic well-being has spread, an increasing number of Chinese also use the vacation time for tourism and other travel, crowding buses, trains and airplanes for weeks.

"After 30 years of reform and opening, we have accumulated a strong material foundation, and as long as we are vigorously organized, we will be fully able to overcome the current hardship," Wen told Guangzhou officials during his visit there.

The Communist Party's propaganda organ, People's Daily, said the government's mobilization to help those stranded by the snows was a demonstration of how efficient a centralized communist system can be in moments of crisis. "When one place suffers misfortune, aid comes from all directions," it said. "That is the traditional virtue of the Chinese system, and even more it is a vivid portrait of the superiority of the socialist system."

Authorities reported 38 people had been killed during the week of bad weather, according to the official New China News Agency, including 25 who perished when their bus skidded off the road. But the broadest impact was on train travel, the primary means of transportation for China's 1.3 billion people.

The heaviest backups occurred at Guangzhou, a major city at the center of a vast landscape of assembly factories just north of Hong Kong. Provincial authorities estimated 1.84 million people in Guangdong province were affected in one way or another by the bad weather, mainly migrant workers having trouble getting home, the official press reported.

Tens of thousands of northbound travelers jammed into a square in front of the railway station, packed so tightly they had trouble moving about. As the crowd grew, police cordoned off the area and herded the waiting workers into surrounding streets, according to reports from the city.

Although the weather was unseasonably cold in the Guangzhou area, the main problem lay farther north, where snow and sleet damaged rails and electricity lines needed to power the trains just as the holiday crowds reached their apex. As a result, young workers heading for home villages in Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi and other rural provinces were unable to leave town.

Some were seen shouting at police and railway workers as frustration mounted. Others wept over what seemed like a desperate situation. "I saw two brothers from Hunan sitting on the corner of the square, crying for five minutes straight," a witness wrote in an Internet posting. "I myself almost collapsed."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company