China showed signs of alleviating a politically sensitive gasoline crunch, as emergency deliveries arrived in wealthy southern cities to placate private car owners angry over long lines for fuel.
After days of acute shortages, several fuel stations in Guangzhou and Shenzhen on Thursday reported an improvement both in supply and in the temperament of customers. Some stations, which had run out of gasoline earlier this week, were back in business; others were no longer rationing their fuel.
"Many gas stations have been refilled, so the crowds have dispersed," said Chen Maofang, chief attendant at the Nonglin gas station in downtown Guangzhou. She said traffic police and public security were managing much shorter lines.
China's fuel crunch emerged abruptly, underscoring how integral the automobile is becoming to the middle-class Chinese consumer. The rise in private automobile ownership is putting fresh strains on a government already struggling to feed its economy with enough fuel to sustain growth.
Chinese officials have blamed the shortages on a recent typhoon that disrupted shipments of crude oil to refineries. But refineries have been partly to blame for the shortages, too, as they have exported precious stock abroad, where they can command higher prices than they could get at home. Over the past several months, Beijing has been bumping government-controlled fuel prices higher, though only gradually to keep a lid on inflation.
Early this week, agitated Chinese consumers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen waited in line for as long as three hours. Sporadic protests erupted when some gas stations tapped out and suspended operations. By midweek, shortages spread to eastern China and parts of northern China, drawing comparisons to the oil crisis that hammered the U.S. economy in the 1970s.
Although the gas crunch appeared to catch authorities off guard, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai officials quickly put in for emergency deliveries.
Guangzhou now is receiving a guaranteed daily oil supply of 73,000 barrels, said Chen Yunze, spokesman for the city's Economic and Trade Commission, which is in charge of relieving the fuel shortage.
"The situation is getting better every day," he said, adding that most of the police who had been keeping order at the gas stations have left.
Ellen Zhu contributed to this report.